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Village Vine: Potawatomi, and others', trails

Published: Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

French explorers came to what is now the state of Illinois in the late 17th century, and European settlers began arriving in the early 19th century, but this area was not devoid of a human population.

Native Americans from many tribes inhabited Illinois for thousands of years, building mounds and pyramids in downstate areas such as Cahokia and living nomadic lives in other areas. Some tribes were just passing through as they migrated to other areas, and some were more permanent dwellers. Many different tribes once lived around here.

The Native Nation commonly called the Sioux, for instance, passed through, and lived in, this area as they migrated from the Southeast. They traveled through what is now Wisconsin, were driven out by the Ojibwe (Chippewa), and ended up in Minnesota and North and South Dakota.Besides the Sioux (Dakota, Nakota and Lakota), Illinois was also home to the Hochunk (Winnebago), Miami, Shawnee, Chickasaw, Leni-Lenape (Delaware), Kickapoo, Odawa (Ottawa), Potawatomi, Misquaki (Sac and Fox), and Wyandot.

The state got its name from a large confederacy of tribes known as the Illiniwek, meaning "original men." The French spelled the name "Illinois," and that spelling took hold and became the name for the entire territory. None of the tribes in the confederacy called themselves Illinois. Instead, they were known by as many as 12 to 13 tribal names such as Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Molingwena, Michigmea, to name a few. 

When the French arrived, there were more than 10,000 members of the confederacy, but few remained when the area became a state in 1818. An "Illinois Indian" killed Chief Pontiac, an Odawa, and his tribe and their allies waged war on the Illiniwek. Those who were not killed (many died at what is now called Starved Rock) were run across the Mississippi River. Their descendants can be found in Ottawa County, Okla., and are known as the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma.

The last tribe to inhabit northeastern Illinois was the Potawatomi. Lake County is crisscrossed by roads that were once trails blazed by that tribe. Grand Avenue (Route 132), Belvidere Road (Route 120), Green Bay Road and Sheridan Road are some of them. Place names of Potawatomi origin also dot the area. Chicago (wild onions or stinking place), Waukegan (place where the white man lives), Kenosha (pikeor pickerel), Milwaukee (gathering place by the water), Mukwonago (bear), and Pistakee (end of the waters) are some of them.

The state of Illinois bought land from the Potawatomi and other tribes and made them leave, most crossing the Mississippi and ending up in Missouri, Iowa or Oklahoma. However, many Potawatomi from this area went north to Wisconsin and are now known as the Forest County Potawatomi. (Yes, that's their casino and bingo hall in Milwaukee.)

Nancy Long writes about Lake County’s history and more from her home in Gurnee.

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