Northern Illinois – Travel back to 1817

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location, and if you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location. If you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

As The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods nears completion, I’d like to tell you some of the interesting history of the time period of that story—Northern Illinois, 1817. In the story, Cora, an amateur historian, and Nick, a scientist of Potawatomi Indian heritage, collaborate to publish the story of his ancestor. The book they have written appears in its entirety in The Mystery of Black Partridge Woods. Nick begins the book with an Author’s Note explaining what the time period was like in his own words. Today’s post is an excerpt from that note.


“As the Illinois Territory awaited imminent statehood, each man, whatever his origin, was convinced the land was rightfully his. Their reasons were as varied as were their origins.

The Indian’s belief in his right to Illinois land was rooted in semi-migratory culture and seasonal moves. We farmed in the summer and hunted in the winter. We established lodging patterns traditional to our tribes and sacred areas to bury our dead. We did not live in a single place but habitually returned to the same places.

Indian farms in the Illinois Territory were extensive and well laid out, capable of producing crops for sale or trade. When we left our summer villages unoccupied to travel to winter hunting grounds, we expected to return to our fields, much as “snow birders” do today when they move from northern states to warm climates in the winter. We defended these home grounds from tribes that attempted to steal them and eventually from white men who thought our land was unoccupied.

First to arrive, in the mid-1600s, explorers and priests came and established missions. Fur traders set up trade posts at approximately the same time. Missionaries taught religion to the native population, but they also taught white culture, including language and reading. Women and children attended mission schools, but our men were more interested in trade. They brought furs to the posts and bargained for items available only from white people. Native people initially welcomed them, anticipating trade for things we desired but did not have, items such as cloth, kettles, metal tools and weapons.

“Americans” of the newly formed United States did not understand the migratory nature of the Indian and thought unoccupied land was just that, available.

Nor did Americans understand our communities and personal customs; they thought one Indian tribe represented all Indians, and negotiated land purchase with any tribe willing to deal. A tribe may have known the land in question was occupied by others, but thought they were being presented with gifts. As a result, Americans thought they had bought our land, another tribe thought they were recipients of good fortune, and we who had resided on the land for generations returned to find our traditional homeland forbidden to us.

By 1817, the area of Northern Illinois that presently includes the cities of Chicago, Peoria, and Rock Island was sparsely populated but widely traveled by a startling variety of people. This is contrary to the prevalent idea that prior to the Indian removal period, which began after the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, only Indians lived in Northern Illinois. Here are some people Wawetseka would have encountered, and why they claimed a right to these lands:

French priests followed a mission to educate and convert natives to what they believed was a better way of life. They thought of everyone as God’s people, and they lived in God’s land.

French traders and voyageurs had lived in the country since the sixteenth century and saw no reason to cease fur trade operations. Brides were sent over from France, and families gathered into hamlets. Some men lived with the Indians and intermarried. Both parties benefited from this “kinship” arrangement.

English trading companies established trade routes and had won the right to do so in the French and Indian War. The Northwest Territories were part of the United States by 1817, but the English didn’t all agree to abandon their successful private trade interests and relationships with the Indians.

American traders disagreed with English and French traders and attempted to license those who could trade legally. The territory belonged to America. Only Americans had rights there, and others should leave. They had fought and won a war to make it so.

Frontiersmen had already developed paths and small settlements as they pushed westward. These men had unique appetites: they craved adventure, were wanderers and explorers. They wanted to be the first to experience a new land and perhaps stay.

Soon to follow frontiersmen were the earliest settlers, mainly from eastern states and immigrants from Europe. Why did these people leave the comfortable eastern seaboard for the hardships they would encounter in Illinois? In the early 1800s eastern cities were already centers of industry, commerce, and finance, with factories, universities, and cultural activities—desirable places to live. But opportunity favored the wealthy. In cities, no jobs were to be had for common people who lived in crowded conditions. In rural areas the rich lived in mansions, while small farmers made small profits. Property went to the oldest son, leaving nothing for other family members. The young country was outgrowing itself. But land—and opportunity—awaited those willing to work for it in the west. Invaders fanned out like rivers and disappeared into the wilderness of the west.

Men who fought in the War of 1812 discovered the open lands of Illinois and found them attractive. After the war, they returned with their families for a chance at a better life than they had in the east.

Still others sought to lose themselves in the sparsely populated land. Some had miserable lives, were misfits, or unlucky at love. Some were lazy and deluded into thinking life would be easier. The poor and the well-to-do alike came, bringing all their possessions with them. Land would soon be available for purchase. Surveyors were already mapping out a new canal. The area was about to become prosperous. They wanted to be the first to stake claim to the best piece of the pie. Craftsmen and tradesmen followed the settlers, knowing their goods would be needed and their fortunes would soon be made.

Criminals, speculators, con artists, and opportunists, knowing the newcomers were carrying all they owned and were vulnerable, looked for easy pickings in a land with little if any law enforcement. Military and rangers were sent to build blockhouses and forts to protect and attempt to keep peace between the varied groups. Volunteer militias were raised among the frontiersmen, and agents were appointed to represent and trade with Indians. Judges rode circuits, sheriffs covered vast areas, alone but for men in positions of authority at trade posts or settlers they could recruit. Vigilantes enforced their own interpretation of justice.

And we Indians—invaded, bewildered—struggled to survive.”

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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