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Soon after their discovery by LaSalle, the great Iroquois Confederation, whose battlefields were strewn with their victims almost from the Atlantic coast to the Wabash, and from the Great Lakes, and even north of them, to the Alleghenies and the Ohio, finally extended their enterprises to the Illinois Tribe. With a great slaughter they defeated this hitherto invincible people, laid waste their great city, and scattered them in broken bands over their wide domain. From this terrible blow they never recovered. For a century later they struggled with waning fortunes against northern encroachments, till finally they were exterminated by the Pottawatomie and the Ottawa, at Starved Rock, the Fort St. Louis of LaSalle, which overlooks the site of their great city and the scene of their first great defeat and slaughter by the conquering Iroquois, as I shall presently relate. There still stands this high isolated rock as it has stood for thousands of years gone by, the swift current of the river bathing its feet on one side, its summit overlooking the broad valley and the many wood-clad islands for many miles above and below it, fit monument to the great departed who had, during many long years of peace and security, looked upon its impregnable heights as a secure refuge in case of disaster. Alas! if it was secure against the approach of human hands, gaunt famine could scale its ascents and. do its deadly work. There is, and ever will be, a charm about the place both from its own romantic surroundings and the melancholy story of the bloody scenes it has looked down upon. While the visitor stands upon its native battlements, silently pondering what has been told him, insensibly his imagination carries him back to ages long ago, and he thinks he hears the wail of woe, oft and oftentimes repeated, and then again the song of revelry and joy sung by those departed long before the white man saw it. The ancestors of my ancient friends were responsible for the last sad catastrophe.
The Pottawatomie were a tribe of the great, Algonquin confederation, whose power was so severely felt by the British forces when at war with France, in the middle of the last century, though we do not know the story of their individual prowess in that sanguinary warfare.
When Fathers Allones and Doblon first visited Green Bay, and there established a mission, just two hundred years ago, they found the Pottawatomie established on those verdant shores, and this is the first mention I can find of them in history. That was then their settled home, though they roamed far away, for they were in the habit of extending their visits to the shores of Lake Superior. In 1671, they are mentioned as met with at LaPoint, on that Lake, by the missionary fathers, not as residents, but as visitors. At that time they were not known south of the lakes, for when Joliet and Marquette returned from their discovery of the Mississippi, by way of the Illinois River, in 1674, they met none of the Pottawatomie here.
In 1675, Marquette, no doubt by invitation of the Illinois Indians, whom he had met the year before on his return with LaSalle from the Mississippi, came from Green Bay to establish a Mission here. In this journey he was attended by a party of Illinois Indians, and also by a band of the Pottawatomie. So far as we know, these were the first of the tribe who ever saw the country south of Lake Michigan. They coasted the West side of the lake in open boats or canoes, in the latter part of the season, when the lake is boisterous and forbidding. It was a perilous and fatiguing voyage of four months’ duration, and sorely tried the endurance of the zealous missionary. They at last reached Chicago, just `as winter was closing in, and proceeded up the South Branch of the river to where Bridgeport now stands, and there built a hut, in which the missionary wintered. After the lonely and tedious winter was passed, he proceeded down the Illinois River to the great city of the Illinois, below Starved Rock, and there established- the first Mission ever founded in the Illinois country, and named it Kaskaskia.
