Siege on the Sangamon

Second in a three part series.

DeVilliers hated the Foxes. And he was anxious to be rid of this perpetual scourge on the peaceful intentions of the French traders and Catholic missionaries of New France.

Lieutenant Nicolas Antoine Coulon de Villiers, the Commandant at the French post on the St. Joseph River near present day Niles, Michigan had just received word from a Cahokia runner that 1,000 Fox, on their exodus from New France to escape capture and near certain annihilation, had stopped to build a defensive fort against Cahokia pursuers.

So, on August 10, 1730, DeVilliers mustered his forces in Michigan along with warriors from several allied tribes that were also hostile to the Foxes and set out for the Fox Fort.

The Fox Fort was constructed “along a small river” we now know as the headwaters of the Sangamon River.

The site is just southeast of Arrowhead along McLean County Road 1000N in a bucolic setting among the windmills and rolling hills.  The site is marked with an unassuming small reddish granite monument inscribed with the word “Etnataek”, Algonquin for “the place of the clubbing”.

This is the continuing story of Etnataek.

The Fox Indians were a warrior tribe widely feared among their enemies and even respected, although hated, by the French. The French gained influence throughout “New France” by trading valued goods (most crucially, weapons and ammunition) for beaver pelts as they forged alliances with Native tribes.

But the Foxes refused to join these alliances even as their own previously allied tribes, some connected by blood ties, one by one aligned with the French and against the Foxes. The Foxes, now branded “the common enemy of all nations” set out on an exodus to leave their homeland – now deemed “New France” – forever.

But the Foxes were pursued by harassing Cahokias, so in early August of 1730, they stopped to construct a defensive fort “along a small river”. The Foxes were confident that they had sufficient supplies of buffalo, corn and ammunition and they knew that the surrounding area was lush with wildlife for hunting and they would have plenty of water from the river. They could easily defeat or outlast the Cahokia who would tire of the pursuit, allowing the Foxes to continue their journey. 

Designed to support a community of 1,000 Fox – 350 warriors and 650 women, children, and elderly – the Fox Fort was no simple affair. It was constructed “in a small grove of trees surrounded by a palisade situated on a gentle slope on the West and North bank of a small river.” It contained 111 cabins, “which were very small and excavated into the Earth like the burrows of the Foxes from which they take their name.”  

But the Cahokias had sent runners to French and allied tribes in every direction informing them of the Fox Fort and they were all on their way.

Robert Groston de St. Ange of Fort Chartres near St. Louis led the first of the French forces to arrive on the scene on August 17 with five hundred men. They established themselves across the Sangamon River to the South; the Cahokias were dug in on a hillside to the North and West. St. Ange’s troops were soon reinforced by about two hundred Kickapoos, Mascoutens, and Illinois, and the Fox Fort was besieged.  St. Ange’s men built redoubts along the South bank of the river in hopes of preventing the Fox from accessing the needed water from the Sangamon, but the clever Foxes were able to dig underground passages to the river.

DeVilliers had left Michigan August 10, and his three hundred men were joined along their way by still more  Kickapoos and Mascoutens. They arrived at the Fox Fort on August 20 and Devilliers took charge of the combined forces, setting up on the Eastern flank. A force of Ouyatanons and Piankashaws, allies with the French, also arrived at about the same time.

The siege wore on with the Foxes surrounded on all flanks and completely unable to leave their fort, unable to hunt and unable to replenish their supplies of food or ammunition; conditions were becoming desperate.  Nonetheless, the French and allies feared their own heavy losses in a full frontal assault on the Fox palisade.

On September 1, hope came to the Foxes when a party of warriors was spotted arriving from the East, rumored to be Senecas finally sending a large war party to the Fox’s rescue. The French and allied forces formed an immediate skirmish on the Eastern flank. But as they approached, they threw down their arms and welcomed a reinforing party of Hurons, Potawatomie, and Miamis from Fort Miami near present day Fort Wayne. They were led by the French Officer Nicolas Joseph des Noyelles.

And even worse for the Foxes, DeNoyelles brought word from the French governor of Canada explicitly forbidding making any treaty with the Foxes.

Altogether the French and Indian armed forces surrounding the Fox Fort now numbered about 1400 military men to the Foxes’ 350 warriors, protecting and defending their 650 elderly, women and children inside their Fort. The situation appeared, for all intents and purposes, hopeless.

By the first week of September, the situation in the Fox Fort had worsened to the point where women were supplementing their meager supplies of corn by boiling their spare clothing and moccasins. They made a plea to Wisaka, mythological friend to all Native Peoples, not to forsake his people. And on the afternoon of September 8, Wisaka brought his blessing in typical ‘trickster’ fashion.

It came in the form of dark and heavy clouds rolling in from the West. Daylight turned to darkness as the fierce late summer thunderstorm beset the Fox Fort. The storm subsided, but the dark, rainy, night continued, turning cold and bringing on a thick fog.

On the French and allied side, the storm wore on already frayed nerves as alliances had already been weakening. DeVilliers ordered his Native American allies to their posts, but on this terrible night they refused.  And Fox scouts sent out in the rain quickly noted that the picket lines were abandoned.

And now the desperate Foxes, seeing the opportunity Wisaka had presented, planned their escape.  Warriors, women and children hastily organized an exodus from the Fort across the Sangamon River towards the south and west. The Foxes secretly and silently escaped their Fort under the cover of dense fog without having been noticed by the French or the allies and the siege was over!  They would all be long gone when the French and allies awoke in the morning.

But during the escape, French sentries, hearing children crying in the darkness, alerted DeVilliers of the escape. Keenly aware of the potential chaos of a midnight confrontation in thick fog, he patiently decided to postpone his pursuit until first morning light when he could easily overtake the Foxes with their women, children and elderly in tow. A small warrior party trailed the Foxes, keeping a safe distance.

Stay tuned in two weeks for the final installment: “Winners and Losers”. 

Appeared as "Notes from the River" March 21, 2013, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays

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