The Illini Confederation: Lords of the Mississippi Valley
|When you visit Illinois remember that others walked here first.
by Robert Fester
When French explorers first journeyed down from Canada to
the upper Mississippi Valley
in the early Seventeenth Century, they found the region inhabited by a vigorous, populous Algonquin nation who called themselves "Hileni" or "Illiniwek" which means "men."
This the French rendered as "Illinois". Today most
people know little about this once powerful confederation
of tribes: the Peoria,
Cahokia, and Michigamea.
The purpose of this web page is to provide an overview of
the Illinois People which will hopefully stimulate
the reader to further investigate the history of the
Illinois people and their population decline.
Peoria warriors with captive near Lake Pimitoui
Diorama photograph used with permission of Illinois State Museum
The five most populous tribes of the Illini Confederation
were the Kaskaskia, the Cahokia, the Peoria,
the Tamaroa, and the Michigamea. Other smaller affilliated groups
were the Taporouas, the Moingwenas, the Chinkoa, the Omouahoa,
the Coiraconetanon, and the Chepoussa, While some authors (e.g.,
Scott) consider the Wea (Ouiatenon) and Piankeshaw to be Illinois
affilliates, in fact these two well-known tribes are members of the
Miami family. The Miami and Illini did speak a mutually
intelligible language, albeit with dialectical differences.
Early French commentators believed that the Illini and
Miami came from a common ancestral tribe that split in the
late prehistoric period (2).
When the French arrived in the
Seventeenth Century, the Illini and Miami appear to have
become two distinct tribal families.
The basis for the Illini Confederation of tribes appears to
have been common historical roots, clan and kinship ties, and
cultural commonality. Hauser argues effectively that once
the Illini were in fact a single tribe; that they split into
sub-tribes when their population became too large for
successful hunting and subsistence agriculture. He further
argues that the constituent sub-tribes maintained a strong
identification as being Illini (3).
Even after the split, there was a single
chief of the Illinois as well as numerous sub-chiefs among
the sub-tribes. Jolliet spoke of meeting an Illinois
village chief (in Iowa) and subsequently being conducted to Peoria
to meet the "Grand Captain" of all the Illinois. If those
accounts are believed, there was a central unifying authority
figure among the Illini. Another Great Chief (Gran Chef in the French)
that we know of is Mamantouensa, who journeyed to
France in 1725. He was accompanied by Chicagou, a Michigamea
village chief (who later fought at the Battle of Ackia). The French noted
the disparities of rank between the two (4).
One source asserts that Mamantouensa did not make the trip
to France, but does credit him with being
the Grand Chieftain of the Illinois. (5).
Was The Confederation a Confederation?
The Illini Confederation was not
a confederation in the true sense of the word, according to Hauser. The term
"confederation" usually refers to a linkage of groups
which are culturally different and distinct
for common purposes. The Illini Confederation does not
pass the test. First, the constituent
tribes spoke the same (Algonquin) language. Second, the sub-tribes
were culturally similar, if not in fact identical.
Third, these Illinois sub-tribes were certainly closely
associated. During the summer, the various tribes often
lived in the same villages on the Illinois River.
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote that
"A tribe as a whole is normally not a political
organization, but rather a social-cultural-ethnic entity.
It is held together principally by likenesses among its
segments, (mechanical solidarity), and by pan-tribal
The Illini were a (segmented) tribe rather than a
confederation in the true sense of the term. During the
Battle of Ackia,
Chicagou, a Michigamea village chief, commanded a contingent
of Kaskaskia and Miami warriors. Meanwhile a contingent of Michigamea at the
same battle was under French control. If the tribes were truly
independent, would not the Michigameas have served under
Chicagou? There is also the matter of the Grand Chief who had
status recognized by all of the Illinois tribes. This too indicates
that the Illini were more likely a large and segmented tribe rather
than a confederation. Whether or not in time the sub-tribes would have become fully
independent is a matter of conjecture.
The Illini Country
were quick to notice the richness of this region inhabited by the Illinois. The Illinois country reached the Illinois-Wisconsin border to the north. The French in fact named Lake Michigan as "Lac du Illinois" or Lake of the Illinois because of the proximity of the Illini. Their territory stretched eastward to the Wabash River basin and extended westward
across the Mississippi River into eastern Iowa. The Illini
treated the Ohio River as their southern territorial
boundary, although there is anecdotal evidence that on
occasion, they hunted in what is now northwestern Kentucky.
