Prairiefire: The Illinois Country Before 1818
French and Indian War and Pontiac's War, 1754-1776
by James E. Lewis, Jr., Ph. D., Kalamazoo College
In the mid-1750s, a new era of dramatic transformation began for the Indians of the western Great Lakes. As with the Iroquois Wars a century earlier, the sources of these changes were usually far to the east. The French and Indian War (1754-1763)--a part of what was known in Europe as the Seven Years' War--was fought primarily in the upper Ohio valley and Canada, as well as at sea and in Europe, Africa, India, and the Caribbean. Some Illinois Indians aided the French against the British, but there was no fighting in Illinois itself. Nonetheless, British victories at Quebec (1759) and Montreal (1760) and throughout the world forced the French off the North American mainland entirely; at the end of the war in 1763, France ceded Canada to Great Britain and Louisiana to Spain. The relationship that the Indians of the pays d'en haut and the French had crafted over the course of generations had ended.
Initially, the British showed little inclination to create a similar relationship based on trade, gift giving, and diplomacy in the western Great Lakes. But events during the summer of 1763 forced them to rethink their plans. In what became known as Pontiac's Rebellion (or Pontiac's War), Indians from dozens of tribes and villages attacked thirteen British forts in the upper Ohio valley and the western Great Lakes. Nine of these forts fell. As the British regained control of the more eastern forts during the fall of 1763, the focal point of resistance shifted west to Illinois, where French settlers, traders, and soldiers and many Indians still dreamed of a French return to North America. But the collapse of the resistance elsewhere and the decision of Pontiac to seek peace in early 1765 brought an end to this dream. The British were not driven from the western Great Lakes, but they did begin to act in ways that more nearly met native expectations as they recognized that it was cheaper to give gifts and regulate trade than to fight battles and defend forts.
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War and Pontiac's Rebellion, the population of Illinois continued to change. Many of the remaining French traders, settlers, and soldiers crossed the Mississippi in 1765 and established St. Louis in what was soon to become Spanish Louisiana. Many Illinois followed their longtime allies across the river. By the end of the 1760s, the Illinois had either abandoned, or been driven from, most of northern, central, and eastern Illinois. Kickapoos, Mascoutens, Potawatomis, Sauks, Foxes, and Piankeshaws farmed, hunted, and fished much of the territory previously controlled by the once dominant Illinois confederation.