The Last of the Illinois.
Under the hollow sky,
Stretched on the prairie lone,
Center of glory, I,
Bleeding, disdain to groan,
But like a battle-cry
Peal forth my thunder moan.
Hark to those spirit notes!
Ye high heroes divine,
Hymned from your god-like throats
That song of praise is mine!
Mine, whose grave-pennon floats
O’er the foeman’s line.
— Death Song1
The Final Tragedy
It is believed that the tragedy which gave Starved Rock its suggestive name was a part of the aftermath of the wars of the conspiracy of Pontiac; yet as there are no known contemporary accounts of this occurrence, our knowledge of which rests largely on tradition, Beckwith2 insists there is really no authority at all to support it, other than the “vague, though charming, traditions drawn from the wonder stories of many tribes.” Yet no reader of this sketch will, I hope, be willing, however meager Mr. Beckwith may have considered our authorities, to now surrender, at his dictum, so dramatic and picturesque a tale, hallowed as it is by the faith in its truth of our pioneer predecessors, who have woven the tale into the fabric of local historical tradition. There is nothing in the least improbable in the legend; rather, there is much to support the affirmations of Indian, French and American tradition, that the tragedy of the obliteration by starvation here of a race of dusky warriors did actually take place as residents of the Illinois Valley have been led to believe ever since the modern owners of the lands came upon them.
It is not proposed to dwell on the Conspiracy of Pontiac. The student of American history and the reader of romance alike will find the record in Parkman’s volumes bearing that title: a broad historic projection for the student; history as charmingly told as romance for the general reader. Suffice it here to say, that a few days before his death, in 1769, Pontiac made his old friend, Pierre Chouteau, the trader, a visit at St. Louis; and while there heard of an Indian drinking bout or other festivities about to be held at Cahokia. Thither, in spite of the warnings of his host, Pontiac went, in April 1769, and while drunk, was, at the instritution of an English trader named Williamson, murdered for the bribe of a barrel of whiskey, by a Kaskaskia Indian.3
The murder set the whole Illinois country aflame. “The news spread like lightning through the country,” says one account, quoted by Parkman. “The Indians assembled in great numbers, attacked and destroyed all the Peorias, except about thirty families, which were received into Fort Chartres.” All the authorities agree that the murder “brought on successive wars, and the almost total extermination of the Illinois.” Parkman’s own text says: “Could Pontiac’s shade have revisited the scene of his murder, his savage spirit would have exulted in the vengeance which overwhelmed the abettors of the crime. Whole tribes were rooted out to expiate it. Chiefs and sachems, whose veins had thrilled with his eloquence; young warriors, whose aspiring hearts had caught the inspiration of his greatness, mustered to revenge his fate; and from the north and the east, their united bands descended on the villages of the Illinois. Tradition has but faintly preserved the memory of the event; and its only annalists, men who held the intestine feuds of the savage tribes in no more account than the quarrels of panthers or wildcats, have left but a meager record. Yet enough remains to tell us that over the grave of Pontiac more blood was poured out in atonement than flowed from the veins of the slaughtered heroes on the corpse of patroclus; and the remnant of the Illinois who survived the carnage remained forever after sunk in utter insignificance.”
The specific incident with which the name of Starved Rock is indissolubly linked is nowhere mentioned in military reports of the time, for there was no contemporary white man’s war in whose annals such an event might be recorded; nor are the Pottawatomie Indians alone to be charged with the horrors of the revenge wreaked by Pontiac’s Indian friends. Nevertheless, the Pottawatomie Indians, who had by this time come into possession of most of the lands in Illinois formerly held by the several tribes who are named in a group as the Illinois, were on the ground at this time, and without doubt took their part in the general fighting.
The “wonder story” which Mr. Beckwith cites as the most interesting of those preserving this tradition is that published by the late Judge John Dean Caton, in a pamphlet entitled, “The Last of the Illinois and a Sketch of the Pottawatomies.” Judge Caton was very early a resident of Illinois and of La Salle county and knew well the pioneers and the disappearing Indians by personal contact. In his sketch he says that the wars against the Illinois had so reduced them in numbers that now, in their direst extremity, driven higher as a last refuge, “they found sufficient space upon the half acre of ground which covers the summit of Starved Rock. As its sides are perpendicular, teh men could repel ten thousand with the means of warfare then at their command. The allies made no attempt to take the fort on the Rock by storm, but closely besieged it on every side. On the north, or river, side of the upper rock overhangs the water somewhat, and tradition tells us how the confederates placed themselves in canoes under the shelving rock and cut the thongs of the besieged when they lowered their vessels to obtain water from the river, and so reduced them by thirst; but Meachelle,4 as far as I know, never mentioned this as one of the means resorted to by the confederates to reduce their enemies, nor, from an examination of the ground, do I think this probable; but they depended upon a lack of provisions, which we can readily appreciate must soon occur to a savage people who rarely anticipate the future in storing up supplies. How long the besieged held out Meachelle did not, and probably could not, tell us; but at last the time came when the unfortunate remnant could hold out no longer. They awaited but a favorable opportunity to attempt their escape. This was at last afforded by a dark and stormy night, when, led by their few remaining warriors, all stole in profound silence down the steep and narrow declivity to be met by a solid wall of their enemies surrounding the point where alone a sortie could be made, and which had been confidently expected. The horrid scene that ensured can be better imagined than described. No quarter was asked or given. For a time the howlings of the tempest were drowned by the yells of the combatants and the shrieks of the victims.
