Winners and Losers

Conclusion of the three part series.

Jonathan Lantz Buffalo, a Meskwaki (or Fox to the French) Native American, writes of Etnataek in the 1980 Wisconsin Historical Journal: “For the record, I just want to announce from the tribe, we won the war, because today you see Meskwaki. But if you went to France, there is no French king, or French queen, or Princesses. So we won, because it was a war between the French king and the Fox.”

However, anyone recalling the events of September 9, 1730 at Etnataek, near the headwaters of the Sangamon River, would be hard pressed to see it that way.

This is the final chapter in my story of Etnataek,  Algonquin for “the place of the clubbing.” Etnataek is inscribed on a small, reddish granite monument just southeast of Arrowhead along McLean County Road 1000N in a bucolic setting among the windmills and rolling hills at the headwaters of the Sangamon River.

The Fox, or Meskwaki tribe had constructed a large fort at Etnataek on the north bank of the Sangamon River. The fort supported over 1,000 Fox people – 350 warriors and 650 women, children, and elderly – who were on an exodus from their homeland in “New France” after being isolated by the French and previously allied tribes and having been branded “the common enemy of all people.”  This fort along the Sangamon River consisted of 111 cabins excavated into the Earth “like the burrows of the Foxes from which they take their name” and was built among “a small grove of trees surrounded by a palisade.”

For 23 days in August of 1730, the fort had been completely surrounded and under siege by 1400 warriors, consisting of French troops and warriors from other native tribes allied with the French.  No other Native American fort had ever come under such a prolonged siege.

The siege ended when a thick fog on the cold, dark and rainy night of September 8 concealed the escape of the Fox people to the southwest.

But during the daring midnight escape, French Commandant Nicolas Antoine Coulon de Villiers’ sentries had heard the crying of a Fox child. And several warriors trailed the Fox during the night.

The 1,000 Fox, including the women, children and elderly, were bone-weary, hungry, exhausted and plodding their way as best they could through the flooded prairie when Fox scouts reported the approach of 1400 warriors from across the prairie.

Fox war chiefs hurried their women, children and elderly to the head of their column while their 350 warriors formed a skirmish line at the rear. Much of their gunpowder had been dampened in the rain, but the remainder was distributed among those with muskets. Grim faced, Fox warriors watched in silence as the 1400 French and allies formed a skirmish line on the prairie and advanced rapidly. Several Fox warriors sang their death song. At least they would die in battle and their stand could hopefully provide an opportunity for their families to escape.

According to The Fox Wars, the “brief and bloody” attack was “a rout.” The Foxes “stood their ground, they fought and they died”. And then when the ranks of the warriors was broken, the French and their allies turned on the old people, women and children. The warriors had died in vain. When the slaughter ended, over two hundred warriors and three hundred women, children and elderly lay dead on the prairie. The rest were taken as prisoners and were slowly tortured then burned while a few were kept alive as slaves. About 50 Fox managed to escape but had discarded their weapons and provisions along the way. Most were eventually captured, tortured and burned as well.

This crippling defeat and “almost total destruction” of the Foxes was a key turning point in the French military strategy. DeVilliers won high praise from French King Louis XV and he and his offspring became very influential throughout New France.

Interestingly, his son Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville was “murdered” by (then) British Lieutenant Colonel George Washington in 1754 at the start of the Seven Years War in America. In turn, Jumonville’s brother Louis avenged his brother’s “murder” by forcing Washington’s surrender at Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754.

But 33 years later, in 1763, The French ceded Illinois to the British after losing the French and Indian War.

In 1783, the British ceded the area east of the Mississippi River to the newly formed United States. And in 1803, Napoleon sold the French holdings west of the Mississippi to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase and “New France” was no more.

As I walked along the winding headwaters of the Sangamon River near the lonely monument to Etnataek, I recalled the ghosts of what happened there; a similar story to many other clashes between Native tribes and Europeans in the Americas.

Looking around, I noted a distinct lack of Fox people, nor did I notice any allied tribes nor French people either. The site of the Fox Fort along the Sangamon (once lost entirely to history for over 200 years) has been on land owned for over 100 years by a guy named “Smith”. So who really won and who lost?

They say the story ain’t over til the credits roll. And as Patterson Hood of the band The Drive-By Truckers writes: “the secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits.”

So our story ends with a tight camera shot of the small reddish granite monument which reads “Etnataek” and the monument also reads, simply: “Here French and Indian Allies Defeated Fox Tribe. 1730.” Native American flute and drum softly play a melancholy tune as the camera pulls back slowly with a vision of the rolling hills, windmills and the Sangamon River winding through the bucolic valley below. Fade out.

Then slowly, the camera fades back in with a wide shot of the beautiful, glimmering, Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama, lowa, where one can get a massage and pedicure at the coincidentally named “Winding River” Day Spa. The camera tightens in on a dejected group of tourists from Paris as they exit the casino as a guy wearing a beret peers into his open and empty wallet and says “Sacrebleu! Nous avons tout perdu!” (loose translation: “Shucks! We lost everything!”)

And y’know what? He was right.

Roll credits.

Credits: William Brigham’s “The Arrowsmith Battlefield”, Edmunds and Peyser’s “The Fox Wars”, and the library archives of the McLean County Museum of History.

Etnataek GPS: 40.438112,-88.591948

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 4, 2013 by Scott Hays

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