illinois war of 1812 bicentennial commission



Frontier Warfare

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The War of 1812 was a defining event in the history and development of Illinois. For five years, from 1811 through 1815, the Illinois territory was on the border of a conflict between Great Britain, allied with the Native American Nations of the area, (including the Winnebago, Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot, and the Potawatomi) and a fledgling democracy, the United States of America. British forces occupied all or part of neighboring Michigan’s Territory and although they did not have a large presence in Illinois Territory, their reign of oppression and fear was felt through the American Settlements in Illinois through their use of various and prolonged Indian raids throughout the territory for the entire duration of the war.

The British offer of food, weapons, ammunition, whiskey, and trade goods made allies of many of the Native Americans with the British.  Their common cause was to remove the Americans from the Northwest Territory. This kept everyone who was trying to make a home in Illinois close to a fort or blockhouse where they might flee to on a moment’s notice. Many, fearing for their safety, left the territory for more populated areas. The population of the territory actually shrank during this period and almost no settlement progress was made until after the war was over. Admittedly, not every Indian in Illinois territory sided with the British but it was difficult for some to remain neutral and often these were accused of things that others had done. During this period it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine which were friendly and which were not. Therefore, the only ‘safe’ way was to assume that none were friendly.  This added significantly to the constant anxiety or fear of the settlers.  It was extremely difficult to live and hunt in the same areas and sometimes Indians who meant no harm were mistreated because of the threat.

After the Fort Dearborn incident, there was only one small company of Regular U.S. Soldiers, about 35 men, who were stationed at Fort Russell in Edwardsville and their primary function was to protect the Headquarters and the Territorial Governor. All of the rest of the protection in the territory was provided by citizen soldiers, either militia groups, or the four Companies of U.S. Volunteer Rangers that were formed and expected to protect the entire Territory. These men generally rode in groups of ten to twenty and spent many days in the saddle of their own horse, trying to provide some level of protection to all the settlers. Without them, the settlers of The Illinois Territory would have been killed or driven out of the territory and the settlement of Illinois would have been set back many years.

There were at least 94 known different Forts and Blockhouses scattered across the southern part of the Illinois Territory that were active as Indian raid shelters for the duration of the war. Some of these were simple structures meant for only a few people, while others were very large and well constructed. Once inside, one was relatively safe, but those that were able were expected to man the walls and rifle ports to aid in the group protection. There are no documented cases of one of the forts or blockhouses being overrun in Illinois Territory.

In order to strike the greatest fear and not put themselves in positions they couldn’t get out of, the Indians generally chose to attack isolated cabins or small groups who were away from shelter. This accounts for the large number of women and children who were killed during this period. The Rangers and Volunteer Militiamen,  who lost their lives in the Illinois territory for the most part, were either on guard duty or on patrol. The Soldiers who lost their lives at Forts, Dearborn, Hills, and LaMotte were all outside the forts when their struggles occurred.

For some months after the war was over, there were still hostilities in the Illinois Territory. The U.S. Volunteer Rangers in Illinois Territory continued to patrol until October of 1815.

The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was followed by a slow release of tension in the territory, but eventually it became safe to work homesteads, build communities, and to raise children. In 1818, the Rush –Bagot Agreement limited naval Armaments on the great Lakes, a reaction to the powerful fleets that were built on their waters during the war. Peace also set the stage for a steady inrush of settlement over the next few decades. The city of Chicago bloomed out of the ashes to become one of the major metropolitans of the entire nation.

The Territory of Illinois survived the War of 1812 and went on to gain statehood in 1818. The Bicentennial of that conflict is worthy of observance for its impact on the history and development of our state.

Copyright Illinois War of 1812 Bicentennial 2022