That country was claimed by the Chickasaws, a nation of fearsome warriors
alligned with the British and utterly opposed to the French. Those unfamiliar with
(Those unfamiliar with midwestern geography should consult this map of Illinois and surrounding states.
The Mysterious Michigamea
For a time, the Michigamea (also "Mitchigamea") subdivision
established themselves on the St. Francis River in northeastern
Arkansas. This placed them near the Quapaws whom they aided in their fight
against the Chickasaws. They later relocated to the vicinity of
Fort De Chartres,
located in what is now Randolph County, Illinois, in the early 1700s. (7).
Some suggest that the
Michigamea were late-comers to the confederation; that the
Illini "adopted" the tribe in late pre-historic times
Others such as Hauser contend that the Michigamea
were part of the original Illini root stock; that their journey across the Mississippi
happened for the same reasons that caused the other
sub-tribes to often leave the Illinois River valley.
Such reasons might have been better hunting to the west,
traditional migratory patterns, and pressure from the
Iroquois to the east and the Sioux to the north. (9).
With that possible exception, the Illini range, then, can
be said to include all of the present state of Illinois,
and the lands immediately adjacent to that state. However,
during their hunting and wars, the Illini traveled far
beyond this region, about which wars, more later.
At the time of first European contact in the Illinois Valley
(1666), many of the Illini lived in eastern Iowa along the
Mississippi River with some villages concentrated along
the Illinois River in central Illinois. Marquette estimated their
population at "eight to nine thousand souls." However
Father Dablon reported that the Illinois had five villages
and numbered about two thousand people (10).
Jablow believes Marquette's figures to be more accurate
because he had direct contact with the Illini while Dablon
wrote from some distance at Sault St. Marie. The best
estimate of the Illinois population in 1680 seems to be
about 10,500 people, the Michigameas not included
Such a large group required a rich area to support them,
and the Illinois River country was just such a place.
This location put them in close proximity to the central
Illinois plains which nourished herds of Bison upon which
the Illini preyed. The Illinois enjoyed annual buffalo hunts
which were often expedited by firing the prairies. This had the additional benefit
of keeping these prairies open and free of forests, which
in turn made them suitable for bison, elk, and deer.
his country of the Illinois was both beautiful and
bountiful. Its climate was more temperate than that of the
Great Lakes to the north. The desirability of the Illinois
country would in great measure prove to be the undoing of
the Illiniwek. Its attractiveness was an irresistible
magnet to the warlike tribes of Wisconsin and its richness
in furs likewise attracted the unwanted attention of the
Iroquois to the east.
Culture and Customs
The Illini had a sharp division of labor. The main activities of the men were hunting and warfare.
while the women worked in the fields. In fact, the women did much of the work around the camp
and village. The Illini found it easy to grow their maize,
pumpkins, and squash with which to vary their diet. They
dried maize and stored it against the predictable shortages
of winter. Fish were also plentiful in the Illinois River and its tributaries
when necessity demanded their harvest. As mentioned previously, they enjoyed an annual huffalo
hunt during the course of which they fired the prairie to concentrate the bison.
The Illini practiced polygamy. Wives suspected of unfaithfulness
were severely punished, sometimes suffering the loss of an
ear or nose.
The French were astonished to find among the Illini some few
men who dressed and acted out the social role of women. These
the Illini called Ikoneta, but the French called them berdache.(12).
Small boys who showed marked tendencies toward femininity were raised
as girls. This included use of tatooing and language patterns that
were traditionally female. Many confirmed their status as Ikoneta in their
dream fasts. They are thought to have been bi-sexual.
The Illini men also practiced the ritual of
dream-seeking. At the age of fifteen or so, the young men
painted their faces and removed themselves to a secluded location to
fast and pray. They hoped for a vision that would reveal a
spirit guardian to them who would be their helper throughout life.
The Illini did not use the birchbark (or elm) canoe,
according to some sources (13).
Instead, the Illini used pirogues,
which were boats made by hollowing out logs with adzes and fire.
Some were up to fifty feet long. (14).
