Two hundred six years ago this month, a nearly forgotten series of small skirmishes that became known as the “Peoria War” made up a big part of the elimination of Native Americans in Illinois.
According to local historical societies and military records, in October 1812, Illinois’ territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards launched attacks against Kickapoo and Potawatomi villages in and around the wide area of the Illinois River dubbed Lake Pimiteoui. Some said the assaults — with companies of soldiers and irregulars (militia) destroying the homes and killing dozens of inhabitants — were in retaliation for Potawatomis’ victory at Fort Dearborn, where Chicago is today.
There, some Potawatomi lived nearby, and about 500 warriors on Aug. 15, 1812, attacked regular Army, militia and families as they evacuated the compound. Peoria-area Potawatomi leader Black Partridge — who’d been active in the Northwest Indian War of 1785-95 — had advised against the attack, warned the Army, and stepped in to help some captives escape.
Following the battle at the fort — which killed at least 52 soldiers and civilians outside the fort, which was burned and not rebuilt for four years — the U.S. government used the defeat as a pretext for the wholesale removal and genocidal policies toward Native Americans (NA).
Returning to the Peoria area, Black Partridge changed his conciliatory relations with the U.S. military.
In his absence, the Americans’ attacks resulted in the destruction of the Potawatomi leader’s home and the deaths of his daughter and grandchild. That caused Black Partridge to renounce his allegiance and take up arms with other resisting NA forces.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened had the assault on Peoria-area villages not occurred, of course. However, if Black Partridge and other NA forces had had more resources from the British, with whom they’d been allied since the United States declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, settlers’ westward expansion might have been stopped at the Illinois-Indiana border.
Instead, treachery in treaties and policies, clumsy betrayals, and shifting alliances linked the Peoria War to Tecumseh’s War and the War of 1812, and led to the eradication of Native American villages and their ultimate displacement.
Ties to the Tecumseh War and the War of 1812 started in 1811 and extended to the Treaty of Ghent, where American and British diplomats on Christmas Eve 1814 settled disputes — and abandoned Native Americans to the changing whims of settlers, troops and governments.
Tecumseh’s War was a war of resistance against “the children of the Evil Spirit” after the Shawnee chief assembled a coalition of different tribes following the Treaty of Fort Wayne. That pact was supposedly decided on Sept. 29, 1809, when NA leaders agreed to relinquish 3 million acres in Indiana and Illinois, and although Black Partridge signed, many NA leaders refused and some declared it a fraud, sparking the Tecumseh War. That armed conflict continued until Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames in southern Canada on Oct. 5, 1813.
Meanwhile, the War of 1812 had four causes, historians agree: Britain seizing Americans to forcibly serve on British ships, British trade restrictions, occasional British support for Native Americans, and a desire by some U.S. leaders to seize Canada from British control.
Native Americans’ population in Illinois had increased after 1811, when Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at a battle at Tippecanoe in Indiana, but there were few U.S. troops or garrisons.
Still, a month after Black Partridge’s home and family were wiped out, another punitive attack came from troops coming to the Peoria area from Fort Knox in Kentucky. Despite the NA villages having many “neutral” Potawatomis and Kickapoo warriors setting wild grass ablaze to stop the soldiers, troops destroyed villages and killed inhabitants who’d fled into a swamp. Even indecisive NA villages then rallied against the troops and settlers to fight with the British and Tecumseh’s ragtag confederacy of tribes.
About a year later, Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames east of Detroit in southern Ontario, and a few weeks later, fewer than 200 Potawatomi and Kickapoo warriors led by Black Partridge were beaten back by more than 1,000 soldiers who’d arrived from St. Louis to bolster forces at the newly built Fort Clark on the riverfront near where Liberty Street is now, named for Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. That winter, Black Partridge met in St. Louis with Missouri’s Territorial Gov. William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and brother of George Rogers Clark), ending the Peoria War.
Black Partridge died in 1815, but he was one of several area NA leaders, men who answered to the names Gomo, Senachwine, Shabbona, Main Poc of the Kankakee, and Black Hawk of the Sauks. Some had supported the French against Great Britain and colonists in the French and Indian War; some backed colonists in the American Revolution.
Elsewhere, remaining NA fighters including Kickapoo, Sauk and Fox defeated troops in two related actions in the area where the Quad Cities are today: the Battle of Rock Island (July 1814) and the Battle of Credit Island (September 1814). But such victories were few.
Edwards, who served from 1809-1818, went on to again order attacks against Native Americans during the Winnebago War in southern Wisconsin in the 1820s, when the U.S. government started setting aside “reservation” land farther west. Also, 5 million acres of land in western Illinois in May 1812 was offered to people who were serving in the War of 1812 — about one-eighth of the current state’s area, and where many NA still lived. So new settlers and land speculators stepped up efforts to push Native Americans from the Midwest to Oklahoma, where the Potawatomi Nation survives.
Later, the Black Hawk War, lasting four months in 1832, was Native Americans’ last, unsuccessful attempt to preserve their homes in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Pokagon of the Potawatomi in the late 1800s said, “Often in the stillness of the night, when all Nature seems asleep about me, there comes a gentle rapping at the door of my heart. I open it; a voice inquires, ‘Pokagon, what of your people? What will their future be?’ My answer is: ‘Mortal man has not the power to draw aside the veil of unborn time. That gift belongs to the Divine. But it is given to him to closely judge the future by the present, and the past.’”
Sourced for this article:
Archives at Chillicothe Historical Society; Kate Caffrey, “The Twilight’s Last Gleaming”; Edward Curtis, “Native American Wisdom”; Eva Emery Dye, “The Conquest”; David Edmunds, “The Potawatomis”; Robert Holden, “Encyclopedia of the War of 1812”; A.J. Langguth, “Union 1812”; Robert Owens, “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer.”