Indian Life and the Arrival of French Explorers

Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. This is the second in a series of articles on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.

The people we now call Native Americans or Indians had a presence in northern Illinois from about 1600 AD. Different tribal groups or nations lived in the region in a semi-nomadic way, though most were connected to each other through a common language family called Algonquin. Scholars describe their lives as seasonal, shifting with the weather, changing climate and landscape. In the summer months, they lived in large semi-permanent camps, planting crops (generally corn, beans, and squash), foraging for berries and other native growing foods, and hunting game and fishing. In the winter months they dispersed into smaller family units and moved to winter hunting villages. In the summer months their dome-shaped wigwams were covered with mats of woven grasses, in the winter with more sturdy and protective bark. Their primary mode of transportation was on foot, on trails they made on the glacial ridges or the lakefront, but in the summer they also used canoes on the lakes and rivers, and in the winter they used snowshoes and toboggans. Their history was oral, with stories and legends passed down from generation to generation.

The written history of our area begins with the recordings of the journeys of the French missionaries and explorers who came to the Great Lakes region beginning in the 1640s. Traveling down the lake from their settlements in what is now Canada, the French were interested in converting Indians to Christianity and developing trading relationships with the tribes, seeking valuable furs to trade in Europe. Their presence altered the balance of power between the tribes, especially as the fur trade grew dramatically in the early 1700s. The French not only created trading alliances, but they often lived in tribal villages and married into the tribes, creating family connections. In addition to travelling for seasonal living, the Indians and French began to establish trading routes between missionary outposts and trading posts.

Trees like this were found throughout Evanston in the early years. It is thought that they may have been used to mark Native American trails or village sites.
Trees like this were found throughout Evanston in the early years. It is thought that they may have been used to mark Native American trails or village sites.

This was true in Evanston where the trails along the glacier ridges served to move people through the area but also link the trading settlements that were growing at the present-day locations of Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay. The earliest French explorers in the Chicago area were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673. Later the French gave an early name to our area — Grosse Pointe — naming it after a long-gone geographical feature of land jutting out into Lake Michigan at what is now Lighthouse Beach. Though we cannot be sure that the explorers and missionaries had any lengthy presence here, it is certainly possible that in their travels north and south, especially along the lakefront, they stepped foot in Evanston.

Within the time of written history, the tribes that inhabited our region changed and shifted. It is estimated that in 1700 more than 100,000 Indians lived in the Great Lakes region. First encountered by the French were members of the Illinois tribe. The Illini were present through the late 1700s when increasing pressure and tribal conflict with eastern tribes led them to move south. It was at this time, around 1760, that the Potawatomi tribal presence grew in our area. The Potawatomi came south from Green Bay and were the dominant tribe in the region as the French presence decreased and the British presence grew. The first settlement at the Chicago River (called Checagou by the Potawatomi) where the city of Chicago is now centered, was a Potawatomi village and the site of their council gatherings, and other tribal functions. This village expanded with the increasing French presence in the region in the 1700s to become a fairly established commercial center with a diverse mixture of inhabitants.

The location and extent of Indian villages in Evanston is uncertain, most likely there were a changing number of small semi-permanent villages and hunting camps scattered throughout, especially along the ridges and the lakefront. Because the wet prairies of west Evanston were virtually impassable much of the year, that landscape may not have been much inhabited. The forested areas would have provided good hunting grounds, and certainly fishing in Lake Michigan was a major source of food. As long as they had access to the best hunting equipment that they could find, like a recurve bow, (see recommendations here), to help them catch their prey, they would have had enough hunting options for food and nutrients to last them a long time. Burial mounds and trails would have been placed on the highest ground, while farming would have been done where there was a ready source of water. It is likely that some type of settlement was near the lighthouse and there are stories from the earliest settlers of a small village near Dempster Street and the lakefront. We know that a good-sized village was located along the lakefront in Wilmette and a very large village in what is now downtown Skokie. These villages were all linked by trails that are now well-known roads, including Ridge Avenue, Green Bay Road, Prairie Avenue, Skokie Boulevard, and Niles Center and Gross Point roads.

Research Note, Acknowledgments and Selected Bibliography

It should be noted that much of Native American history was erased from our landscape by the earliest white settlers. It was not considered important. They saw it as distant and separate from their own story. Later, when local historians began to show an interest and collect the stories of local Indian life, they did so with limited understanding and often a prejudiced point of view. Their early histories can provide important information, but researchers should be wary of their conclusions and turn to modern sources for confirmation. See below for a listed of sources that include up-to-date research.

Thanks goes to the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian and the Wilmette Historical Society for their time and research assistance. I also want to express my appreciation for the time and input of Frances Hagemann, Paul Friesema and Ed Lace.

Hagemann, Frances L. A History of American Indians of the Chicago Metropolitan Region and the Western Great Lakes. Hometown, Illinois: Floating Feather Press, 2004.

Hill, Libby. A History of Dwight Perkins Woods, and a Proposal for its Management. December 1991. Unpublished. In the Research Collection of the Evanston History Center.

Hudson, John C. Chicago: A Geography of the City and its Region. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Kallen, Stuart. Native Americans of the Great Lakes. San Diego: Lucent Press, 2000.

Markman, Charles. Chicago Before History. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1991.

Ritzenthaler, Robert E. The Woodland Indians of the Great Lakes. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1991.

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.