The French and the Fox

Part one of a three part series.

Way up near the headwaters of the Sangamon River, just a couple of miles south and east of Arrowsmith along Mclean County Road 1000 North stands a small reddish granite monument. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, and it stands silently in a bucolic setting among the windmills and rolling hills along the Bloomington moraine. Through these hills winds the small, twisting, meandering beginnings of the Sangamon River.

The granite monument bears the inscription “Etnataek”; Algonquin for “the place of the clubbing”.  And this is the story of Etnataek:

Since the time that Jesuit Priest Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet first entered the Illinois country in 1673, the French had proclaimed this region “New France.” The French quickly established a lucrative trade with native tribes of European goods for beaver pelts that could be sold for a handsome profit back in Europe. Unlike the Spanish Conquistadores of the South who decimated indigenous tribes at war, the French were mostly seeking to maintain peace and conduct a profitable trade, while French Jesuits sought to bring native peoples into the Catholic fold.

However, while they may not have set out to decimate native peoples, their trade goods of metal, guns, ammunition and alcohol were quickly and fundamentally changing native cultures. Perhaps even more importantly, European diseases had begun to decimate native populations.

Some tribes saw these changes and resisted them, but others accepted the generous offerings of “Onontio’s tribe”, as the French governors were known among the native people, and allied with the French. By arming weaker tribes and enlisting them in battles against their new “common” enemies, the French exploited existing and long standing hostilities among native tribes to perpetually strengthen their alliance.

But the Fox tribe resisted. The Fox, as the Meskwaki people were known to the French, were a fierce, proud, resilient and agile people who were widely feared and respected warriors.  Warfare between the French and the Fox had been intermittent but savage since 1712.

In fact, many tribes held out against the French, including those with blood ties to the Foxes, such as the Kicakapoos,  Mascoutens and Winnebagos. But progressively, by 1730, each of these came to be convinced that the Fox were their enemies and even they were persuaded to join Onontio’s tribe, leaving the Fox alone and isolated in their own homeland and among their own kinspeople.

Menaced and hunted in all directions, the Foxes were now surrounded by tribes loyal to Onontio. According to the Fox, “every tribe within 100 miles was in bed with the French.” But while the tribe was internally divided, they refused to accept the yoke of Onontio. Their only hope for refuge lay 800 miles to the East in the lands of the Iroquois. And so in 1730 they prepared to make a clandestine exodus and leave their Western homelands forever.

To avoid the warrior tribes of the Great Lakes now allied with Onontio, the Fox took a more southerly route down the Fox and Illinois Rivers to “La Rocher” (Starved Rock). There they would cross east across the Grand Prairie of the Illinois to the Wabash River.  Aapproximately 1,000 members of the Fox tribe – 350 warriors and 650 women and children – set out upon their journey. But all would not go according to plan.

While camped near La Rocher, the Fox encountered a band of Cahokia and had a brief skirmish. While there were no serious casualties, the Fox captured seventeen Cahokia.

Knowing the location of their village, the Fox feared the Cahokia would send runners notifying the French and allied tribes of their exodus and their location. So they approached the Cahokia to exchange their prisoners for safe passage. But unwisely, during negotiations, one angered Cahokia reached across and stabbed a Fox envoy. And while the wound was not serious, the violation in protocol was.

The Fox stormed out, but not before learning that the Cahokias had already sent runners to the French and allied tribes informing them of the Fox migration. And the Kickapoos and Mascoutens and other tribes who now considered the Foxes their sworn enemies, were interested in revenge.

Meanwhile, the Foxes went back to their camp at La Rocer, and several younger tribesmen, in angered retaliation to the Cahokia, tortured most of their prisoners and then burned them to death, including the son of a prominent Cahokia chief.

So the Fox hastily left their camp near La Rocher and set out south along the Bloomington moraine. Cahokia scouts monitored their journey and tried to harass the Foxes along the way. And while they could not effectively threaten the far more warlike Foxes, the Cahokias knew they could slow their trek until reinforcements could arrive.

While straggling across the open Illinois prairie with women, children and their elderly in tow, the Fox warriors knew they would be vulnerable to attack. So as they came to a grove of trees along the banks of the small, winding river we now know as the headwaters of the Sangamon, the war chiefs determined to settle in, construct a small defensive fort and prepare for battle with the Cahokia. The younger Fox believed that they would have little trouble routing these “servants of Onontio” as they had done in the past.

Assuming all went well, their warriors would soon be acquiring new scalps to carry to their Iroquois homeland.

It didn’t….

Tune in in two weeks for the next installment: “Siege on the Sangamon.”

Errata: In “Trying to Reason with February” I wrote “…Washington may have crossed the Potomac during the Revolution…”. In fact, in the famous painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutz, Washington is depicted crossing the Delaware. My apologies. Although in my own defense, in the painting, it’s fairly difficult to tell exactly which river it actually is. And besides, Washington probably had to cross the Potomac at some point during the Revolution, right?

Appeared as “Notes from the River” Mahomet Citizen, March 7, 2012, by Scott Hays

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