Thursday, February 11, 2021

Indigenous Illinois in Early America

January 31 Virtual Meeting Sets Attendance Record

~ report by Anne Wilson-Dooley ~

For 130 attendees, Dr. Robert M. Morrissey, associate professor of history at U of I Champaign-Urbana, wove together a revamped view of the history of our central states proto- and early historic period gleaned from French historical writings and archeological and ecological studies. It involved large settled populations, trading, warfare, taking of captives, slavery, fire and new foreign colonial actors.

The largest population center in colonial America from 1660-1700 was the Midwest and central Illinois River basin. In 1673, Marquette first visited The Grand Village of the Kaskaskia located on the north bank of the Illinois River across from our Starved Rock State Park. Morrissey estimates there may have been upwards of 18-25,000 indigenous peoples in the vicinity, primarily of the Algonquian language family. The largest portion were the Illinois. Continuing arrivals were not merely refugees but traveling to a power center. The Illinois and other groups were already agricultural but it was vast bison herds that made the large settlements possible.
Prairie grasses store vast amounts of energy but it is inaccessible to human consumption. The bison converted the grasses into edible-by-humans biomass. To harvest this biomass the Illinois and others came to understand the use of fire to maintain low grasses on the prairies as more accessible to the bison than the tall grasses.
The Illinois became a prosperous people with much agency in multiple cultural interactions throughout the Midwest within and between the indigenous populations and the French, then later English. Their bison hunting culture was a communal, cooperative and well-organized enterprise, unlike deer hunting which was more solitary. They also raided for slaves. Warriors lost were replaced with captives, and some slaves were sold. In the villages, the French encountered large numbers of women, men frequently having multiple wives, for processing bison meat and hides for family food and trade.
The French wrote of vast numbers of bison hides as a commodity taken to Louisiana for trade. Hides were also decorated and, likely, imbued with further cultural significance.
The Illinois were not victims and exploited; they were opportunistic and power seekers. They were border peoples between ecological and cultural zones. I commend Morrissey’s published writings to you and am looking forward to the publication of his current manuscript.


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