By William Holderfield
The history of Native Americans in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago is a complex issue when looking at the “pre-settler” era. Due to a lack of permanent settlements and the “plowing over” of Native American lands during the growth of the Northwest Suburbs it is a difficult task to correctly identify the tribes that lived in the area or know what their daily lives may have been.
Few, if any, artifacts exist for various tribes. Arrow heads, projectile points, and axe heads are all that remain of many of the native inhabitants. Woven baskets, decorative beadwork, and other material items tend to be found closer to the present homes of the tribes that left the Northwest Suburbs. What written records exist take the form of correspondence between agents of the French, British, or Americans and their country’s government or publishing house. There are also some maps, made for these governments, with indications of what tribes lived in what is today the Northwest Suburbs. Without permanent European or American settlements in the area, documents that describe daily life in the Chicago area before 1833 are difficult to come by. Few travelers undertook journeys or survived the harsh winter climate and the various calamities of the Illinois/Indian Territory, making it that much more difficult to come across any written records of what took place in this region.
Although documentation is hard to establish, it is known that the inhabitants of the Chicago area before the 1630s were made up primarily of the tribe known as the Illini. During the 1630s the Illini and Winnebago were at war with one another. The Winnebago were a tribe from Wisconsin while the Illini occupied an area that ran from the Chicago River, perhaps a little further south, to the Wabash River Valley, all the way to the present day border of Illinois and Wisconsin, and then west to the Mississippi River. Some accounts describe the Illini controlling land all the way to the tip of Southern Illinois and the St. Louis areas. In any event, the area that the Illini traveled and controlled was vast and contained the majority of Illinois before the mid-1660s. By the early part of the 1640s the Illini had control of the Illinois Territory, according to records of Jesuit priests, such as Father Le Jeune. By 1640 the Illini had decimated the Winnebago to the north, gaining Northern Illinois, while continued warfare with the Sioux nation to the west of the Mississippi was an ongoing struggle. It is unclear if the Illini fought against the Sioux and Winnebago at different times, but the majority of the writings of the time period suggest that the conflicts were ongoing and that the defeat of the Winnebagos came around 1640.
A small portion of land along the southern part of Lake Michigan into Northern Indiana and the northern portion of the border of Illinois and Indiana was inhabited by a band of the Sioux tribe during a small part of the early 1640s. However, the Sioux would not inhabit this area long, as their enemies, including the Illini, would push the Sioux further into Illinois near the Wabash River Valley, then to the area near present day Champaign. By the mid-1640s The Illini would push the Sioux west of the Mississippi River. As previously mentioned the battles with the Sioux continued until the 1830s, perhaps lasting as late as the 1860s. As the Illini pressed west after the invasion of the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, the Illini encountered the Sioux west of the Mississippi River and conflicts began over the land that the Illini had fled to. By early part of the 1800s, as tribes of the Illinois region were being removed from their lands by treaty, force, among other methods as well, these tribes came into conflict with the Sioux over land west of the Mississippi River. By 1835, various treaties between the United States government and the Sioux allotted a small amount of land for Illinois tribes to occupy while leaving the rest of the land west of the Mississippi River free for the Sioux nation. Later the Sioux would begin their struggle against the United States government over the expansion of settlers to the land west of the Mississippi River.
By the end of the early 1600s, the Illini were the primary Native American Tribe that inhabited this region, although by other accounts there were other tribes that would become predominant in later years, such as the Pottawatomi, the Illini are credited as being the largest and therefore the dominant tribe in the region at this time. There were some non-indigenous settlers in the area as can be seen through the evidence of individuals of mixed race that are discussed. From this information it can be assumed that the first settlers in the region were of African decent, with many of these settlers being Haitian. By the mid-1600s the first Europeans came to this area, the earliest were fur traders and later settlers settled in the region. These “settlers” were primarily missionaries of French decent who followed the paths laid down by the French fur traders.
With the profits from the fur trade heating up in the early part of the 1600s clashes began to take place. The French controlled the fur trade in present day Canada and parts of the western United States while the Dutch and British controlled the trade in the United States, near New York and Maine respectively. The trade of beaver pelts for European weapons and tools became increasingly profitable and led to increased demand on limited resources which led to intense conflicts between different tribes. This eventually led to the Beaver Wars or 70 years of inter-tribal conflict.
