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LaSalle at mouth of Mississippi River LaSalle at the mouth of the Mississippi River claiming Louisiana for France, 1682. (painting by George Catlin, 1847-1848) enlarge

The possession of a calumet of peace enables one to pass safely through all of these nations. . . . The Illinois offered to escort us to the sea from the hope that we have given them that thence will come everything which they need. That other tribes need knives, hatchets, and so forth increases their desire to have us among them. (René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, 1680)

La Salle In 1682, La Salle and Tonty descended the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed title to Louisiana in the name of King Louis XIV. Then they returned to the Illinois Country to build a center of operations for what they hoped would become a fur-trade empire. First, they constructed Fort St. Louis atop a prominent sandstone cliff destined to become known as Starved Rock. The old Kaskaskia village, abandoned after it had been destroyed by the Iroquois in 1680, lay almost directly across the river. La Salle and Tonty then recruited Indian groups to supply them with hides and furs. Under the fort's protection, the Kaskaskia, Peoria, and other Illinois tribes re-occupied their old village. Also attracted to La Salle's colony were several other Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Miami, Piankashaw, Wea, and Shawnee, which established villages at various locations within about 60 km of the fort. However, the colony, which comprised perhaps 20,000 Indians, disintegrated a few years after La Salle's death in 1687.
La Salle presenting a petition to Louis XIV, King of France. (drawing by Adrien Moreau)

After the breakup, the Kaskaskia abandoned their old village and moved downstream to Peoria Lake. Fort St. Louis was vacated at the same time, and it soon fell into disrepair. The Peoria tribe did return to the Starved Rock area in about 1711, but eleven years later they were temporarily driven out of the upper Illinois by war parties of the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie). Finally, in about 1750, the Peoria became the last Illinois tribe to leave the Illinois Valley. They sought safety among the remnants of other Illinois groups--the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea and Tamaroa--who were living along the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri.

These early encounters between the Illinois and the French began a rich history of interaction between a Native American people and the frontier representatives of European culture. The Illinois suffered serious setbacks between 1673 and 1832, ultimately losing their homeland, much of their population, and many of their cultural traditions. However, the story of the people who gave their name to the State of Illinois continues to unfold among the living descendants of the Illinois Indians.


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