These were not nearly as sleek or portable as the birch bark canoes of, say, the Ottawa
but they served the Illinois well enough, who used them
to cross the Mississippi River as well as to navigate the
Illinois River, its tributaries, and the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
The Illini at War
The Illinois Confederacy was surrounded by powerful enemies. According to the
Jesuit Father Allouez, "...they wage(d) war with seven or eight different
To the north there
were the Fox, the Winnebago, and the Sioux. To the west,
there were the Osage and Missouri.
To the south there were the Chickasaw. But to the east
lay the most serious threat to the
Illini. That was the Iroquois Confederation. But first there were others.
The Winnebago Campaign
In or about 1634, the Illinois fought a major battle with the
Winnebago. The Illini had sent a relief expedition to aid the Winnebago who had fallen
upon hard times, but as matters turned out, the Winnebagos
were not grateful...
The Iroquois Wars
No Eastern Woodland Native People were so feared and dreaded as the
Iroquois Confederation. The Five Nations conquered most of the Native
Nations in the Northeastern United States, then turned
against the Illini. A series of bloody encounters followed.
The Fox Wars
The Illinois Confederacy warred with the Fox (true tribal name "Meskawki" or Red Earth People) since
first European contact for certain and probably before then.
The Illini helped to raise the Fox siege of Fort Detroit and later
played a major role in the destruction of the Fox at the battle
of the Fox fort. However, the wars with the Meskwaki took a
toll on the Illinois and contributed to their decline.
The Chickasaw Wars
Located along the Mississippi River in western Tennessee and northwest Mississippi,
the Chickasaws disrupted French riverine communications and traffic
between Canada, Illinois, and New Orleans. The French went to war with the
Chickasaw to open the river. Of course the French convinced their faithful
Illini allies to join them in the battle. However, these wars were
a disaster for the French and Illini. The French never succeeded
in fully linking Louisiana with Illinois and Canada and
the Illini, particularly the Cahokia, lost many people.
With end of the French and Indian War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the end of the French
occupation of the Illini country was at hand. For better or worse (mostly "for worse") the Illini Confederacy
was the First Nation most loyal to the French. Their reward was a steady deterioration of relations with
neighboring Native American tribes which had not been particularly good to begin with. By alligning themselves
with the French, the Illini had antagonized the Fox, the Iroquois, the Chickasaw and the Potawatomi nations, to
say nothing of the English. And now the English considered the Illinois Country
to be theirs. After all, hadn't they defeated the French? And hadn't the French
surrendered the land according to the terms of the Treaty of Paris? The English had what they believed to
be a de jure title to the land. Now all they had to
do was occupy and exploit it. That would not prove to be so easy.
There was the matter of Pontiac.
The Fifteen Fires, Treaties and Decline
The colonies secured independance from Great Britain during the American Revolution. George
Washington became the first President. Treaties were made with the Illiniwek and other First
Nations. The Illini had already began their decline. They had too many enemies among the First
Nations, and their European ally, France, had been driven from the North American continent.
Things looked grim for the Illiniwek. In fact, matters were worse than appearances.
In 1802, the Kaskaskia skirmished with the Shawnee in southern Illinois. The already depleted Kaskaskia
lost more warriors who simply could not be replaced. After that time, the
Shawnee traveled as they pleased across southern Illinois. The Kaskaskia could no longer
defend their traditional boundaries.
It was big--bigger than a horse--and scaly with horns. It had a long
snakish tail that curled around its body and teeth like
daggers. Its eyes flashed fire. It lived amongst the
bluffs of the Illinois River where it watched for prey.
Anyone so unwise as to paddle canoe or pirogue too close
to the monster's den would suddenly find the sun blotted out
by leather wings and...If you want to learn more about this
mythical monster, Glen Welker tells the tale of the
For a contrary view of the Piasa legend, read this essay by
John J. Dunphy of Godfrey, Illinois.
Are you an elementary school student or high school student who is working on a homework project--a paper or the like--
about the Illiniwek? If so, please email me at the
Illiniwek Homework Help Project. I will be
happy to help you get started with your project.
I can suggest books and other web sites to you. I will be happy to
briefly discuss basic questions of a factual historical nature as well.
However, please don't ask me to proof-read for you or to write long opinions about various matters. Sadly, time just doesn't permit this.
- The Illinois Nation site by Lee Sultzman
and Jordan Dill is excellent. Do not miss this one.
- Check out this short history of the Kaskaskia tribe.
- Judi Johnson of the Illinois State Museum has a concise
Illini History that you
should check out.