American Indian History

From Prehistory to the Nineteenth Century

Relating to Regional St. Louis (Missouri and Illinois)


Although the St. Louis area has a rich American Indian heritage, very few live here today. Today (2000 Census) there is an estimated 19,778 American Indians living in Missouri; 31,006 in the State of Illinois; 1,717 in St. Louis County; 950 City of St. Louis; 4,378 Metro St. Louis (State of Missouri); 1,517  St. Louis Metro-East (State of Illinois). Total American Indians living in Metro St. Louis: 5,895. [In addition, it should be noted that many other area residents, black and white, may have some American Indian ancestry but one that is many generations back and not recognized in physical appearances].

This historical sketch unfortunately is incomplete since historic Indian tribes usually did not record their stories in writing, so most of this history is what was recorded by whites. 

In the early days prior to 1812, few places in the United States had more interaction between the Indians and white settlers than St. Louis. From the very beginning of the town's settlement in 1764, a band of Missouri Indians greeted the first French settlers at St. Louis and intended to habitat among the whites. But the settler's numbers were quite small and they wished to maintain a European style settlement. Although wishing to keep peaceful relations with the Missouris, the founders were faced with their first dilemma  They used a combination of tactics, like requesting help from the Indians for non-warrior style labor (digging cellars), and with offering   gifts, promises of future trade, mixed in with a few threats if they didn't depart. The strategy worked and the Missouris left the fragile French enclave to peacefully lay out their town plan.

St. Louis' peaceful future with the Indians was very important. St. Louis owed its very success to the flourishing trade with neighboring tribes, especially that with the Osage. The Osage were famous for the quality and quantity of deerskins supplied to St. Louis traders. It has been estimated as many as 100,000 deerskins were harvested by the tribe in a single year. Deerskins were big business in St. Louis. Besides buckskins and moccasins being the predominant apparel among its early residents, they fetched competitive prices in markets in Montreal and New Orleans. So much demand for this commodity in St. Louis' first forty years of existence, deerskins functioned as the standard currency for purchasing just about anything in the community. 

Eventually peaceful Indian tribes, like the Shawnee-Delaware or the Illini would be given permission to settle immediately west of the Spanish governed French communities of St. Louis and St. Genevieve. They would serve as protective buffers from hostile western tribes or delinquent youths from the villages of the "Little Osage". Unfortunately for the Missouris, they were never given the chance and they were nearly exterminated by the Sauk Fox in 1798. 

Notice: Please excuse the incompleteness of this webpage. It is under-construction and more will be added at a later date.


Prehistoric American Indians in Metro St. Louis

It is usually impossible to identify the tribal affiliations for artifacts left behind by prehistoric American Indians. Indian tribes have not been in constant migration even before the arrival of Europeans. For instance, the Osage Indians of Missouri lived in the lower Ohio River valley before migrating west prior to 1500. In another example, the Niutachi, better known as the "Missouri" tribe, descended from a parent tribe that resided near the Great Lakes in the upper Ohio valley. This parent tribe later broke apart forming the Missouri, Iowa, Oto, and Winnebago tribes. What caused these migrations west into the Missouri Valley ? Unfortunately this is unknown. Perhaps the collapse of the ancient mound-building society at Cahokia Mounds-St. Louis created an opportunity that was previously blocked.  Archeologist at the present time are not even certain what ever happened to the mound builders. Some say the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians in the South were the ancient residents of Cahokia Mounds. It is known that the Natchez tribe was still using mounds in their settlements in the present State of Mississippi. Others say the Osage, Omaha and other Siouian peoples like the Mandans made the mounds. Probably the only way to unquestionably solving this mystery would be to conduct DNA studies on skeletal remains and comparing that to DNA of surviving members of various tribes.

At the very end of prehistory at the time of discovery by Marquette and  Jolliet, St. Louis area  was occupied predominantly by Indians of the Illini Confederacy, although the Missouri and Osage tribes hunted here and probably had an earlier claim to the vicinity. The Illini originated along Lake Michigan and migrated southwest perhaps in the hundred years before European contact.

Surface Collected Prehistoric Artifacts:




Tribes of the Region at First Contact (1673):




Illini Confederacy:


At the time the first French explorers (1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet) visited the area, tribes of the Illini Confederacy occupied the St. Louis area. This loosely organized Confederacy included the following tribes: Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria and Tamaroa. These tribes spoke a common language and were all related by blood. They referred to their nation as "Iliniwek", which means essentially, "Man". Their language is classified by anthropologist as belonging to the Algonquian group which includes other tribal nations (Chippewa, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Miami, ect.). Although all these Algonquian languages were related, they generally were not intelligible to one another (exception: The Miami of Ohio were very closely related to the Illini and their language was close enough to be understood by one other).

