How Starved Rock Got
Rock, the "Le Rocher" of the French
Indians and the French called it "The Rock."
(Photo by Carl
S. Anderson, Geneva)
early as the Revolutionary War, Starved Rick was haunted
ground. The bleaching bones of the brave
Illinois tribe lay scattered and broken oil the pinnacle
that stands in the heart of the Illinois River Valley. Wandering
tribes of other Indian nations avoided the shot. It was
place of the dead.
legend of Starved Rock is the exciting story of Indian
wars. Here, on the northern shore of the Illinois
River, lived a small tribe of the now extinct Illinois
Indians. In the literature of French and English fur-traders,
other Indians, they were known as "the Illinois of the
Rock." They lived quietly, farming their gardens anal
hunting the deer, otter, muskrat and beaver. Once or twice
a year they traded their furs with the French voyageurs
who made regular trips up and down tilt: Illinois River.
For more than a hundred years there had been Indian wars
in the Illinois valley. In the seventeenth century he Illinois
Indians fought the fierce Iroquois who came from New York;
later, with the Fox, Sauk, Pottawatomi, Kickapoo, anal Ottawa
Indians from the north and east. The wars were generally short,
nor more than two or three battles, But very dangerous because
they almost always involved surprise attacks on peaceful,
Broad Plain Opposite the Rock
had their villages on this plain.
Lone warriors who had crossed the river
and hunted small game in the canyons were attacked and
scalped before they even had a chance to give their war
cry. Women, hoeing in the cornfields and unmindful of lurking
danger, were hacked to death before they could learn tile
identity of tile enemy and give wanting. When the marauders
were discovered, pandemonium reigned its the village. Some
of the villagers ran to hiding places in the nearby woods
or the canyons across the river. Others, tile warriors,
seized their tomahawks and went out to meet the enemy.
War cries and death chants intermingled as the (tattle
was fought, and blood flowed freely. It ended only when
the attackers were routed or the attacked themselves were
put to flight.
Thus it was the year 1769, when the Illinois of the Rock
were living on the plain across the river. An Ottawa Indian
chief, Pontiac, tried to win the Illinois tribes that lived
along the Mississippi River and in the Illinois valley
to an Indian confederation that would drive out the Europeans
who had entered the Middle West. The Illinois, however,
were friendly wills the Frenchmen who lived among them,
and refused to take part in Pontiac's Conspiracy. In the
early Summer, 1769, following an argument with some Illinois
tribesmen, he was brutally murdered.
Leap as Seen from the Rock
entrance of French Canyon lies in the foreground.
The Ottawa, Pontiac's tribe, were unable
to avenge his death. One of his allied tribes, the Pottawatomi,
did, however, set out on the warpath against the Illinois
in the fall of the same year. The Pottawatomi did not know
that the Illinois of the Rock were innocent of the murder
when they fell upon the little village that was busily
gathering its yearly harvest. Utterly unable to defend
themselves when the hostile forces swept down upon them
from the paths along the northern bluffs, the Illinois
men, women, and children waded across the low waters of
the river and sought refuge on top of the rock.
The Pottawatomi followed them and tried
to scale the steep walls of the rock but were always repulsed.
Unable to conquer the Illinois by storming the heights,
the beseigers camped at the foot of the rock, determined
to await a battle when the Illinois would be forced to
Before long the food supply of the Illinois
gave out, and their water supply too, for the Pottawatomi
were careful to cut the ropes of the water buckets that
were lowered into the river from time to time. Three long
weeks tile Illinois stayed on the rock. Before the first
week had passed, the had eaten their dogs; by the time
of the third week they were eating grass and bark. Hunger
and thirst brought the realization that they must descend
and chance a battle or die of starvation. They resolved
to sneak through the Pottawatomi camp during some propitious
On the first dark stormy night the procession
silently made its way down the steep eastern face of the
rock. The first of the Illinois were already passing through
the outposts of the sleeping Pottawatomi camp when the
last were leaving the top of the rock. A mother slipped
as she made her way down the cliff; her child began to
cry; and the Pottawatomi were awakened. The slaughter that
took place within the narrow confines of the canyon was
terrific. The cries of hunger-worn warriors, too weak to
defend even themselves ably, were soon stifled and then
stilled. Womanhood and childhood was no defense, for women
and children alike shared the warrior's cruel fate. Even
those who had returned to the top of the rock were not
spared. When all were dead, the Pottawatomi returned to
their land. Victorious, yes, but grimly appreciative of
the horrors that took place in the blood-soaked canyon.
It is said that even the victors regretted the clay on
which they had shed so much blood.
Did any of the Illinois escape? No one
knows. Many years later, when Americans were already settled
near the rock, visiting Pottawatomi told them the tale.
One old warrior said that the only person who saved himself
was one of the last to leave the rock. When the fighting
began, he saw no chance but death in the path ahead of
him, so he chose to lower himself down the steepest part
of the rock, from which he fell into the river and swam
to the farther shore and safety. Others who visited the
site in later years said that none escaped.
Such is the tale told by the Indians to the first American
settlers who chose to live near the rock. Yet, it must
be admitted, this stay never have happened. As far as is
known, this story was first told fifty years after the
time it was supposed to have taken place. And the men who
told it admitted that it had been told them.
to Starved Rock:History and Romance in the Heart of the West