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Starved Rock: History, Legends, and Lore


Starved Rock, located between Ottawa and La Salle-Peru, stands as one of the preeminent archeological, historical, and scenic landmarks in Illinois. Rising over 125 feet above the river below, Starved Rock—a tree covered sandstone monolith overlooking the Illinois River amid a landscape of woodland, canyons, and waterfalls that may closely resemble the region’s landscape as it was before the Ice Age.


Geologists tell us that this is because, between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago, the meltwaters from the Wisconsonian glaciation became too great to be restrained by the moraines to the north and the east. The water broke through and flowed to the headwaters of the Vermillion River, a tributary of the Illinois, and concentrated in the Illinois Valley causing what geologists refer to as the "Kankakee Torrent." This torrential flood scoured out glacier deposits and eroded fragile bedrock, widening the Illinois Valley by a half mile. Over the next 10,000 periodic (and considerably lesser) flooding deepened the Illinois River Valley an additional sixty feet—exposing geological layers much older than those found on the surrounding prairies.

While not quite so ancient as that, archeologists suggest that human habitation around Starved Rock dates as far back as 8000 B.C. More recently, the area was inhabited by the people belonging to several of the Illinois tribes. The Grand Village of the Kaskaskias lies just across the Illinois River and slightly upstream from the Rock itself.

<More on Indian views…just a landmark? There must be legends or traditional histories or something from that side of things? Ideas on where to look?>

During their epic 1673 journey through the Illinois country, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette became the first Europeans to mention Starved Rock, or Le Rocher (as they called it at the time). They were welcomed by the Kaskaskias and, two years later, Marquette returned to establish the Mission of the Immaculate Conception. Other Frenchman—in pursuit of souls and furs—soon followed. <They left descriptions. We should provide some.>

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Chief among these were Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti. After a failed attempt to construct a fort near what is now Peoria in 1680, the French returned to the area in 1682 and constructed Fort St. Louis atop Le Rocher both to protect their Illinois allies from Iroquois aggression and—as part of a chain of western forts extending from Canada to New Orleans—to check the westward expansion of the British. Commanded by Tonti, the French erected oaken palisades, bastions and a parapet to augment the fort’s natural defensive location. Inside its walls were a storehouse, a chapel, and several traders’ cabins.

In addition to the climactic extremities of the Midwestern climate, with its severe summers and icy winters, Fort St. Louis withstood a six-day siege and attack by an Iroquois war party in 1684. <link to Tonti/Iroquois War?>   It was abandoned eight years later when the French relocated to a more convenient location (also named Fort St. Louis) at Pimitoui (Lake Peoria). At some point in the early 1700s, even the ruins burned.


The Illinois State Museum, as well as archeologists and students from universities throughout the state, have studied the artifacts left at Starved Rock by French and Native inhabitants of the area.  Click here to learn more about their efforts or follow this offsite link:

Illinois State Museum--Starved Rock Excavations

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While clearly of historical importance from both a Native and a Western perspective, Starved Rock is best known because of the legend from which it derives its name. A legend which appears to be based far more on romantic imagination than on anything resembling historical evidence. Though many variations of the legend of Starved Rock have been told over the years, most have certain traits in common. In most popular versions of the tale, an Illinois man—sometimes described as a Peoria, sometimes a Michigamea, but always a member of an Illinois sub-tribe—murdered the Ottawa Chief Pontiac in St. Louis in 17??. In response to the senseless (and possibly drunken) slaying of the popular inter-tribal leader, members of the Potowatomi nation—often said to have been accompanied by Ottawa and Mesquakie warriors—attacked the Illinois, driving them from their homes to the relative safety of the inaccessible Le Rocher. But, so the legend concludes, their escape was short-lived. Their refuge protected the Illinois from attacks, but it offered no sources of water or food. Unable to reach the river over one hundred feet below without confronting their enemies, the besieged Illinois died of thirst and starvation. Often the legend cites this as the explanation for why there are no surviving Illinois people today (the continued living presence of the Peorias and Kaskaskias is rarely mentioned—it would complicate a good story with troublesome facts).


Some Versions of the Legend of Starved Rock:


Note: All of these are "legends"...things that are said to have happened. None are supported by evidence other than frequent retelling. Perhaps they are based on something that happened somewhere at some time. In any case, nothing quite so romantically tragic is known to have happened at Starved Rock.


Other legends have been attached to Starved Rock as well. Some involve doomed Native lovers from warring tribes who leap to their deaths rather than face living without their true love. Others treat Starved Rock and the canyons around as haunted places—whether by the ghost of Indians or prairie bandits or other unimaginable supernatural creatures. One legend even suggests that Henri de Tonti (whom historians tell us died near what is now Mobile, Alabama in 1704) returned to Le Rocher many years after his supposed death and buried a cache of gold somewhere nearby—a treasure which, of course, remains undiscovered.


More Legends of Starved Rock:


That so many stories about Starved Rock--even when (as is nearly always the case) they bear little resemblance to reality--are present among the historical (and often orally transmitted) lore of Illinois is fascinating and indicates something about the complex ways in which place, history, romance, ideology, and memory are related, but unpacking this goes beyond the scope of this introductory essay.


Geographically distinct, historically and archeologically significant, and well-steeped in lore, Starved Rock and much of the area around it has been designated a State Park. Since its creation in 193?, many thousands of people—undeterred by the knowledge that Illinois people survive today and their ancestors probably never suffered the harrowing ordeal on the Rock that legends tell as true—have visited Starved Rock, climbed the steep wooden staircase to its summit, looked out over the Illinois River and the prairie beyond it, and imagined that they stood on the very spot where the "Last of the Illinois" may have perished.

Click here to visit the official website for Starved Rock State Park or follow the off-site link below:

Illinois State Parks: Starved Rock

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Whether viewed as objects of romance or of history, there can be no doubt that places like Starved Rock play important roles in the formation of regional identities and cultures. Through them longtime residents and newcomers alike can tie themselves deeply to a land far richer and more ancient than themselves.



   Department of Anthropology
   copyright © 2002 University of Illinois, All rights reserved.
Questions and Comments to Brenda Farnell