The Illini at first traded with the French at Green Bay and occasionally joined with the Wisconsin refugee tribes in their wars against the Dakota (an old Illini enemy), but as an original resident of the region they had conflicting claims to territory in the area. Their location was also well south of Green Bay, and they were obviously outsiders to the inner circle of the French alliance which was just taking shape during the 1670s. The fact that they were tolerated rather than accepted would have serious implications in the future. Meanwhile, through a treaty signed at a grand council at Sault Ste. Marie in 1671, the Great Lakes tribes consented to Simon Daumont's formal annexation of the region for France. The French had annexed territory they had never seen, so there was immediate interest in exploring it. Hearing of the "Great River" to the west, the Jesuit Jacques Marquette and fur trader, Louis Joliet, accompanied by five Miami guides and canoe paddlers, set off in 1673 from St. Ignace (Mackinac) to find it.
Their route took them west to Green Bay, up the Fox River to Lake Winnebago, and then used the Fox Portage to reach the Wisconsin River. Following this, they entered the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien. Traveling downstream they entered the Illini homeland, encountering the Peoria in eastern Iowa and the Moingwena further south at the mouth of the Des Moines. In fact, Marquette and Joliet met few tribes besides Illini (the exception being the Missouri and Osage on the lower Missouri River) until they encountered Spanish trade goods at the Quapaw villages located at the entrance of the Arkansas River and turned back. Their return journey deviated from the original path and followed the Illinois River to the portage at the south end of Lake Michigan. Marquette found Illini villages scattered the length of the river, now including, to his surprise, the Peoria and Moingwena, who, encouraged by their earlier encounter, had left the Mississippi and moved east to the Illinois. He was also startled to learn the Illini already had firearms and were using them against them Shawnee.
Marquette developed a special love for the Illini and was determined to establish a mission for them. Preparations began after his return to St. Ignace, and late in 1674 he set out on his return. Caught by the winter, he stopped at Chicago where he became ill. Pressing on that spring, he reached the "great village" of the Illini (Grand Kaskaskia) near present-day Utica, where he founded his mission. His illness became serious, and he was forced to return to St. Ignace. He died in route and was buried on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Marquette River. His Ottawa converts from St. Ignace visited his grave a few years later and, as was their custom for one of their own people, took his bones back with them to St. Ignace.
One may wonder about the zeal which drove men like Marquette to push their missionary efforts to point of death, but for many it was a race against time to thwart their countrymen whose fur trade was wreaking havoc and corruption among the native populations. Jesuits had witnessed the devastation created while working among the Huron and had no wish to see this repeated among the native populations in the interior. However, their protests to Paris went unanswered, especially after Louis XIV became involved in a dispute with the Vatican in 1673. The missionaries remained committed to stopping the expansion of the fur trade, but they failed. Their most serious adversary was Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac; who became governor of Canada in 1672. Frontenac is remembered as a poor administrator, but a strong proponent of French expansion. His protégée was René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle. Marquette developed a special love for the Illini and was determined to establish a mission for them.
Preparations began after his return to St. Ignace, and late in 1674 he set out on his return. Caught by the winter, he stopped at Chicago where he became ill. Pressing on that spring, he reached the "great village" of the Illini (Grand Kaskaskia) near present-day Utica, where he founded his mission. His illness became serious, and he was forced to return to St. Ignace. He died in route and was buried on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Marquette River. His Ottawa converts from St. Ignace visited his grave a few years later and, as was their custom for one of their own people, took his bones back with them to St. Ignace.
Educated in France by the Jesuits, La Salle became their worst nightmare soon after his arrival in New France in 1666. By 1669 he was exploring the Ohio Valley for new areas to open to trade. When Frontenac built Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario) in 1675, La Salle served as its first commandant. Visiting France in 1677 as Frontenac's personal representative, La Salle recruited an Italian soldier of fortune named Henri de Tonti. He returned to Canada in 1678 with royal authority to explore the western areas of New France and establish as many trading posts as required. The following year, he built Fort Conti near Niagara Falls and then the Griffon, the first sailing vessel on Lake Erie. With this advantage in transport, La Salle was redirecting the flow of fur across the southern lakes to Fort Frontenac and bypassing the old route down the Ottawa Valley to Montreal. Needless to say, his innovation met strong opposition from the merchants at Montreal, French traders at Green Bay, and the Jesuits. However, with Frontenac's backing, they could not legally stop him, but New France was soon divided into two hostile commercial camps.
La Salle's attention turned towards the Illinois country which, because of its distance from Green Bay, was largely untapped. After years of waiting for the French to establish direct trade, the Illini were eager, but competition between rival French traders could be as treacherous as any intertribal rivalry. Taking advantage of the traditional animosity between the Miami and Illini, the French at Green Bay in 1679 encouraged the Miami and Mascouten to settle near present-day Chicago to block La Salle's access to the Lake Michigan-Illinois River portage. The Mascouten chief Manso even went so far as to claim he was speaking for the Iroquois and warned the Illini not to allow La Salle to establish posts in their territory. La Salle, accompanied by Father Louis Hennepin, Henry de Tonti and about 30 other men (many were Sokoni Abenaki) slipped past and during the winter of 1679-80 built Fort Crevecoeur on the upper Illinois.