The next major change in the control and inhabitation of this area came when the Iroquois began a conquest of the Great Lakes region. They swooped down from the New York area along the waterways that connected the Great Lakes, defeating their enemies on either side of each lake as they pushed west towards the Mississippi River. As the Iroquois pushed further and further west, they pushed the other tribes who were trying to escape their wrath. Many of these tribes entered southern Canada, while others entered Illinois, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan. Between 1665 and 1701 the Iroquois began to attack the Illini in the Illinois area, pushing the Illini to the west of the Mississippi River and to the border of present day Missouri and Iowa. The Illini remained in their new home until the mid-1760s. During their push west, the Iroquois chased bands of the Miami, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, and Ottawa into the Chicago area around 1679.
The first written accounts of the natives of this area were from the mid-1660s from a Jesuit priest that ventured to the area to try and convert the tribes to Christianity or at least make them interested in trading. Father Jacques Marquette established his mission of St. Ignace in upper Michigan. He later made contact with Louis Joliet. In 1673 the two launched their famous expedition. Taking local waterways from the Michigan area to Wisconsin and then through northern Illinois before making their way down the Mississippi River. On their trip down the river Marquette noted that they had encountered the Illini along the banks of the river, predominantly along the western bank. On their return trip up the river, Joliet and Marquette stopped at one of the villages of the Illini and become “friends” with the Illini people. In 1674 the Illini agreed to take Marquette and Joliet back towards Chicago through a different route, one that the duo thought would be quicker and lead to a trade route if successful. Marquette noticed along the trip that they encountered a band of Kaskaskia near the Starved Rock.
Other than the missions that had been established, the French also established a couple of forts near the present day area of the Northwest suburbs. One of these forts was near present day Peoria and was deserted during the Iroquois raids in 1682. After a peace treaty was signed with the Iroquois, the Ft. St. Louis was built and controlled by Rene Robert Cavelier and Sieur de La Salle at Starved Rock, near the sight that Joliet and Marquette had stopped on their return journey. La Salle and Cavelier took in some of the Native Americans in an attempt to convert them to Christianity, while giving them a place to live and protection from the advancing Iroquois.
Another group of Native Americans that settled in this area was the Pottawatomi. This tribe was first encountered and documented by Father Claude Allouez on Lake Superior in 1666. Marquette later documented further contact with the Pottawatomi in Green Bay, WI around 1679 and La Salle mentioned contact with them around 1684.
The Pottawatomi had covered an area similar in size to the Illini, however the Pottawatomi lived on the other side of the Great Lakes. Their area was from the eastern border of present day Ohio to the eastern coast of Lake Michigan. During the conquest of the Iroquois, the Pottawatomi began to move further west, until the majority of their tribe was contained in the area from the Lower Michigan peninsula to northern Indiana and along the southern border of Canada. As the Iroquois continued to move west the Pottawatomi took to Lake Michigan, moving into the upper Michigan peninsula and into the eastern part of Wisconsin. As a result of the Pottawatomi moving into the upper Michigan and eastern part of Wisconsin, the Miami, the inhabitants of these areas at that time, began to move south along Lake Michigan into the northern part of Illinois and along the coast of Lake Michigan. The Miami had moved to the Chicago area around 1679 and in 1696 the Jesuit priest Francois Pinet came into contact with the Miami when he setup his mission, the Guardian Angel.
In 1701, one year after the closing of the Guardian Angel mission, the Montreal Peace Treaty was signed by the Iroquois and the other Indian tribes in the territory which is now Illinois. As a result, the various tribes in the Illinois territory began to seek peace within the intermingled tribes that had sought refuge by banding together against the Iroquois. As the Iroquois left the Illinois region the tribes that had moved to the area and the Illini began to make contact as the Illini and other tribes began to seek to move back to their former ancestral lands. The Illini would make peace with the Miami and with the Wea, a band of the Miami nation, in 1715. The Wea and Miami moved into Indiana, vacating much of the land they had inhabited in Wisconsin and Illinois. The Illini remained in southwestern Illinois, ranging towards present day Champaign, but never regaining the land near the Northwest Suburbs. This land remained in the control of the Pottawatomi who found that the waterways suited their needs and the land was a good spot for hunting.
