Prairiefire: The Illinois Country Before 1818
American Settlement, 1783-1819
by James E. Lewis Jr., Ph. D., Kalamazoo College
For more than three decades after the end of the Revolution (1783), the Indians west of the Appalachians fought to stem the tide of American settlers. They could generally rely on some aid from the British, whether openly--during the War of 1812--or more discretely--when Anglo-American tensions had not broken out into open warfare. And, for much of this period, they acted within a confederacy that included a dozen or more tribes. Despite some early successes, they could not prevent a steady encroachment of American settlers. By 1820, more than fifty thousand Americans lived in Illinois, with another one-hundred-and-fifty thousand in Indiana and more than half-a-million in Ohio. In response to the white advance, Indians from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Indiana moved west to Illinois, while many of the Indians who had lived in Illinois moved across the Mississippi.
Whenever the Indians agreed to end their military resistance (in 1795 and 1815), they faced tremendous pressure to negotiate treaties that transferred their lands to the federal government. Before 1810, most of southern Illinois passed into the government's hands. In the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812, most of central Illinois was lost by the Indians in a series of treaties. By the time that Jackson's Removal Bill was signed into law in May 1830, only two small parcels of land in Illinois remained in Indian hands. At that time, there were more than one-hundred-and-fifty thousand Americans in Illinois and less than seventy-five hundred Native Americans. The Indians who remained in the state, moreover, were not the various Illinois confederacy tribes or the Miamis--the groups that had controlled the area two centuries before. Instead, the final holdouts were Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Sauks and Foxes, and Winnebagos, along with scattered groups of Ottawas, Ojibwas, Delawares, Menominees, and others who had been pushed west over the preceeding thirty years.
Jackson's removal policy finalized processes that had been unfolding for centuries before 1830. There had long been changes in which peoples lived in Illinois and what lands each group controlled. With removal, repopulation became depopulation and boundary revisions became total dispossession for the Indians.