By: Harold Morse
By: Harold Morse
By: Harold Morse
By: Harold Morse
ARROWSMITH - Lenville J. Stelle of Champaign's Parkland College is a man on a mission.
He wants to find new evidence that there indeed was a 23-day French siege of the Fox Indians at a farmland site near here way back in the 1700s.
?The idea would be to try and get in there and do work that is not invasive,? said the Parkland history professor and researcher. ?That is to say, is not destructive of the site.? This would be accomplished with a magnetic survey, technically known as a magnetic field gradiometer survey.
This high-tech approach, using an instrument that resembles a metal detector, shows where the earth has been disturbed and might pinpoint an Indian fire pit or hearth buried there, for example. Such contact would be signaled by an electronic blip.
?So we think we might be able to identify another of these house images as another one down there, not just one, but many of them. The significance of that is that we would hopefully be able to identify the overall outline of the fort itself without actively disturbing anything in it.? Stelle hopes to manage this early next spring before a new crop goes in.
?The beauty of it is we hopefully can get the overall picture of the fort without disturbing the fort any more,? Stelle said. ?There might be a whole lot of it left that's not disturbed any more.?
A ?holistic image? is what Stelle is after. It might answer the question of what was the actual design the Fox Indians employed in their defensive structures at the fort.
As far as he's concerned, sufficient evidence already exists to establish that the siege took place there, he said.
?As far as many people are concerned, it's already proven itself. There'll always be people out there who disagree that this is the fort. It's like where is Blackbeard's Treasure - where it's buried - and there are a variety of popular theories about it all. But you just can't get a 100 percent consensus. There can't be absolute proof of any of these things.?
But it's interesting to view the past.
Turn the clock back more than two and a half centuries - to the year 1730 - and visualize what is now McLean County as a sea of tall prairie grass that buffalo grazed, with a few groves of trees here and there along small rivers and streams, such as the headwaters of what is now known as the Sangamon River.
Farmland southeast of tiny Arrowsmith, population 315, may well have been the site of the 18th-century siege by French colonial troops and their Indian allies against the Fox Indians, also known as the Mesquakie.
What is now Arrowsmith, just off Illinois 9 between Bloomington and Gibson City, was not in the picture during this French and Indian fur-trade era. The roots of the conflict become clear only when one realizes the significance of the New World fur trade. The great abundance of wildlife in North America and the scarcity of fur-bearing animals in Europe led traders to utilize Indians skilled in trapping and processing pelts at tremendous profit to Europeans. Goods bought in France could be traded to Indians for skins worth 200 times as much in Paris. French traders, many who lived among Indians for months at a time, sought pelts of deer, otter, bear, marmot, fox and especially beaver, ideal for making broad-brimmed hats so popular in Europe.
In the colony of New France, the St. Lawrence River in Canada and the more southerly Great Lakes gave French adventurers access to inland forests and waters teeming with fur-bearing creatures, and the fur trade became the mainstay of the colony's economy. The French explored and branched out into land around the Great Lakes and into valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and negotiated a delicate system of alliances involving many Indian tribes. The Indians' reliance on European utensils, weapons and blankets revolutionized their lives and made them increasingly dependent on these goods. As the French built a series of forts, they had established a widespread fur-trading empire by 1715.
But the Mesquakie or Fox Indians were one tribe the French couldn't effectively utilize. Stelle says the first French contact with the Mesquakie, long before the deadly 1730 conflict, was in 1656, near Green Bay, when there may have been 1,000 Mesquakie warriors with a total tribal population of about 2,500.
The Mesquakie disliked the French from the outset, deeming them exploitative and unscrupulous. French Jesuit priests had little success in converting the Mesquakie.
The Mesquakie or ?People of the Red Earth,? were called Renard by the French, which in English becomes Fox.
Accused by the French of causing dissent and conflict among native peoples, thus blocking French economic aims, the Mesquakie ex-perienced a de-feat by the French at Detroit in 1712. Mesquakie hostility toward the French and their Indian allies continued, and Mesquakie raids on French forts extended as far as southern Illinois. A somewhat confused peace was negotiated in 1726, and the French soon expanded trade with the Sioux and other native peoples of the upper Mississippi basin. This French activity depended on water routes through central Wisconsin - the Mesquakie homeland. The Mesquakie resisted, and French response was attempted genocide, which culminated in the Mesquakie defeat after a 23-day siege on the prairie of East Central Illinois, near a grove of trees, in 1730. By 1733, fewer than 100 Mesquakie were believed still alive.
A likely reason any Mesquakie survived at all may be a late-summer storm that struck the night of Sept. 8, 1730, after more than three weeks of siege. A French source speaks of rain, fog and cold. Indian allies of the French were reluctant to man their posts in this bad weather, and some Mesquakie escaped. But crying children reportedly alerted French sentries. Fearful a night battle might result in their own allies firing on them, the French waited until daybreak and attacked the fleeing Mesquakie at dawn.
The group of some 900 Mesquakie men, women and children, after being under siege by some 1,400 French and Indian allies, were no match for their enemies. Some 500 Mesquakie were killed on prairieland perhaps from 12 to 20 miles west of what is believed to have been their temporary fort near present-day Arrowsmith. Forty captured Mesquakie warriors reportedly were burned alive. Evidently no more than 50 or 60 Mesquakie got away.
The fort site is on the present-day farm of Wayne and Myrtle Smith. The site has yielded French and native gunflints, musket balls, stone and brass arrowheads, glass Indian trade beads, pieces of Indian pottery, a stone scraper and animal bones - most believed to be from the 1730s era.
Perhaps the most intriguing find of Stelle and company is a brass button from a French uniform, consistent with buttons worn by troops at a French fort near the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers who were involved in the Mesquakie siege.
When the 1730 showdown came, the Mesquakie were stealthily moving from Wisconsin toward the Wabash River, hoping to reach allies farther east. Their enemies learned of the plan and began their pursuit. Historians knew for years of a major battle between the Fox or Mesquakie Indians and the French and their Indian allies but often disagreed about where the battle took place.
In 1841, the Arrowsmith site was settled by Jacob Smith, great-grandfather of Wayne Smith. When he began plowing the land, he found musket balls and other relics.
Over the years, arrowheads, charcoal and ashes, animal bones, French knife blades and gun parts turned up. Stelle's research has convinced him the protective fort covered about one acre and included about 200 small buildings, in part underground and connected by ditches.
Traces remain that suggest activities in the structures included food preparation and tool production. Ceramics were found that may be definitive of the Mesquakie Indians. The French brass button that turned up is a type found at 10 other French sites in North America.
The Smith family, which still owns the land under investigation as the historic site, has supported research there for generations. Wayne and Myrtle Smith received the Illinois Archaeology Public Service Award for the year 2000.
?I consider this to be the most interesting and fun site that I've ever had the opportunity to work on, and I was just lucky to find it,? Stelle said. ?It was in my back yard. Good fortune is all it is.?
Stelle's actual digging at the site took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But he hopes 21st-century technology will soon help determine what evidence and artifacts remain underground.
As far as the historic massacre is concerned, Stelle thinks the French come off badly in this era of human rights advocacy.
?In our part of North America, this may have been the most heinous act on the part of the French during their time here,? he said. ?It was clearly a genocide, I think, on the part of the French. They had been trying to exterminate this group of people, and they came very close to doing it on this occasion,? he said.
Documentation of French sentiment exists, Stelle said. ?If you look at the French correspondence of the period, it was filled with this dread and fear and loathing of the Renard.?