“Desperation lends strength to even enfeebled arms, but no efforts of valor could resist the overwhelming numbers actuated by the direst hate. The braves fell one by one, fighting like very fiends, and terribly did they revenge themselves upon their enemies. The few women and children whom famine had left but enfeebled skeletons fell easy victims to the war clubs of the terrible savages, who deemed it as much a duty, and almost as great a glory, to slaughter the emaciated women and the helpless children as to strike down the men who were able to make resistance with arms in their hands. They were bent upon the utter extermination of their hated enemies, and most successfully did they bend their savage energies to the bloody task.
“Soon the victims were stretched upon the sloping ground south and west of the impregnable Rock, their bodies lying stark upon the sand which had been thrown up by the prairie winds. The wails of the feeble and the strong had ceased to fret the night wind, whose mournful sighs through the neighboring pines sounded like a requiem. Here was enacted the fitting finale to that work of death which had been commenced, scarcely a mile away, a century before by the still more savage and terrible Iroquois.
“Still, all were not destroyed. Eleven of the most athletic warriors, in the darkness and confusion of the fight, broke through the besieging lines. They had marked well from their high perch on the isolated Rock the little nook below where their enemies had moored at least a part of their canoes, and those they rushed with headlong speed, unnoticed by their foes. Into these they threw themselves, and hurried down the rapids below. They had been trained to the use of the paddle and the canoe, and knew well every intricacy of the channel, so that they could safely thread it, even in the dark and boisterous night. They knew their deadly enemies would soon be in their wake, and that there was no safe refuge for them short of St. Louis. They had no provisions to sustain their waning strength, and yet it was certain death to stop by the way. Their only hope was in pressing forward by night and by day, without a moment’s pause, scarcely looking back, yet ever fearing that their pursuers would make their appearance around the point they had last left behind. It was truly a race for life. If they could reach St. Louis, they were safe; if overtaken, there was no hope. We must leave to the imagination the details of a race where the stake was so momentous to the contestants. As life is sweeter even than revenge, we may safely assume that the pursued were impelled to even greater exertions than the pursuers. Those who ran for life won the race. They reached St. Louis before their enemies came in sight, and told their appalling tale to the commandant of the fort, from whom they received assurances of protection, and were generously supplied with food, which their famished condition so much required. This had barely been done when their enemies arrived and fiercely demanded their victims, that no drop of blood of their hated enemies might longer circulate in human veins. This was refused, when they retired with impotent threats of future vengeance which they never had the means of executing.
“After their enemies had gone, the Illinois, who never after even claimed that name, thanked their entertainers, and, full of sorrow which no words can express, slowly paddled their way across the river, to seek new friends among the tribes who then occupied the southern part of this State, and who would listen with sympathy to the sad tale they had to relate. They alone remained the broken remnant and last representatives of their once great nation. Their name, even now, must be blotted out from among the names of the aboriginal tribes. Henceforth they must cease to be of the present, and could only be remembered as a part of the past. This is the last we know of the ‘last of the Illinois.’ They were once a great and prosperous people, as advanced and as humane as any of the aborigines around them; we do not know that a drop of their blood now animates a human being, but their name is perpetuated in this great State, of whose record of the past all of us feel so proud, and of whose future the hopes of us all are so sanguine.
“Till the morning light revealed that the canoes were gone the confederates believed that their sanguinary work had been so thoroughly done that not a living soul remained. So soon as the escape was discovered, the pursuit was commenced, but as we have seen, without success. The pursuers returned disappointed and dejected that their enemies’ scalps were not hanging from their belts. But surely blood enough had been spilled—vengeance should have been more than satisfied.
“I have failed, no doubt, to properly render Meachelle’s account of this sad drama, for I have been obliged to use my own language, without the inspiration awakened in him by the memory of the scene which served as his first baptism in blood. Who can wonder that it made a lasting impression on his youthful mind? Still, he was not fond of relating it, nor would he speak of it except to those who had acquired his confidence and intimacy. It is probably the only account to be had related by an eye-witness, and we may presume that it is the most authentic.”
