Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Illinois a La Liette
Nature Bulletin No. 368-A   February 7, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Many of us have tried to imagine what Illinois was like when white men first saw it. The finest and most vivid description of those early times w as written by a young Frenchman, Pierre Liette, who arrived here in 1687, only a few years after it was first visited by Pere Marquette, Joliet, LaSalle and Henry Tonty, Liette's kinsman. We have selected a few quotations from a translation of his fascinating memoirs about life among the Indians at Chicago and along the Illinois River Valley, published by the Lakeside Press in 1947.

"The Illinois country is undeniably the finest that is known anywhere between the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and that of the Mississippi, which are a thousand leagues apart. You begin to see its fertility at Chicago which is 140 leagues from Michilimackinac, at the end of Lake Michigan. The Chicago is a little river only two leagues long bordered by prairies of equal width. This is the route usually taken to go this country. "

"Here -- (DesPlaines River below Joliet) -- you generally begin to see the buffalo. As for turkeys, there are quantities of them. There is a game bird (prairie chickens that is abundant which is a good deal like the French pheasant and which is very good. . . On one side you see prairies requiring only to be turned up by the plow, and on the other side valleys spreading half a league before reaching the hills. . . Sometimes you travel a league, seeing all this from your boat. Afterwards you find virgin forests on both sides, consisting of tender walnuts, ash, whitewood (linden), cottonwood, a few maples, and grass, taller in places than a man. More than an arpent (193 feet) in the woods you find marshes which in autumn and spring are full of bustards (geese), swans, ducks, cranes, and teals. .. Three leagues from the fork (junction of DesPlaines and Kankakee Rivers). . . Flocks of parakeets of fifty to sixty are found. "

"There are wood rats (possum) here as big as a French cat, which have white fur as long as that of a marten. . . The female has two skins under her belly which gives the effect of a cloak closed at the top and the bottom and open in the middle. They have as many as eight young, which they carry inside when they walk. . . There is also a great abundance of stinking animals (skunk) who produce an infectious stench. This is their defense. The dogs, after having strangled them, are often like mad for a very long time. "

"From here it is two leagues to the old fort (Starved Rock). This is a steep rock very favorably situated, which induced the late Monsieur de la Salle to build a fort here in 1682 . . . It was very easy for me, in view of my extreme youth, to learn the language of this nation (Illinois). . . This was my reason, in 1688 for beggin Monsieur de Tonty to allow me to accompany a village of Illinois who were going off on a buffalo hunt for five weeks. He recommended me to the chief of this village. "

"The next day we saw in a prairie a great herd of buffaloes. A halt was called and two old men harangued the young men for half an hour. . . They all ran at great speed, and when within gunshot they fired several volleys and shut off an extraordinary number of arrows. . . They killed 120 buffaloes. . . We remained a week in this place in order to dry all this meat. "

"As for me, I did not shoot. Their appearance filled me with terror, and I withdrew from our band when 1 saw them approach. This set all the savages laughing, at which I was not a little mortified. .

Pierre finally managed to shoot a little calf.

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