Read the following excerpts by two different French observers of the Native Illinois in the early colonial period.  As you’ll note, these eyewitnesses both focus on the warfare that defined Illinois Indians’ lives at this time.  Of course, we should not take these descriptions at face value: the French had reasons to understand (and to depict) Indians as “Savage” and “uncivilized,” and to sensationalize the brutality of their cultures.  At the same time, the sources are valuable.  That’s because the authors were both observing some of the key logics of Native American warfare, which was likely not more “brutal” than European warfare, but was certainly very different.  Understanding the “rules” by which Indians fought, and more importantly the “motives” that they brought to their fighting is key to understanding why violence among the Indians of Illinois was so severe and consequential at the start of the colonial period. 

Document 1: Sebastien Rale, S.J., Missionary of the Society of Jesus in New France, to Monsieur his Brother, 1721

Contributed by Robert Michael Morrissey. Published in Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 (Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1896), vol. 67, 169-173.

Among the Illinois the only way of acquiring public esteem and regard is, as among other Savages, to gain the reputation of a skillful hunter, and, still further, of a good warrior; it is chiefly in this latter that they make their merit consist, and it is this which they call being truly a man. They are so eager for this glory that we see them undertake journeys of four hundred leagues through the midst of forests in order to capture a slave, or to take off the scalp of a man whom they have killed. They count as nothing the hardships and the long fasting that they must undergo, especially when they are drawing near the country of the enemy; for then they no longer dare to hunt, for fear that the animals, being only wounded, may escape with the arrow in the body, and warn their enemy to put himself in a posture of defense. For their manner of making war, as among all the Savages, is to surprise their enemies; therefore they send out scouts to observe the number and movements of the enemy, and to see if they are on their guard. According to the report that is brought to them, they either lie in ambush, or make a foray on the cabins, war-club in hand; and they are sure to kill some of their foes before the latter can even think of defending themselves.

The war-club is made of a deer’s horn or of wood shaped like a cutlass, with a large ball at the end. They hold the war-club in one hand, and a knife in the other. As soon as they have dealt a blow at the head of their enemy, they make on it a circular cut with a knife, and take off the scalp with surprising quickness.

When a Savage returns to his own country laden with many scalps, he is received with great honor; but he is at the height of his glory when he takes prisoners and brings them home alive. As soon as he arrives, all the people of the village meet together, and range themselves on both sides of the way where the prisoners must pass. This reception is very cruel; some tear out the prisoners’ nails, others cut off their fingers or ears; still others load them with blows from clubs.

After this first welcome, the old men assemble in order to consider whether they shall grant life to their prisoners, or give orders for their death. When there is any dead man to be resuscitated, that is to say, if any one of their warriors has been killed, and they think it a duty to replace him in his cabin, — they give to this cabin one of their prisoners, who takes the place of the deceased; and this is what they call “resuscitating the dead.”

When the prisoner has been condemned to death, they immediately set up in the ground a large stake, to which they fasten him by both hands; they cause the death song to be chanted, and — all the Savages being seated around the stake, at the distance of a few steps — there is kindled a large fire, in which they make their hatchets, gun-barrels, and other iron tools red hot, Then they come, one after another, and apply these red-hot irons to the different parts of his body; some of them burn him with live brands; some mangle the body with their knives; others cut off a piece of the flesh already roasted, and eat it in his presence; some are seen filling his wounds with powder and rubbing it over his whole body, after which they set it on fire. In fine, each one torments him according to his own caprice; and this continues for four or five hours, and sometimes even during two or three days. The more sharp and piercing are the cries which the violence of these torments make him utter, so much the more is the spectacle pleasing and diverting to these barbarians. It was the Iroquois who invented this frightful manner of death, and it is only by the law of retaliation that the Illinois, in their turn, treat these Iroquois prisoners with an equal cruelty.

Document 2: Pierre de Liette, Memoir Concerning the Illinois Country, ca. 1693

Contributed by Robert Michael Morrissey. Published in The French Foundations, edited by Theodore Calvin Pease and Raymond C. Werner. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library 23. Springfield, 1934.

It is ordinarily in February that they prepare to go to war. Before starting, it should be noted that in each village there are several chiefs of the young men who dispose of thirty, forty, and sometimes of as many as fifty men. That is why, at the time I have spoken of, they invite them to a feast and tell them that the time is approaching to go in search of men; so it is well to pay homage, according to their custom, to their birds so that these may be favorable. They all answer with a loud Ho! and after eating with great appetite they all go to get their mats and spread out their birds on a skin stretched in the middle of the cabin and with the chichicoyas they sing a whole night, saying: stone falcon, or crow, I pray to you that when I pursue the enemy I may go with the same speed in running as you do in flying, in order that I may be admired by my comrades and feared by our enemies. At break of day they bring back their birds. When they wish to go to war, one of them, or the one who is their chief, offers them a feast, usually of dog. After all are placed, they observe a great silence and the host says: “My comrades, you know that I have wept for a long time; I have not laughed since the time that my brother, father, or uncle died. He was your relative as well as mine, since we are all comrades. If my strength and my courage equalled yours, I believe that I would go to avenge a relative as brave and as good as he was, but being as feeble as I am, I cannot do better than address myself to you. It is from your arms, brothers, that I expect vengeance for our brother. The birds that we prayed to some days ago have assured me of victory. Their protection, along with your courage, should induce us to undertake anything.” Then he rises and, going up to each one, passes his hands over his head and over his shoulders. Then the assembled guests say: “Ho, ho! It is well. We are ready to die: you have only to speak.” They thank him, and then depart at night and go about two leagues from the village to sleep. It is a maxim with them never to set out by day when they go in small parties, because, they say, if they went by day, they would be discovered before making their attack.

