How Starved Rock Got Its Name


Starved Rock, the "Le Rocher" of the French

The Indians and the French called it "The Rock."

(Photo by Carl S. Anderson, Geneva)

AS 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 the place of the dead.

The 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, any by 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, unsuspecting villages.


The Broad Plain Opposite the Rock

The Indians 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.


Lovers' Leap as Seen from the Rock

The 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 come down.


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 night.

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.

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