Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Illiniwek
Nature Bulletin No. 697   December 8, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

The first white men who came to Illinois found a wilderness inhabited by Stone Age people with brown skins. They called themselves Illini ("man") or Illiniwek ("the men") and had been a powerful confederation of six tribes. The Illinois River valley was more thickly populated with Indians than almost any other region in North America. Why.

Because this was a land of plenty and that great river was the central feature. Formed by the union of the Des Plaines with the Kankakee, it was the main artery of travel between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. It provided access to the interiors by way of the Fox, Vermilion, Mackinaw, Spoon and Sangamon rivers and the many creeks that flow into it.

There were virgin forests in the northern, western and southern parts of the future state. It contained a remarkable number of rivers and creeks - - with wooded valleys -- swamps and sloughs. Much of it was prairie -- fertile luxuriant prairies far different from grasslands on the Great Plains.

Consequently the Illinois Indians had plenty of many kinds of wood for dwellings, fuel, implements and weapons. They had good soil and a favorable climate for growing corn, beans, squashes, pumpkins and tobacco. The streams and lakes teemed with fish. There were turkeys, grouse, and "prodigious numbers" of waterfowl. Deer, elk, and herds of buffalo were plentiful.

Also, and it was to cause a drastic change in the Indian's way of life, the Illinois country was rich in fur bearers whose pelts were coveted by the white men: marten, fisher, otter, mink, foxes, black bear, muskrat, and that industrious animal which became the mainstay and currency of the fur trade -- the beaver.

The Indians lived in harmony with the land and their environment. Although life was hard and rude, they were self-sustaining. They used almost every part of an animal, including the entrails. They had some use for almost every plant: for shelters, as food or a beverage, for its fibers, in dyes, as medicine, as a lure or a fetish, or in some ceremony.

The warriors and hunters were armed with knives, arrowheads, spear points and tomahawks laboriously fashioned from rocks. Using clumsy stone axes and fire, alternately, they deadened trees, felled them, and the Illiniwek made dugout canoes as much as 50 feet in length from cottonwood logs.

Their squaws tilled the soil with antlers of deer and elk or the shoulder bones of bison, and hoed the crops with mussel shells. Their vessels and utensils were made of wood, clay, shells, a buffalo's skull or its horns. Using awls and needles of bone or thorns, they sewed with the tendons and sinews of animals, fibers from plants such as nettles and the inner bark of basswood, or willow roots. Their only domestic animal was the dog. They were Stone Age people.

An Illini had three homes. In early spring they congregated in large tribal villages on the banks of streams. Each dwelling, with substantial frames of poles covered with woven mats of rushes or with bark, accommodated at least two and sometimes eight "fires" or families. After the crops were planted, most of the able-bodied people left on a communal bison hunt that lasted several weeks during which they lived in family wigwams of saplings covered with mats or hides. In autumn, after the crops had been harvested and stored in underground bins or caches, the summer village broke up into bands and each of those went to a favorite location where, in semi-permanent huts, they spent the winter.

Such was the Illiniwek way of life. Then came the white men -- the explorers, Black Robes, traders and voyageurs.

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