First Nature: Deep History in the Early American Midwest

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Robert (Bob) Morrissey - professor of history

Bob Morrissey teaches early American and environmental history at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country (Philadelphia, 2015).

[Robert Morrissey’s full article “The Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia” appeared in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of American History. It is freely available online.]

In the early 1600s, well before Europeans arrived in the middle of the continent, climate change in North America reduced agricultural yields for Native American farmers in the Great Lakes. In response, one group of Algonquians moved west to a unique landscape in North America—the tallgrass prairies. This was a borderland region, a transition zone between the woodlands of the east and the plains of the west, and it contained new opportunities. Ecologically, the region was home to bison, a new source of calories that provided nutrition when other Algonquian groups were struggling. Culturally speaking, the tallgrass ran along one of the most important divisions in Native North America, separating the Algonquians and Iroquoians of the Great Lakes from the diverse Siouan- and Caddoan-speakers of the Plains. Here, taking advantage of new economic and social prospects, these immigrant Indians rose to power, exploiting what ecologists call an “edge effect”—increased opportunity and species diversity in a zone of transition. Hunting bison and trading Siouan-speaking captives to Great Lakes Algonquians in need of replacement kin, the newcomers formed a distinctive identity as the Illinois, North America’s only “bison Algonquians.” At the end of the seventeenth century, together with neighboring Algonquians, they collected around the so-called Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, perhaps the largest North American population center north of Mexico.

Historians have often treated the Grand Village as a defensive settlement and even a refugee center. In “Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia,” in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of American History, I argue that the Grand Village was instead a center of exploitation, a place where Native people—and particularly the Illinois Indians—gathered to maximize the social and ecological advantages of their location in this important borderland region of the continent. In my JAH essay, I trace the rise of the Grand Village, which I suggest had less to do with its inhabitants’ desperation in the face of colonization than with their proactive attempts to control their distinctive region. I then show how the remarkable settlement at the Grand Village ran into social and ecological limits in the 1690s. Through it all, I contend that the Grand Village should be understood as a reflection of formidable indigenous power growing out of the Illinois’ own pre-contact invasion of the tallgrass prairies in the 1600s.

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“Chasse génèrale au Boeuf, mais à pied,” published in Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de Louisiane (Paris, 1758). Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, University of Illinois Library.

The purpose of this new history is twofold. First, I wanted to provide a new way of thinking about the Illinois Indians. Although ethnohistorians and other scholars have written excellent studies of the Illinois, many previous works feature a declensionist framework, characterizing the Illinois as especially dire victims and accommodationists. In previous accounts, the Illinois of the late seventeenth century were merely reacting to colonial and other changes, rather than acting on their own motives. My article challenges previous understandings by recontextualizing Illinois history from a native perspective. In particular, it considers the deep past of the Illinois, beginning with their own invasion of the tallgrass prairie region long before Europeans arrived. In my telling, native logics guided Illinois action more powerfully than colonists did.

Exploring these native logics brings me to the second purpose of the essay. For if my goal was to suggest that the Illinois were a powerful and consequential group in early America, I also wanted to show how their location—the specific place of the Illinois Country—was a major factor in that power. Indeed, the central premise of my essay is that the place the Illinois invaded was one of the most important borderlands in North America. The ecological and social realities of this transition zone allowed the Illinois to build a uniquely powerful lifeway as pedestrian bison hunters and slave traders in the seventeenth century. The tallgrass prairie region shaped an important history that many historians have overlooked.

To tell this story, I took an interdisciplinary approach. From ecology, I borrowed the concepts of “ecotone” and “edge effects” in order to conceptualize how the Illinois’ special location gave them unique opportunities. Methodologically, I used archaeology to explore the pre-contact history of the Illinois as they invaded and began exploiting their new homelands in the tallgrass. I also used material culture and ethnohistory to contemplate how the Illinois adapted to their new borderlands social world. For instance, I showed how hide robes likely collected from the Illinois in the early colonial period reveal a distinctive borderlands synthesis, reflecting the Illinois’ ethnogenesis in their special region. For early American historians accustomed to foregrounding the encounters of Europeans and Native Americans, here was a different kind of cultural métissage, one that had nothing to do with the colonists, but instead was the product of the encounter between diverse Native peoples. I studied prairie ecology and began to try to understand the unique human-animal partnership between the Illinois Indians and bison in the tallgrass prairie borderlands. The Illinois were not merely exploiting a wild resource; rather, they were shaping the tallgrass prairies in order to maximize the opportunities of their distinctive region.

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“Indian of the nation of the Kaskaskia.” From Victor Collot, A Journey in North America, (1796); Courtesy of the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections and Rare Book Room, University of Illinois Library.

My essay is a bridge between my first book Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in the Colonial Illinois Country, and my new project, tentatively entitled “The Illinois and the Edge Effect: Native American Power in the Tallgrass Prairie Borderlands, 1400–1800.” The story I tell in the essay focuses specifically around the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, but in my new project I will explore how these borderland dynamics continued to shape Illinois history throughout the eighteenth century. As I hope to show in future work, many important incidents in the history of the Illinois and their neighbors—incidents such as the Fox Wars and Illinois population declines of the late eighteenth century—need to be recontextualized from a native perspective, and with the tallgrass ecotone at the center of the story.

An overarching ambition of my writing has always been to highlight the significance of the Midwest and its peoples in early American history. Of course, this region sometimes gets misunderstood and overlooked, and it’s not hard to understand why. As William Cronon pointed out in Nature’s Metropolis, our maps of the American Midwest have since the mid-nineteenth century generally depicted the important geography of capitalism that was imposed on the landscape by the twin developments of industrial cities (Chicago and St. Louis) and their agrarian, rural hinterlands. Such maps, and our resulting concept of the Midwestern region, tend to emphasize the important capital infrastructure that connected what came to be understood as a largely homogenous and uniform rural hinterland to its urban marketplace. This transformation was so powerful as to make this understanding of the mid-continent seem “second nature.” It is second nature for many of us to think of the majority of the Midwestern landscape as one continuous and undifferentiated rural hinterland.

But this understanding ignores important “first nature” realities that were much more important in the early modern period, features that made the region not uniform and homogenous, but quite the opposite. Indeed the midcontinent in fact contained one of the most important “first nature” divisions in North American ecology and geography. Although mostly vanished today, this tallgrass ecotone shaped Native history in fundamental ways. Here in the tallgrass borderlands, one of early America’s most powerful peoples rose to power and briefly dominated. The place where they lived has long been ignored, but all American historians should know about it.

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