The Decline of the Illini and the Era of Treaties & Lies

The decline of the Illiniwek seemed to begin with the arrival of the French but it is not correct to assume cause and effect. Even though the French initially quarreled with the Iroquois Confederacy which hounded the Illiniwek, the French eventually came to terms with the Five Nations. More complicated factors were at work.
In the middle of the Seventeenth Century, the Illini lost five hundred warriors to a Winnebago plot that was later avenged. This was a significant loss that could not be easily replaced.
At the time Marquette and Joliet first encountered the Illini, the latter were living in eastern Iowa. Some have since argued that the Illinois had fled across the Mississippi to escape the Iroquois. That is not unreasonable because that is precisely what happened during Tonti's residence on the Illinois River at Fort St Louis. Others contend that the Illini whom Marquette and Joliet met in Iowa were in fact in hunting camps, and that they had not fled Iroquois predation. In either event, the Illiniwek fought a series of wars against the Iroquois that reduced the population of the Illinois and limited their military effectiveness. In one incident alone, the Iroquois carried off 700 Illini, many of whom were women and children. Most were tortured and killed; a few were adopted. While the loss of warriors limited military effectiveness and made the Illinois villages unsafe, the loss of so many women and children made it virtually impossible for the Illini population to regain its former numbers.
The Illini constantly warred with the Fox. This warlike Wisconsin nation made continual forays against the Illini which the Illini were glad to return. The illini lost not only warriors but as often women and children to these raids. Even though the Fox were greatly reduced in the Battle of the Fox Fort, the Illini also lost warriors whom could not be replaced. When the Illini entered into their final decline in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century, the rejuvenated Fox, their Sauk kinsmen, the Kickapoos and the Potawatomi occupied the Illinois river valley that was once the heart of the Illini country.
The Sioux, then resident in Minnesota and Wisconsin, also continually warred with the Illinois. These Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people were given the name "Sioux" from a corruption of the Algonquin term "nardessioux" which means "enemy". These men who later become among the greatest mounted plains warriors, then used the canoe rather than the horse. They traveled down the Mississippi in powerful flotillas to make war with the Illinois. Needless to say, this too took a serious toll.
In the Eighteenth Century when even the Illinois themselves must have realized that constant warfare was decimating them, they continued to engage in warfare with other native nations. The French actively encouraged the Illini, then settled near Fort de Chartres in what is now southwestern Illinois, to raid the Chickasaws of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. The Chickasaw were alligned with the British and threatened French communication lines between New Orleans and Montreal. Once more the Illini lost not only warriors on the warpath, but women and children to the reprisal raids of the Chickasaw. The Illini population now was greatly reduced over the numbers encountered by early French explorers. Centuries of brutal warfare had taken an inevitable toll. And now with their populations reduced and their ability to protect themselves greatly hampered, the tribes of the Illini Confederation faced a danger greater than the Sioux, Fox, Chickasaw and Iroquois combined. An invasion force gathered itself just across the Appalachian Mountains.
The Great White Fathers

The Illiniwek had alligned themselves with the French since first contact with Marquette and Joliet. In 1754, a young Virginian named George Washington led a force of Virginia troops and Native American auxilliaries in what Vietnam veterans would call a reconnassaince in force. They surprised a small French detachment. Its commander, Sieur de Jumonville, was killed and scalped. The French later defeated Washington at nearby Fort Necessity and forced him to surrender. Those incidents led to the French and Indian War. When the French went to war against the British, the Illiniwek remained loyal to France. Illinois warriors went as far afield as Virginia in service of the French king. But with the defeat of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham above Quebec, the world of the Algonquin nations--the Illiniwek included--was changed forever.
The Treaty of Paris--1763

No longer was King Louis the Great White Father of the Indians of the Middle Ground. The defeat of France in the New World and Old changed all of that. That honor, together with all of the land that made up present-day Canada and the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, went to King George of England. The Illiniwek had lost their only European ally who had demonstrated any affection for them at all, the French, and found themselves confronted with the British who coveted the very ground on which the Illini stood. The slow decline of the Illiniwek would now snowball. For the full text of the Treaty of Paris, click here.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

