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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

Sidney Breese

published by E. B. Myers & Company,
Chicago, 1884

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p108  Chapter VIII

Illinois Lake and Peoria

It is extremely difficult to give locality to this lake. It is not Peoria lake, for the narrative states they did not reach that lake until "New Year's day," describing it as another lake seven leagues long and one broad, "and the country on its borders called Pimitoui," meaning "the place where fat beasts abound." There is, in truth, no such sheet of water as that denominated the "Illinois lake," and I have assumed it to be but an expansion of the river of that name, not far from that attractive curiosity, the "Buffalo rock."

The Miami Nation of Indians had there subsequently, in 1720, a village and fort, and it is quite probable it was the abandoned site of this "Principal village of the Illinois," for it was abandoned in the same year (1680), after being burnt and desolated by the warlike Iroquois.

Abstracting some corn from the "caches," of  p109 which the party was greatly in need, intending to make compensation when the owners should be met, they proceeded to the country of Pimitoui, now known as Peoria.

Expecting to find the Indians there hostile, appearing, as they did, in great numbers upon the shores, La Salle formed his boats in a line across the river, and assumed an appearance as formidable as his little fleet would allow. Some of the Indians fled, some seized their arms, but La Salle, alone and unattended, was in the midst, but he did not present the calumet, lest it might be regarded as an evidence of conscious weakness. Struck by his courage and bold bearing, the savages, though thousands in number, presented that mystic symbol to him, and soon a friendly intercourse was effected. They rubbed the uncovered feet of the friars with bear's oil and the fat of the buffalo, and then fed them with meat, putting, with great ceremony, the first three morsels into their mouths, as a mark of great civility.

Although some scouts from the Miamis, who had preceded their arrival, informed them that La Salle's designs were hostile, and that he was in league with their ancient enemy, the Iroquois,  p1110 who had before that time made hostile incursions into their country from the southern borders of Lake Ontario, then the seat of their power, yet his sagacity, self-possession and consummate address overcame their distrust, whilst the meek bearing and unaffected simplicity of the ill‑clad, bare-footed friars excited their sympathy, won their confidence, and aided, essentially, in placing their relations upon the most amicable footing.

They seem to have been a humane and an inoffensive people, by no means warlike or treacherous, and living in no dread but of the Iroquois. Some of them belonged to the village of the "Illinois Lake," and were there among their kindred, the Peorias, engaged in their winter's hunt. With that part of them Father Zenobe desired to remain, and to return with them to their village, and to pursue among them his spiritual labors, and save from perdition their infant children, by the efficacy of Christian baptism. It is interesting to see with what zeal these early missionaries sought opportunities to administer this sacrament among the savages, insuring, as they believed it did, the eternal salvation of those who were its fortunate recipients.

 p111  The records of their labors among them abound with incidents of this kind, and with expressions of their joy that they were made the humble instruments thus to save their souls.

It is asserted as a fact, in the Relations of the Jesuits, that the "Mission of Saint Louis" was established at Peoria by Father Duguerre, in 1657, and remained in his charge until 1660. That afterward, in 1670, it was in charge of Father Augustine Meulan de Circe, up to near the time of Marquette's first arrival there, which, we have seen, was in the autumn of 1673. That de Circe abandoned it for a mission to Siam, and became, in after years, an apostolical vicar of China, and yet neither Marquette, Hennepin, nor any other of the early explorers speak of this mission, nor do they allude to the most remarkable natural objects the traveler of the present day everywhere meets with in the region they traversed.

The designs of the adventurers were fully made known to the assembled Indians, and a great feast was prepared in their honor, when the principal chief being absent, his brother, Nikanope, made a speech to them, in which he depicted, in vivid and startling colors, the  p112 fierce character of the savages of the Mississippi, representing them as cruel and bloodthirsty, and too numerous to be resisted, and ended in beseeching them to abandon the enterprise.

This frightful picture so alarmed some of the men, that six of them deserted, choosing rather to encounter the dangers of a return to civilization through the wilderness than such barbarians as were to be found on the banks of the river to which they were destined.