How soon after this the Pottawatomie left their old home on Green Bay, and sought more hospitable regions further south, we are not informed; nor can we tell whether the emigration was gradual, or if they broke up altogether, but as we find them in their southern homes in different bands, the probabilities are that they left in parties. A portion settled on the Saginaw Bay, in Michigan, who were subsequently known as the Pottawatomie of Saginaw, or of Huron. Others descended as far as Detroit, and settled in that neighborhood. Others found their way to the St. Joseph River, on the east side of Lake Michigan; and others, it may be presumed, came directly to Northern Illinois, though it is possible they spread from Michigan into Illinois. The precise date of these several migrations we cannot give, but Cragon and Bouquet found them, in the middle of the last century, occupying the country about Detroit and Fort St. Joseph; and we find no account of them within the last hundred years and more at Green Bay. From these explorers we get the first intimation of their numbers, and yet this is of the most unsatisfactory kind. They set them down at three hundred and fifty; and Dodge, a quarter of a century later, places them at tour hundred and fifty, while Hutchins places them at a still lower number than the first. Upon these numbers we can place but little reliance; at best, it could have been but imperfect estimates, including no doubt only those bands whom they met at Fort St. Joseph and Detroit, without taking into account those at Saginaw or in Illinois. We may safely assume, also, that these figures are designed only to express the number of their warriors, for Sir William Johnson, who assembled the Algonquin Confederation at Niagara, in 1763, informs us, that of the nineteen hundred and thirty warriors there assembled, four hundred and fifty were Pottawatomie, or, according to the old orthography, Pouteotamies. With them and their associate warriors, General Bradstreet there concluded a treaty, which pacified all the Indian tribes bordering the upper lakes, who had hitherto been such inveterate enemies to the British Government and the English immigrant. A reasonably conciliatory course with them since, and a moderate share of good faith towards them, have enabled the Canadas to live with those who resided on the north shores, in amity in times of peace, and depend upon them as allies in time of war. The number of warriors representing the Pottawatomie at the Algonquin convocation at Niagara shows that the whole tribe must have been largely in excess of the numbers given by Bouquet and others, and their report so nearly approximates to the number of warriors at Niagara, as to convince us at once that they spoke only of their able-bodied men. Nor is it very probable that all the warriors, which the several bands of that tribe could furnish, made the long journey to Niagara to attend the council. The fact that the Pottawatomie furnished nearly one-fourth of the representatives in that council of the whole Algonquin confederation, should convince us of the commanding importance of this tribe in that powerful association of the Indians, and so were they the last, south of the lakes, as we shall see, to yield up their place to the irresistible advance of civilization.
The fraternal relations existing between the Pottawatomie and the Ottawa, were of the most harmonious character. They lived together almost as one people, and were joint owners of their hunting grounds. Their relations were quite as intimate and friendly as among different bands of the same tribe. Nor were the Chippewa scarcely more strangers to the Pottawatomie and the Ottawa than the latter were to each other. They too claimed an interest in the lands occupied, to a certain extent by all jointly, so that all three tribes joined in the first treaty for the sale of their lands ever made to the United States.
Chicago was ever an important point in the estimation of the Pottawatomie and their associates, and here was the council held which resulted in that first treaty in 1821, when the three tribes named ceded to the United States five millions of acres in Michigan.
Since their emigration from the north, a sort of distinction had grown up among the different bands of the Pottawatomie, arising from their several locations, which seem to have stamped upon their tenants distinct characteristics. Those occupying the forest lands of Michigan and Indiana were called by themselves and by the traders the Indians of the Woods, while those who roamed these great grassy plains were called the Prairie Indians.
The former were much more susceptible to the influence of civilization than the latter. They devoted themselves, in a very appreciable degree, to agriculture, and so supplemented the fruits of the chase very largely in their support. They welcomed the missionary among them with a warm cordiality. They listened to his teachings, and meekly submitted to his admonitions. They learned by heart the story of our crucified Redeemer, and with trembling voices recounted to each other the sufferings of the cross. They bent the knee and bowed the head reverently in prayer, and raised their melodious voices in sacred songs taught them by the holy fathers. They received the sprinklings with holy waters, and partook of the consecrated elements, believing devoutly in their saving grace. They went to the confessional with downcast looks, and with deep contrition told the story of their sins, and with a radiant joy received the absolution, which in their estimation -blotted them out forever. Here indeed was a bright field of promise to those devoted missionaries, who deeply felt that to save one heathen soul from the awful doom, which they believed awaited all those who died without the bosom of the church, was a rich reward for a whole life of pinching privation and of severe suffering: and their great ambition was to gather as-many redeemed souls as possible to their account, each of which should appear as a bright jewel in the crown which awaited them in that future state, to which we are all so rapidly hastening.