…When they approach an enemy, the one who leads the party sends out two of the most active a league ahead to reconnoiter the places through which they must pass. If they see smoke or other traces that lead them to believe that the enemy is not far off, they come to report to the chief, who calls a halt.

I have forgotten to say that the commander carries his mat, into which all his men have put their birds, along with a good stock of herbs for healing the wounded. As soon as they stop the chief takes out the birds and, after offering a short prayer to them, sends out three or four of the most active and brave to reconnoiter for the enemy. If by chance they find but a man or two, they attack these without warning their comrades. If the number is very considerable they return to report…At a couple of arpents’ distance from the enemy they emit the most astonishing yells in order to frighten him, running at him when he takes to flight. In this they triumph, for they know that the enemy cannot run as well as they. I speak of the Iroquois. They give the same cry as their birds in running after them.

If they are three in pursuit of one man and are in doubt which of the two will lay hands on him, the first who can touch him with some missile is the one to whom the prisoner belongs, even if another should lay hands on him first. They then utter several cries to attract the attention of their comrades who are fighting elsewhere, or who are in pursuit of others, who thus learn what they have done. When they have bound their prisoners and have reassembled, the leader makes a little harangue in which he exhorts his men to thank the spirit for having favored them, and to make every effort to get speedily away from the spot where they are. They march ordinarily for two days and nights without stopping, resting only at their meals. If their captives are women who cannot march, which happens very often, they smash their heads or burn them on the spot, which they do only in extreme cases, as the man who brings a prisoner to the village is more esteemed than the one who kills six men among the enemy. If unhappily some of themselves have been killed, the leader of the band paints himself with mud all along the road and weeps frequently as he marches and, on reaching the village, is obliged to carry presents to the relatives of those that have been killed to pay for their death, and he is expected soon to go back to avenge the slain. If some one is again killed of those with him, he has great difficulty in finding men willing to accompany him a third time, which causes him to be hated by the kinsfolk of the dead, unless by dint of presents he finds means (to use their language) to mend their hearts.

To return to their manner of behaving when they return victorious to the village: two men go ahead, and when they are near enough to make themselves heard, they utter cries for as many persons as they have killed. As I have said, if someone of them has been killed, the leader of the party carries in his hand some broken bows and arrows, and those who precede the party utter cries saying: “We are dead!” whereupon the women utter terrible howls until it is learned who the dead are, and then it is only the relatives who redouble their outcries.

As soon as the news has become known, a man of consideration makes preparations to regale the warriors, who are invited to enter. When they have arrived in the cabin which has been prepared for them, oil is immediately brought to them in dishes, with which they lubricate their legs. The one who gives the feast goes weeping to pass his hands over their heads to make known to them that some of his relatives have been killed by warriors of the nation from which they bring back prisoners, and that they would give him pleasure in killing them. During this time the prisoners are outside the cabin (for it is a maxim with them never to admit slaves into their cabins unless they have been granted their lives.) These sing their death song, holding in one hand a stick ten or twelve feet long, filled with feathers from all the kinds of birds that the warriors killed on the road. This is after having them sing at the doors of the cabins of all those who have most recently had relatives killed.

The old men and party leaders assemble and decide to whom these slaves shall be given. This settled, they lead one of them opposite the door of the cabin of the one to whom they give him, and bringing along some merchandise, they enter and say that they are delighted that the young men have brought back some men to replace, if they desire it, those whom the fate of war has taken away. For this offer great thanks are returned. A little later these people assemble and decide what they will do with the prisoner who has been given to them, and whether they wish to give him his life, a thing rarely done among the Illinois. When he is a man, they admit him and send for the principal men of the village who have brought them the prisoners. They thank these and give them some merchandise. When they want him put to death, they bring him back to the cabin of the most considerable of those who have offered him, giving the captive to them, with a kettle and a hatchet which they have colored red to represent blood. From there he is taken to others, and according to their decision he dies or lives. When he is condemned to die, it is always by fire. I have never seen any other kind of torment used by this nation.

They plant a little tree in the earth, which they make him clasp; they tie his two wrists, and with torches of straw or firebrands they burn him, sometimes for six hours. When they find his strength far gone, they unfasten him and cut his thumbs off, after which they let him, if he wishes, run after those who are throwing stones at him, or who wish to burn him. They even give him sticks which he holds with great difficulty. If he tries to run after anybody, they push him and he falls on his face, at which they hoot. He sometimes furnishes a whole hour’s diversion to these barbarians. Finally he succumbs under the strain of his torments, and sometimes drops down motionless. The rabble run to get firebrands, which they poke into the most sensitive parts of his body; they trail him over hot embers, which brings him back to life, at which they renew their hooting, as if they had performed some fine exploit. When they are tired of their sport, an old rascal cuts his flesh from the top of the nose to the chin and leaves it hanging, which gives him a horrible appearance. In this state they play a thousand tricks on him, and finally stone him or cut open his stomach. Some drink his blood. Women bring their male children still at the breast and place their feet in his body and wash them with his blood. They eat his heart raw.

There are men and women that might be called cannibals, and who are called man-eaters because they never fail to eat of all those who are put to death in their villages. When evening has come, everybody, big and little, knocks loudly with big sticks on the cabins and on their scaffolds in order, so they say, to drive away from their village the soul of the one whom they have killed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did Native people go to war, according to these authors?
  2. What place did kinship and family have in Illinois military culture?
  3. In your estimation, how might this particular military culture have helped shape events at the start of the colonial period?

Related Primary Sources


Captives, Men, Raiding, Social Death, Violence