King George would not enjoy his reign as Great White Father for long. The defeat of the British at the hands of the colonials and the establishment of the United States of America ended His Britannic Majesty's sovereignty south of Canada. The role of Great White father now passed to whomever happened to be in charge over the Thirteen Colonies. Of course that first meant George Washington. (For a great examination of Washington's Indian dealings and attitudes, see Eric Miller's excellent work, Caunotaucarius: George Washington and Indians.) The Ordinance of 1787 could not be faulted in its tone or timber. It guaranteed perpetual sovereignty to the Indians west of the Appalachians. Their lands could not be taken without their consent. Furthermore they would never be "invaded or disturbed." That was theory. Practice proved to be something else again. They would learn as the Narragansett, the Pequot, the Abenaki and other eastern nations had learned, that these treaties were never kept.
Full text of the Northwest Ordinance courtesy of the Yale University Law School.
War between the Fifteen Fires and the Nations of the Ohio Valley

The new United States made relentless war against the tribes of the upper Ohio Valley. A steady stream of settlers had crossed the Appalachians to settle in Kentucky and along the Ohio River. Never mind that these lands had been granted "in perpetuity" to the First Nations-- the Shawnee, Miami, Piankeshaw, Wea, and Illiniwek. In spite of the clear aboriginal title (confirmed with due solemnity by the Northwest ordinance) of the First Nations to these lands, the fledgling U.S. government for some reason felt duty-bound to protect the newly arrived settlers from the people whose lands had been wrongly taken. A series of military campaigns followed.
In 1790, General Josiah Harmar made war on the confederacy of First Nations led by the Miami and their chief Michikinqua (Little Turtle). Constant fighting between the Ohio Valley warriors and the newly arrived settlers in Kentucky and southern Ohio demanded a military response, or so the new government of the United States thought. Little Turtle routed Harmar's force near the Maumee River in present-day Ohio, and inflicted very heavy losses on the American troops. The Thirteen Fires would try again.
Next to march against the Ohio Valley nations was General Arthur St. Clair whom President George Washington appointed to replace Harmar. St. Clair began cautiously enough. He raided a few Piankeshaw, Wea, and Kickapoo villages (probably in the lower Wabash River basin) and quickly developed a false sense of confidence. When he finally met the confederated warriors under Little Turtle, St. Clair's force was annihilated. General Butler, second in command to St. Clair was killed and over half of the American troops likewise were killed. St. Clair managed to escape on a packhorse (after three mounts had been shot from beneath him). Washington still needed ton find another general.
Enter "Mad Anthony" Wayne
Anthony Wayne was a much wiser man than either Harmar or St. Clair. From 1792 to 1794, Wayne drilled and trained his army. In that day of short term enlistments, such preparation was very unusual. When at last he considered his force ready to march, Wayne commande a cohesive, disciplined force.
The Indians too had a change of leaders. Little Turtle realized that Wayne was a man of much greater ability than Harmar and St. Clair. He advised the nations to negotiate for peace. His counsel was rejected and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee was selected to led the Ohio Valley confederation warriors.
When Wayne crossed the Ohio River and marched northward, he proceeded with caution. He established a series of forts to protect his lines of communications, something that had not occured to St. Clair. Wayne likewise maintained discipline on the march. Whereas St. Clair's army trailed a contingent of camp followers and hangers-on (hoping for goodness knows what), Wayne's force marched in military order without civilians to encumber them. At last Wayne's forces clashed with Blue Jacket's warriors at a ruined woods that had been destroyed by a storm near the present site of Toledo, Ohio. This was called Fallen Timbers.
Much has been written about the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In the end, superior numbers, superior firepower, and prudent leadership by Wayne resulted in an American victory and defeat of Blue Jacket's warriors. The defeat of the confederated tribes at Fallen Timbers opened the Ohio Valley to settlement in spite of the guarantees of the Northwest Ordinance.
The Treaty of Greenville

The Treaty of Greenville marked the end of Native American habitation of the Ohio Valley. It is a complex document that reaffirmed earlier treaties and provided for more cessation of lands from the indians to the United States. The Illiniwek gave up the following land as a result: six square miles at the mouth of the Chicago River; twelve square miles at the mouth of the Illinois River (near present-day Alton, Illinois); and six square miles at the site of the old Peoria fort and the old fort of Massac on the Ohio River (in present-day Metropolis, Illinois). But the big loss was 150,000 acres of land to be alloted to American veterans. For their part, the Kaskaskia received $500. The Treaty of Greenville marked the conquest of the eastern tribes by the United States. All that was left was mopping up. That would not be long in coming.