The History of Joliet – Chapter 1

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

Native American tribes hunted and fished here for hundreds of years

“The most numerous tribe were the Illinois, from which this state eventually would take its name. In their native tongue, Illinois meant ‘superior men.’”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the beginning, there was the land and its people. The Native Americans.

They were the Pottawottamies, the Foxes, the Sacs, the Mascoutens and the Illinois.

They lived here for hundreds of years hunting and fishing in this land rich with forests, prairie, streams and rivers. Even the buffalo herds then roamed over this land that would someday become Joliet and Will County.

The land was so bountiful that other tribes traveled here in trading and raiding expeditions. They included the Iroquois, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas and the Senecas.

But by far the most numerous were the Illinois, from which this state eventually would take its name. In their native tongue, Illinois meant “superior men.”

On this particular spot of the map which would become Joliet, this was Pottawottamie country.

In 1673, The Native Americans here saw their first white men. Louis JOLLIET, a French-Canadian explorer, and Father Jacques MARQUETTE, a Jesuit missionary, and five others explored the Mississippi River in canoes. On their return trip north, they paddled up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines River.

And they camped here on a large mound beside the river. From then on, that camping spot on the early maps would be known as Joliet Mound.

The mound, which was sand, gravel and clay deposits, had been carved by the river’s flow in previous centuries. Lifting up like a small mountain beside the Des Plaines River, it was decorated with grass, oak trees and colorful wild flowers.

The nature-sculpted mound was about 60 feet high, 450 yards long and 75 yards wide. It was located between what is now Mound Road on the north and U.S. 6 on the south.

When Louis JOLLIET camped there, the explorer liked this spot of ground better than any of the wild country that he had traveled through. He wanted to return and create a settlement here. JOLLIET saw the buffalo herds and dreamed of fields of crops. He believed the buffalo could be tamed to pull plows through the prairie ground much like the European ox.

“(It) seemed to me the most beautiful and most suitable for settlement,” JOLLIET wrote in his journal. “Game is abundant… in much greater number than elsewhere.”

But JOLLIET didn’t have the chance to return. He had no idea that this spot of beautiful land would give birth to a city bearing his name.

The mound named after him would play another important role in history almost 100 years after his visit. In 1769, Joliet Mound was the site of a peace meeting between waring tribes of Native Americans.

That was the year when PONTIAC, chief of the Ottawas in Michigan, brought what was left of his defeated tribe here. He had sided with the French, who had been defeated by the English.

PONTIAC and about 200 warriors, along with their families, came here and found refuge on the banks of the Kankakee River. They merged themselves with the Pottawatomies. But a war developed between them and the Illinois tribe, which claimed this area as hunting country for buffalo.

In 1769, the tribes agreed on a peace council at Joliet Mound to settle their differences. During a speech at the mound, PONTIAC was killed by KINEBOO, an Illinois chief, according to George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian. Pontiac’s assassination led to several battles, including the tragedy at Starved Rock.

The land that makes up this city and county was then considered as a part of Northwest Territory. In 1789 through 1809, it was part of the Indiana Territory. And finally, it became the Illinois Territory until 1818, when it became a state. Will County was established in 1835 when it was separated from Cook County. But the new county then included what eventually became Kankakee County.

During the mid-1830s, the Pottawatomies surrendered their rights to the land here. More than 5,000 of them assembled in Chicago, took payment for the land and marched to new hunting grounds in Missouri.

Hopkins ROWELL, one of the early settlers here then exploring the new land, rode near the Pottawatomie camp during the fall of 1834. He said there were about 3,000 Native Americans in two camps awaiting removal to the western reservations. One camp was on the Des Plaines River and the other along the Kankakee River.

“My route lay through the wild and trackless region between these two encampments,” Hopkins wrote. “Before this I had seen many Indians, but 3,000 wilder, more uncouth and repulsive human beings can hardly be imagined. Their weird, unkempt hair, and nudity, save a frontal patch tied on, more diminutive than the fig-leaf aprons on Adam and Eve, formed a scene not to be forgotten…”

As the Native Americans disappeared from the land, more white men came and built homes.

But the Native Americans left behind their ancestors buried in many small mounds, which would be dug up during the early decades of the 1900s. For example, in 1928, University of Chicago archeologists excavated a mound in Oakwood Cemetery along East Cass Street. More than 100 Native American skeletons were removed. The mound, which was about 1,000 years old, held more than 300 skeletons, many of them women and children. The Indian mound is still there on the back side of Oakwood.

But, like the Native Americans, Joliet Mound is gone, too. The gravel in the mound was used for roads. The mound’s clay was used by a brick factory. Early business men erased the landmark mound from our landscape.

All that is left to show that the mound and the Native Americans once existed is local history.

Published April 1, 2001