It was now mid‑winter, and the little troop were worn out with the fatigue of their long and tedious voyage, and the chief himself, sorely afflicted by the loss of his men, in a state of almost hopeless despondency. They were the only civilized beings in the whole valley of the Mississippi, few in number, and surrounded by savages, and he, himself, the only one to whom they could look for protection. Sensible of their dangers, awake to the liveliest feelings of compassion for their defenseless and exposed condition, and convinced the further prosecution of the voyage at that season would expose his charge to still greater perils and sufferings, La Salle determined to select a position on  p113 the river for a fort, which should afford them, until the coming spring, safety at least.

We cannot but sympathize with this bold and fearless adventurer, when we behold him amid these, his difficulties and embarrassments, nor can we regard, without emotion, the name he so appropriately bestowed upon his little fortress, a name so significant of the condition of his own feelings, so eloquent of his misery, Crève Coeur, or Broken Heart.

The spot now entitled to claim the honor of this erection has long been a subject of dispute, many ingenious conjectures having been elaborated to establish it, involved, as it is, in so much doubt and uncertainty. Time, ever busy in destroying, has, long since, crumbled to earth the frail fabric, and erased every artificial mark of its certain existence. The spot is no longer known.

Some, who are curious in such matters, locate it at or near the Peoria lake, on the west side. You may see there, just above the town, heaps of ruins, remains of buildings and other rubbish of antiquity, but they are supposed to be the ruins of the Mission of Saint Louis, and not of Crève Coeur; others place it on  p114 the east side of the river, and though in the same vicinity, still higher up the stream, whilst our historian Bancroft locates it "four days' journey below Lake Peoria."

I have seen two ancient maps of this region, on one of which Crève Coeur is placed on the west side of the river, and far removed from it and a great distance below Peoria, whilst upon the other, being a copy from Hennepin, made in 1687, it is located on the south side of the Illinois, far above Peoria, at a point corresponding to the site of "Starved Rock," with the words, "Fort Crève Coeur le Rocher," meaning "the rock," as if to indicate that as the spot.

The following account of it is faithfully transcribed from Hennepin's narrative:

"I must observe here, that the hardest winter lasts not above two months in this charming country; so that, on the 15th of January, there came a sudden thaw, which made the river navigable, and the weather as mild as it is with us in the middle of the spring. M. La Salle, improving this fair season, desired me to go down the river with him to choose a place fit to build our fort.

 p115  "After having viewed the country, we pitched upon an eminence on the bank of the river, defended on that side by the river, and on the other by two ditches the rains had made very deep by succession of time, so that it was accessible only by one way, therefore we cast a line to join those two natural ditches, and made the eminence steep on every side, supporting the earth with great pieces of timber.

"We made a hasty lodgment thereupon to be ready to defend us in case the savages would obstruct the building of our fort; but nobody offering to disturb us, we went on diligently with our work." He then speaks of building a barque, which by the first of March, was half finished, and adds: "Our fort was also very near finished, and we named it the fort of 'Crève Coeur,' because the desertion of our men, and the other difficulties we labored under had almost broke our hearts."a

The facts we gather from this relation are, that the fort was "down the river," from Peoria, that it was upon an eminence on its bank, with a natural ditch on each side, and accessible in one direction only.

What place may answer to this description,  p116 my knowledge of the topography of that country will not enable me to say.

Bancroft is in error when he says it was built "four days' journey below Peoria lake," and evidently confounds that lake with the Illinois lake first visited, which I have assumed to be but an expansion of the river near Ottawa. If this conjecture be correct, "four days' journey" below it, as Hennepin's narrative states, would place Crève Coeur at a point below, but near the site of the present flourishing city of Peoria, a spot I should like to visit, so full of interest as it is, and where, for the first time in this magnificent valley, the pennon of France was unfurled to its winds.

Here, at Crève Coeur, new arrangements were proposed — the keel of a vessel forty‑two feet in length was laid, in which to prosecute the remainder of the voyage to the Gulf of Mexico, but having no rigging or tackle for her, La Salle formed the bold design of returning by land to Fort Frontenac, with three of the men, to obtain those articles — to leave Tonty in charge of the fort, to await his return, whilst in the mean time Hennepin should proceed up the Mississippi, La Salle promising to meet him at the Wisconsin in the ensuing spring.

Thayer's Note:

a Be that as it may, a contributing factor in the naming of the fort may have been some memory from La Salle's home in Normandy, where several towns bear the name Crèvecoeur.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 16