The Starved Rock Massacre of 1769: Fact or Fiction

By Walczynski, Mark | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Starved Rock Massacre of 1769: Fact or Fiction


Walczynski, Mark, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The bluff known today as Starved Rock has a long history. Formed by rushing floodwaters during the end of the last ice age, the Rock has hosted Native American visitors for ten thousand years. Later the site was headquarters for French trade, diplomacy, and influence between 1683 and 1691. When modern Illinois was under British rule, the Rock languished in insignificance and was relegated to an obscure site on old maps. During the American Period, Daniel Hitt, La Salle County's first land surveyor, purchased Starved Rock from the United States Government. In 1890 Hitt sold the Rock to Chicago entrepreneur Ferdinand Walthers who then sold it to the State of Illinois in 1911. Today Starved Rock is part of Starved Rock State Park, a place visited by over a million people every year.

Starved Rock gets its name from an incident that allegedly occurred in 1769. According to legend, the site was where the remnants of the vanquished Illinois Indians sought refuge from their enemies after an Illinois brave murdered the Ottawa war-chief, Pontiac. The summit was reportedly where the Illinois were surrounded, and then slaughtered by Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians. Alleged eye-witnesses to the massacre claimed that the Illinois were killed at the base of the Rock. Later versions, however, state that the Illinois victims were starved to death on the summit. Although most accounts agree that the massacre was revenge for Pontiac's murder, some maintain that the incident began over disputed hunting grounds. After reading the many books, pamphlets, and articles about the event, many discrepancies become blatantly apparent.

What really happened? Gurdon Hubbard, an early city father of Chicago, who ran operations for the American Fur Company in Illinois during the 1820s, said "there was no traditional event more certain, and more fully believed by the Indians than this [the Starved Rock Massacre]."1 In contrast, Illinois historians Clarence Alvord and Clarence Carter wrote, "All the documents bearing upon the death of Pontiac that could be found are here printed, and it will be seen that there is no evidence of any such catastrophe."2 John Reynolds, Governor of Illinois during the Black Hawk War, wrote "The tradition of calling this rock the Starved Rock is a pretty tale, which may or may not be true."3 Considering these diverse views, an investigation to determine what really happened is necessary.

From available evidence we know that the Starved Rock Legend was known by the 1820s.4 If written documentation before this time exists, it has been elusive. This investigation has, however, traced the story to two Indians who claimed to have actually witnessed the extermination of the Illinois Indians. These witnesses, Meachelle and Shick-Shack, were Potawatomi and Ottawa Indian chiefs respectively. The two chiefs told their accounts to two early and influential Illinoisans, Judge John Dean Caton and Perry Armstrong.

On 13 December 1870, Caton addressed the Chicago Historical Society. The topic of his presentation was the Starved Rock Massacre; an incident that he believed was an actual historical event. Caton said that he learned of the massacre in 1833, when he became a citizen of Chicago.5 An important year to Native Americans in Illinois was 1833. It was the year of the last major Potawatomi land cession to the United States Government. Concluding the treaty, the Indians agreed to sell nearly all of their remaining land to the United States and move west of the Mississippi River. Assembled at Chicago for the council were an estimated six thousand Potawatomi Indians and Caton, who said he "formed the acquaintance of many of their chiefs." The acquaintance eventually became a "cordial relationship." Caton related that Meachelle, "the oldest Pottawatomi chief" he met, imparted his "earliest recollection" of the Potawatomi occupancy of the country.6 The chiefs memory, Caton said, "extended back to that great event in Indian history, the siege of Starved Rock and the final extinction of the Illinois tribe of Indians, which left his people sole possessors of the land. …

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