Not much is known between 1701 and the 1760s. With the wars between the French and some of the Native American tribes, there came a new movement of tribes to the area of the Northwest Suburbs. The Pottawatomi had grown in size and controlled a large region around Chicago, west to perhaps the Mississippi, south towards Champaign, and north to areas near Green Bay, and as far north as Michigan. With the French wars with the Indians, from 1742-1743, the Sauk and Fox tribes had been pushed into Wisconsin and then west of the Mississippi River. The Fox had allied with the Iroquois, and therefore against the French, and ended up in a major conflict with the French. After the Fox were decimated by French and Algonquin forces, the Sauk and Fox combined their tribes, near Rock Island in 1730. The Sauk and Fox would move into northwestern Illinois and eventually make their way to the Fox River Valley area by the 1760s. After the French and British concluded the French and Indian war, 1754-1763, with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Chippewa moved to the Chicago area. Many of the Ottawa had moved to a French fort, which would later be called Ft. Ottawa, after the British had taken control of the French fort at Detroit in 1760. The Ottawa would remain near Ft. Ottawa after the end of the war.
For many tribes that had moved from their native lands, such as the Ottawa from Detroit, the Treat of Paris was viewed as a let down by the French who many of the tribes had good relationships with. The Native Americans wanted their lands back, but the French had basically given up fighting for the land or asking for the land in peace with the British. The famous chief, Pontiac, of the Ottawa tribe decided to combine the forces of the tribes that lived in the Illinois and Wisconsin regions in a battle against the British to regain their ancestral lands. As the French were set to leave North America, Pontiac gathered forces from western New York all the way to the Mississippi River Valley and on May 8, 1763, began a revolt. In part, the revolt was an attempt by the forces led by Pontiac to keep the British from moving into the Illinois territory. The British issued a Royal Proclamation on October 7, 1763 to keep the colonists from settling any further west than the Appalachian Mountains as an attempt to buy peace with the Indian tribes and to keep raids from continuing on the boarders of the colonies. In August 17, 1765 a peace treaty was signed at Detroit, which ended the Indian raids.
When war broke out between the U.S. colonies and British, many border dwellers of the colonies embarked on a conquest to gain the territory that they had been barred from settling by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In their advances into the frontier, the Americans clashed with local tribes and came into contact with a mixture of trappers, settlers and traders that had moved into the area before then. By 1770, the Chicago area was home to Haitians, French, British, and Scot-Irish as the fur trade had become a booming business. Maps became a very important means to locate the conquered land and establish new landing holdings for ones personage and for America.
One such map was created with a printed text in 1778 by Patrick Kennedy and Capt. Thomas Hutchinson. This map remarks on the large and high quality of the trout in the fresh water of the region of Illinois. Furthermore, tribes were located in regards to villages that were established at that time. Among them, Hutchinson would remark on this expedition, as well as future expeditions in the years to come, that the Pottawatomi numbered about 200 and the Ottawa 150. The Pottawatomi and Ottawa lived in the area between Lake Michigan and the Miami Fort, which would more than likely be the Ft. St. Louis. There were also approximately 300 Kaskaskia, Peoria, and Mitchigamas as well as 4,000 Kickapoo, Outtagowies, Masquatons, Miscotins, Outtawacks, and Musquakeys in the area between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. The city of Chikagu, with a fort at the mouth of the Chicago River, was also listed on the map.
A mixing of tribes had taken place over a number of years, starting with the first movement of tribes west during the Iroquois conquest in an attempt to gain alliances. By the 1830s the tribes had begun to intermix with the fur traders and settlers in the area and it was noted that the tribes contained mixed race individuals that could claim ancestors outside tribal lines. Other maps of notability listed Mouscutens or the Nation of Fire, which included the Pottawatomi as the main tribe in the Nation, were given two villages near the two main rivers in Chicago by the French in 1718. A map produced in Germany in 1734 also gave the area around Chicago to the inhabitants of the Nation of Fire. In 1806 a map marked the Chicago region being bounded to the north by the Winnebagoes, to the west by the Saugees, and to the south by the Pottawatomis.
