“The Illinois Country”
The region known as “The Illinois Country” was centered on the modern limits of the state. The boundaries of the region were somewhat vague, but were essentially defined by presence of several Algonkian-speaking Illinois Tribes met by French priests and explorers during the mid-to-late 1600s.
By the 1660s, even Lake Michigan was known as the “Lake of the Illinois”, although their principal villages were south and west of the foot of the lake.
The Illinois Nation Before the French
ca. 1550 – 1650
There are no surviving oral traditions that detail the arrival of the Illinois to the land that bears their name today. However, archaeological information and written records can be used to create rough chronologies. Archaeologists observe the movement of pre-Columbian societies across the landscape through their distinctive ceramic traditions. Recent studies have suggested that the pottery affiliated with the principal 17th century Illinois villages traces its origins to northeastern Ohio and the foot of Lake Erie. Those studies suggest the departure of a cultural group from that region sometime during the mid-16th century.
Arrival and Transition
ca. 1600 – 1630
By the second decade of the 17th century, certain ceramic traditions from the Ohio region begin to appear in Illinois, where they are known as “Danner Series.”
The earliest appearance of Danner Series ceramics (in red), which appears to reflect the arrival of the Illinois, is found at large “Huber Phase” villages near Chicago (in orange). These date to the first or second decade the 1600s. Archaeologists now interpret Huber (probable Chiwere Siouan speakers) as ancestral to the Ho-Chunk Tribe, who appear to have moved northward into present-day Wisconsin during the 1620s and 1630s.
By the late 1630s, the Illinois occupied the village sites and buffalo hunting areas that were formally home to ancestral Ho-Chunk tribes.
An Archaeological Map
of a Nation
ca. 1630 – 1660
Based on the archaeological evidence (and later French accounts) the Illinois Tribes soon spread out across the prairies and rivers of Illinois and Missouri and as far south as Arkansas. By the 1640s, evidence of large villages is found in the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys.
A) “Fort Meigs” style jar from northeastern Ohio.
B) Danner from Moccasin Bluff site ca. 1600? (Miami?).
C) Danner from Palos site ca. 1610-30.
D) Danner from Zimmerman site ca. 1640-80 (Kaskaskia).
E) Danner from Hass/Hagerman site ca. 1650-80 (Peoria).
F) Danner from Wallace Bottom site ca. 1650-75 (Michigamea).
Illinois Tribal Areas During the 1680s
Within 10 years of the arrival of the first French explorers and missionaries, the map of Illinois villages had rearranged. The Illinois departed the Chicago region, with their principal villages located on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. By the 1680s, the Peoria moved from the mouth of the Des Moines to the Illinois River, and the Michigamea villages near the Arkansas River had probably relocated to southern Illinois.
The ancestral homelands of the Miami remained at the foot of Lake Michigan, although many relocated to the Upper Illinois for a time.
A) Kaskaskia (joined by the Miami).
C) Tamaroa & Cahokia
Initial French Presence During the 1690s
The first 20 years of French presence in the region consisted primarily of explorers, traders, and missionaries who established forts and missions within the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribal areas, as well as those of the Miami at the foot of Lake Michigan.
Fortifications (Creve Coeur, St. Joseph, and St. Louis) and mission sites (at the Kaskaskia and Peoria villages) between 1674 and 1695 are marked in red.
A New French Colony
After 1700, the French followed the Kaskaskia south, to the east bank of the Mississippi . New missions and fortifications were constructed, but now, explorers, traders, and priests were joined by French-Canadian women and children, as well as French soldiers and new immigrants from Europe.
By the 1730s, five French colonial villages (in red) were established amongst the Tamaroa and Cahokia (B) and the Kaskaskia and Michigamea (C). Most of the Peoria remained in the Illinois River Valley (A).
To the east, the Miami occupied the region surrounding the lower St. Joseph and upper Wabash rivers (E), and the Wea and Piankashaw occupied the middle and lower Wabash Valley (F).
French forts were located on the St. Joseph and Wabash Rivers, and the new French post of Vincennes was established on the lower Wabash.