While the writer must confess that the learned jurist’s version of the Starved Rock tradition is open to the criticism that some of its details are improbable, nevertheless of the substantial truth of the legend, we believe there can be but little doubt. Even man’s wonder stories have always something of fact, of human experience, or of physical phenomena, behind them, as one might reply to Mr. Beckwith’s skepticism. But the story of Starved Rock, as told by Judge Caton, has been corroborated by other competent searchers for the truth, especially by the late Hon. Perry A. Armstrong, of Morris, another of the pioneers of La Salle county, Illinois, who knew personally many of the famous Indians of this part of the State, who died subsequently to the coming of the permanent American settlers. Among these was an old chief named Shick Shack, claiming to be 104 years of age, who, as Mr. Armstrong said, in an address5 at a celebration at Starved rock of the two-hundredth anniversary (September 10, 1873) of its discovery, told him substantially the same story that Meachelle told Judge Caton, which the latter published in 1876. Shick Shack said he was present at the siege, a boy half grown.
The late N. Matson6, of Princeton, was another student of this legend. In prosecuting his researches, he spent much time (prior to 1882) with the descendants of French colonists who had lived at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in the eighteenth century. Mr. Matson was more than convinced of the truth of the legend, so called. Indeed, he goes so far as to identify “the only survivor of the fearful tragedy.” This warrior, Mr. Matson tells us, was a young man, “partly white, being a descendant on his father’s side from the French. Being along in the world after the catastrophe, he went to Peoria, joined the colony, and there ended his days. He embraced Christianity, and became an officer in the church, assuming the name of Antonio La Bell; and his descendants are now (1882) living near Prairie du Rocher, one of whom, Charles La Bell, was a party to a suit in the United States court to recover the land on which the city of Peoria now stands.”
Mr. Matson further states that Col. Jos. N. Bourassa, a descendant of the Illinois French, living (1882) in Kansas, had collected a large number of stories relating to the Starved Rock tragedy; and himself had heard two aged warriors, who participated in the massacre, narrate many incidents which took place at that time. Another old Indian named Mashaw, once well known by early Ottawa and Hennepin traders, Mr. Matson says, also made various statements, through an interpreter, in relation to the tragedy, to early American traders and settlers. Mashaw said that seven Indians escaped from the Rock. Medore Jennette, an employe of the Chouteaus, the famous fur traders at St. Louis, who lived many years at the Pottawatomie village at the mouth of Fox River [Ottawa], has left many traditions of this tragedy to his descendants, according to Mr. Matson. Jennette came to the country in 1772 and says he himself saw the bones of the dead Illinois upon the Rock. An Indian named Shaddy (or Shaty) was still another who gave Mr. Matson details of this story, which he had from his father, who was present. Shaddy (Shaty) said only one man, the half-breed La Bell, escaped. Two traders, Robert Maillet and Felix La Pance, are said to have left the record that, returning from Canada with goods, they saw the buzzards on Starved Rock cleaning the bones of the dead. Further, Mr. Matson adds that Father Buche, a priest at Peoria, traveling up Illinois River the following spring (1770), ascended the Rock and there saw the horrid evidences of the tragedy, the holy Father’s written story of this visit being in manuscript (dated April, 1770) which, in 1882, was in the hands of one Hypolite Pilette, then living on the American Bottom.
Not to go further, it may be said in conclusion that there is nothing improbable in the Starved Rock legend. In this narrative we have seen the Rock at least once used as a refuge and its occupants subjected to siege, although it did not come to so dire a consummation as the siege we are considering; but the murderous character of this denouement is entirely consistent with Indian habit and practice. Speaking of the remorseless massacre of several hundred Foxes (Outagamies) at Detroit, 1712, by French and Indians, Parkman7 says: “There is a disposition to assume that events like that just recounted were a consequence of the contact of white men with red, but the primitive Indian was quite able to enact such tragedies without the aid of Europeans. Before French or English influence had been felt in the interior of the continent, a great part of North America was the frequent witness of scenes more lurid in coloring and on a larger scale of honor. In the first half of the seventeenth century the whole country, from Lake Superior to the Tennessee and from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, was ravaged by wars of extermination, in which tribes, large and powerful, by Indian standards, perished, dwindled into feeble remnants or were absorbed by other tribes and vanished from sight.” Extermination of the red man by red men’s and white men’s hands alike was the fate of the Indian; and the Starved Rock tragedy was but an incident of the resistless and remorseless movement of Indian destiny.
Source: Starved Rock A Chapter of Colonial History, by Eaton G. Osman, 2nd edition, A. Flanagan Company, Chicago, 1911.
- Death Song: “A be tuh ge zhig.” Algonquin by Schoolcraft; English by C. F. Hoffman. ↩
- Beckwith [Hiram W.]: “Illinois and Indiana Indians.” ↩
- Parkman: “Conspiracy of Pontiac,” Vol. II. In a note he says that Pontiac’s body was claimed by St.-Ange, who buried it near his fort at St. Louis. A bronze tablet in the corridor of the Southern Hotel today indicates that that great hostelry has been erected over the grave of the famous chieftain. ↩
- Meachelle was a Pottawatomie chief who told the story to Judge Caton, the chief being a boy at the time of the siege. ↩
- Ottawa Free Trader, September, 1873. ↩
- Matson: “Pioneers of Illinois,” 1882. ↩
- Parkman: “Half Century of Conflict.” ↩