After the end of the American Revolution, the Americans could turn their attention to the west and establishing a system of expanding their control over the continent. As a result, wars with the Indians increased. After the defeat of Native American tribes at Fallen Timbers on August 3, 1795, the Treaty of 1795 or Treaty of Greenville was enacted. Southern Ohio and other strategic points of portage were taken by the Americans, including “One piece of land six miles square at Chicago River, emptying into the south-west end of Lake Michigan.” As a result of this treaty Ft. Dearborn was built in 1803.
The Americans would begin to use treaties with the Indians to gain more and more land. According to the Treaty of Greenville the Indians had ceded all lands east of the Mississippi River to the Americans while retaining the right to hunt on the land until such time that the American government decided they wanted to use the land. According to Black Hawk, in his autobiography, the treaty was signed by Indians who were made drunk by the Americans before signing the treaty. The use of alcohol, fear, bullying, and false pretenses became common in the treaties between the Americans and the Native Americans.
When war broke out in 1812 between the British and the Americans, the tribes in the Illinois territory sided with the British. After the message from Madison to conquer Canada in the face of British invasion, the fear of war in the west prompted the inhabitants of Ft. Dearborn to prepare for a retreat to Ft. Wayne. The Pottawatomi and Miami waited for the Ft. Dearborn inhabitants to begin their trek to Ft. Wayne. Just as the Americans were leaving Ft. Dearborn the Indians attacked and massacred the Ft. Dearborn residents. As a result, two months later, U.S. troops were sent to slaughter the Pottawatomi and Miami near Peoria. In 1816 the Pottawatomi signed a peace treaty at St. Louis which ceded the land southwestward from Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Fox Rivers 20 miles wide. This would become known as the Indian Boundary Line. This land was seen as enough space for military support during the construction of the proposed Illinois-Michigan Canal, which was begun in 1836 and completed in 1848. This treaty also allowed enough American settlers to come to the Illinois region in order to vote on establishing Illinois as a state in 1818.
For years the United States used various tactics to gain treaty after treaty and the Native Americans lost their land piece by piece. One tactic in the treaty process was to give parts of the land to individual Indians that had helped in getting the treaty passed. By the 1830s some of the tribes had had enough. The governor in the Illinois area had removed the Sauk and Fox from their native lands thanks to the Treaty of 1804 and moved the tribes west of the Mississippi River to Iowa. After a particularly devastating corn growing season, the starving Sauk and Fox moved back to their native lands to find food. They were led by Black Hawk. Near present day Prophetstown the party was joined by the Winnebago. The Treaty of 1829 gave the areas of Rogers Park, Wilmette, Evanston, and Kenilworth to the United States, while plots of land were given to specific Indians. The tribes that lived on these lands, as well as throughout Illinois and Wisconsin areas, came together and started a revolt to regain their lost territory. Their land had been given away in piecemeal fashion or by other tribes that signed treaty for land they did not control so as to hold onto their own lands. Led by Black Hawk, Black Hawk’s War began in 1831 and lasted until 1832. The Pottawatomi remained outside of the actual war as their leader, Billy Caldwell, who was given a large plot of land and large annuities if he kept the Pottawatomi out of any wars with the Indians in the area. Black Hawk was defeated at the hands of the Americans after fighting for almost a year in various areas in the Midwest. He was caught and placed under arrest before being removed to a reservation where he eventually died.
However, the Treaty of Chicago, 1833, was signed by the remaining tribes in Illinois and the remaining land east of the Mississippi River were ceded to the United States, with reservations being established west of the Mississippi River for the majority of the tribes. Some tribes either moved to Wisconsin or fled to Canada. By 1838 any remaining Native Americans were sent to live on their allotted reservations. Billy Caldwell left his land holdings and moved with his tribe west of the Mississippi River, to continue leading the Pottawatomi until his death.
From 1833 until the present, the Chicago area has slowly expanded. It wasn’t until after the end of the Second World War and the rise of modern consumerism that the suburbs begin their quick rise to their present state. In an attempt to reclaim part of the lost heritage of the Northwest Suburbs for the Native American, the American Indian Center of Chicago established the Trickster Gallery in Schaumburg, IL in an attempt to bring the modern art of the Native American culture that is still living and alive in the Northwest Suburbs and Chicago area to the front for future generations.