Unfortunately because American Indians had no writing, very little is known of Illini settlements before the arrival of Europeans. We know that Father Gabriel Marest, a French Jesuit Priest who mastered the Algonquin dialect of the Illini, in 1700 organized a combined Indian-European settlement at the mouth of the River Des Peres in what is now St. Louis. This included Illini from the Kaskaskia and Tamaroa tribes. The settlement included cabins, a chapel, a crude fort and native structures. Because of fear of an attack by the Sioux, traditional enemies of the Illini, the Indians of the Des Peres settlement in 1703 moved to the east side of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Kaskaskia River.

In August of 1766, Capt. Henry Gordon recorded that there was a village of 200 warriors belonging to the Peoria tribe situated two miles below Laclede's newly founded village of St. Louis. It is uncertain if this was the same Peoria village that left St. Louis in the Spring of 1777 after being attacked by a Sauk war party.  These Peorias relocated to Cahokia, Illinois. 

The Illini, although they became allied with the French, were continually fighting off raids by various tribes that lived hundreds of miles away. For instance in 1698, the Cahokia tribe (residing at present day Cahokia, Illinois) were attacked by Chickasaws and Shawnees that lived as far away as Kentucky. The Iroquois were another deadly foe for the Illini. Once the Illini controlled much of the coastline of Lake Michigan but due to continual attacks by the Iroquois, the Illini had to abandon their lands on the Great Lakes. But the relocation to the Mississippi valley, perhaps a hundred or so years before the arrival of the French, did not prevent Iroquois attacks.  As late as 1714-1715, the Illini at Kaskaskia was subjected to an Iroquois raid.

Besides being enemies of the Dakota Sioux located upstream in Minnesota, the Illini  were often at war with the Osage (who belonged to the Dehiga Sioux language group). But at times, like in 1712, they formed an alliance with the Osage in fighting their common enemy, the Fox. These alliances with neighboring tribes would  shift from year to year.

The Illini were not necessarily idle innocents in these wars with other tribes. They made numerous raids themselves, even as far away as raids against the Iroquois along Lake Huron. They also made counter-raids whenever they were attacked. 

At the time the French first encountered the Illini, their numbers were estimated at 3,800-4,000 warriors and were regarded as the "masters of the Mississippi". By 1787 there was only about 50 Illini surviving in Illinois. In 1794, around 100 Peorias were living ten miles south of Ste. Genevieve at a place known as Bois Brule. This group had perhaps 40 warriors. Even at this late date, they were still being continually attacked by Chickasaws from the South. As late as 1803, a number of  Peoria lived inside Ste. Genevieve, Missouri which provided some protection from raids.

The U.S. Government on Aug 13, 1803 convinced a handful of Illini signed away tribal land in Illinois in exchange for two reservations in Illinois. The Kaskaskia were given 350 acres of land where their old village stood near the town of Kaskaskia. In addition to this tract, they were allowed to select up to 1,280 acres of anywhere within Illinois for another reservation. They selected a 640 acres in the Sand Ridge township of Jackson Co., Illinois. In October 27, 1832 the remaining Illini signed away their Sand Ridge township reservation. The 350 acre track near Kaskaskia was deeded over to Ellen Ducoign, a daughter of a Kaskaskia chief.

On Sept. 25, 1818, the Peoria tribe signed away their lands in Illinois in exchange for a 640 acre reservation on the Blackwater River in Missouri Territory. This is where the Peorias have been living since the 1790's.

In the course of time most surviving Illini moved to a reservation in Kansas. In 1865, they numbered only 220 persons. The Peorias were given a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. In the 1950's they numbered 466.


A Missouri warrior, by Karl Bodmer.


Osage Woman, "Mohongo"  with Baby. By Karl Bodmer.






Immigrant Tribes, Post Contact:

Sauk-Fox near St. Louis. [Enlargement] . By Karl Bodmer


Sauk Fox

Sauk-Fox House structures. Other Indians of the area made identical type lodges. Covering the wood frame were reed or cattail mats. 

Cattail mat made by author using a technique handed down by the Kickapoo, who were closely related to the Sauk-Fox.


 Raiding Tribes:

The following tribes lived outside the region but came into the St. Louis area on occasional raids. 

*Note: The Sauk-Fox eventually migrated into the area.

Famous American Indian Visitors:

"Black Hawk" (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak)



History's Time Portal to Old St. Louis