It would be an understatement to say the Illini merely welcomed La Salle. They (and several other tribes) quickly relocated nearby, but this concentration of potential enemies drew notice from the Iroquois in New York. Their peace with the French had lasted for thirteen years, but one reason was they had been engaged in long war with their last Iroquoian-speaking rival, the Susquehannock in Pennsylvania. When this ended, their attention once again turned west, and they were disturbed by what they found. After La Salle's arrival, Illini hunters started moving into Indiana, Ohio, and lower Michigan (lands claimed by the Iroquois) and taking every beaver they could find. This was bad enough, but the Illini were even killing the young beaver which meant there would no breeding stock to replace the population. But the Iroquois also valued the peace, so they resorted first to diplomacy to resolve the situation, and the Seneca chief Annanhaa met with the Illini at an Ottawa village near Mackinac. An argument developed, and the Illini murdered Annanhaa. After this, peace was impossible.
This was the beginning of the Beaver Wars' second phase. The Seneca delayed their retaliation until August after the corn had ripened. They gathered together 500 warriors and started west to teach the Illini a lesson they would never forget. In route, they added 100 Miami warriors and headed for Grand Kaskaskia and Fort Crèvecoeur. A large war party like this could not travel undetected, and warnings of its approach reached the Illini. La Salle had left that spring (excellent sense of timing) to start construction on a new ship to replace the Griffon (lost in a storm) leaving Tonti in charge. Upon learning the Seneca were coming, most of Tonti's men promptly deserted leaving him with no way to defend the fort. The Shawnee nearby (temporarily at peace with Illini for trade) also took off leaving the Illini to fend for themselves.
Some Illini wisely chose the traditional method of dealing with the Iroquois and retreated west of the Mississippi, but 500 Tamora, Espeminkia, and Maroua warriors (perhaps emboldened by the 100 guns they had received from the French) stayed. With only 400 rounds of ammunition, it was a fatal mistake. Tonti knew this and dispatched messengers to Cahokia asking for help, but the Cahokia were holding a religious festival at the time and did not respond. The Illini managed to ambush the Iroquois at a point between the Illinois and Vermillion Rivers, but the Iroquois regrouped and kept coming, finally arriving at Grand Kaskaskia in September. Tonti (called Iron Hand by the Illini because he had lost his right hand in a European war and replaced it with an iron replica covered by a glove) attempted to intervene in the only manner remaining and boldly walked towards the Iroquois battle line displaying a wampum belt to negotiate a truce. Stabbed by an Iroquois warrior for his effort, he lay on the ground wounded as the battle began. The five other French who had stayed grabbed him and hurriedly left the scene. After reaching Lake Michigan, they went on to Green Bay, but the French there could have cared less about the trouble their rivals had gotten into down in the Illinois country. Tonti and his men would have starved that winter if the Potawatomi, angry with the French at Green Bay over their trade with the Dakota, had not sheltered and fed them through the winter.
Despite the defections, the number of warriors on both sides was fairly even, and the battle for Grand Kaskaskia lasted for eight days. In the end, the superior firepower of the Iroquois prevailed. The village was overrun, and no mercy was shown. Even by their own standards, the Iroquois were unusually brutal. Prisoners were tortured and burned alive, burial scaffolds pulled down, and the bodies horribly mutilated. Before the battle, the Illini had sent their women, children, and old people six miles down the river to hide on an island. The Iroquois found them and a great slaughter followed. After completing their deadly work, the Seneca left. When La Salle returned that December, the ground was still littered with the remains of thousands of Illinois. Men, women, and children ...no one was spared. Only a few Tamora and Maroa survived, and there is no mention of the Espeminkia afterwards. The few who escaped the holocaust fled down the Illinois River and then crossed the Mississippi. Not satisfied, the Seneca returned the following year with only slightly-less devastating effect, but this was only because there were fewer Tamaroa for them to kill.
By June of 1681, Tonti had recovered from his wounds and joined La Salle at Mackinac. However, neither was in a hurry to return to Illinois because travel on the Illinois River was extremely dangerous that summer with the constant threat of Seneca war parties. But the Iroquois could not venture that far during winter, and in December, 1681 La Salle and Tonti led another expedition south to rebuild their post on the upper Illinois. The location they selected was a natural fortress, a sheer outcrop of rock overlooking the river opposite Grand Kaskaskia. At the time, the French called this place Le Rocher (the rock), but a later tragedy would change its name forever to Starved Rock. Leaving Tonti in charge once again to build Fort St. Louis, La Salle left that spring to explore the Mississippi. In April he reached the Gulf of Mexico, and in the manner of all great explorers, claimed the entire region (Louisiana) for his king and country without consulting the native people living there.
Meanwhile, Tonti, his loyal and relatively unknown assistant, was back in Illinois chopping logs and fending off the Iroquois - with one hand no less! Fort St. Louis took more than a year to complete, but it was formidable. However, Tonti did not have enough men to defend it by himself, and it took considerable encouragement to convince the Illini, in light of their recent experience, to locate nearby and agree to defend it. Efforts to add more tribes for its defense were aided by the Iroquois themselves. On their return to New York from their raid in 1681, the Iroquois had attacked a Miami hunting party near the mouth of the Ohio, and Miami prisoners were taken back to New York as slaves. The reason for this attack on an ally seems to have been that the Miami had allowed some Shawnee (Iroquois enemies) to settle among them. The Miami demanded reparation and sent 3,000 beaver skins to obtain the release of the captives. The Iroquois kept the skins and the prisoners.