Illinois Capitol Art: Many Indian Images, All pre-1900; This Day in History: The Treaty of Greenville

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our controversial capitol art. (Information on capitol art in Minnesota and other states is collected on our Capitol Art page.)

Continuing alphabetically, today we visit the Illinois State Capitol. Like several other states, Illinois takes its name from a Native American tribe. Early French Catholic missionaries to the region called the local tribe Illinois, according to Wikipedia. The tribe’s name for itself was Inoka.

Like other state capitols, much of the art is from the time of the capitol’s construction (the late 1880s). Like Minnesota, there are a number of painting depicting Native Americans pre-1900 and little to no art that looks to the contemporary state of Illinois or its future.

The following is based on a review of the Illinois capitol on the website

Let’s start with the painting: George Rogers Clark negotiating with Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia, which hangs in the grand staircase above the third floor. At 40 feet by 20 feet, it is the largest painting in the capitol, and according to the guide, the painting, “has been criticized because the Indian culture portrayed was never found in Illinois.”

As with other capitol art, the guide provides no context on why Clark and Fort Kaskaskia are important to Illinois. According to Wikipedia, Jesuits founded the village of Kaskaskia as a missionary post in 1703. Fort Kaskaskia became significant enough for this painting because of the role it played in the Revolutionary War:

In early 1778, George Rogers Clark, eager to defend what was western Virginia and the Kentucky country from attacks by Native Americans allied to the British, led a tiny force down the Ohio River. … Clark and his men marched overland from Fort Massac, near the present-day Metropolis, Illinois, to Kaskaskia. They avoided being sighted by the British or their Native allies and arrived at Kaskaskia on July 4, 1778. Most of the Kaskaskia townspeople welcomed them.

After facing a threat from a British force at Vincennes, Indiana, Clark and his men used Kaskaskia as their jumping-off place to capture Vincennes in early 1779. The Americans controlled Kaskaskia and its redoubt throughout the rest of the war, and won legal control of the territory in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Moving to the first floor, the capitol has a series of ceiling murals depicting Faith, Hope and Charity. The painting of Faith certainly prominently displays the Christian cross, but not as coercively as in the Minnesota capitol mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.”

The first floor also features a series of 12 murals in the north and south corridors. Eight of them date to the time the capitol opened. The other four were added in 1989.

Two of the older paintings depict Native Americans and their teepees, one called “Marquette and Joliet at an Indian Village on the Des Plaines River in 1673,” and the other “Starved Rock on the Illinois River Near Ottawa.”Again, we have to look elsewhere for the history. According to PBS:

Louis Joliet, a fur trader, and Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, were chosen to lead an expedition from a mission at the northeast corner of Lake Michigan into the center of the unknown continent. Joliet was an experienced map-maker and geographer, Marquette an accomplished linguist who spoke half a dozen Native American languages. Joliet’s mission was to find the river the natives called Messipi, “the Great Water,” and follow it to the sea. Marquette’s goal was to spread the word of his god among the people they encountered.

Joliet and Marquette are big names in Illinois history. The reason 19th Century state leaders chose the painting of Starved Rock is less clear. It is a prominent geological feature (and currently a state park.) Here is what the state park website says:

The park derives its name from a Native American legend. In the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe, was attending a tribal council meeting. At this council of the Illinois and the Pottawatomie, Kinebo, the head chief of the Illinois tribe stabbed Chief Pontiac. Vengeance arose in Pontiac’s followers. A great battle started. The Illinois, fearing death, took refuge on the great rock. After many days, the remaining Illinois died of starvation giving this historic park its name – Starved Rock.

Some paintings need less interpretation, such as: “Future Governor Edward Coles Freeing His Slaves Enroute to Illinois, 1819.

The lack of historic interpretation is particularly important for the painting “Fort Dearborn at the Mouth of the Chicago River.” The painting looks peaceful enough, but the symbol is powerful and deeply rooted in Illinois memory. The fort was built in 1803 at what is now the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. This was the site of a major battle during the War of 1812 between U.S. troops and the Potawatomi Indians, who had sided with the British. (The sculpture “Defense” is on the Michigan Avenue bridge near the site of the old fort, showing violent hand-to-hand fighting. Notice the divine angel, above.) According to Wikipedia:

The battle lasted about 15 minutes and resulted in a complete victory for the Indians. Fort Dearborn was burned down and those soldiers and settlers that survived were taken captive. Some were later ransomed. After the battle, however, settlers continued to seek to enter the area, the fort was rebuilt in 1816, and settlers and the government were now convinced that all Indians had to be removed from the territory, far away from the settlement. …

The Battle of Fort Dearborn has also been titled “The Fort Dearborn Massacre.” The battle has been historically described as a massacre because of the number of Americans killed, and is also argued to be self-defense on the part of the Indians defending their land.

The paintings added in 1989 had historic themes, possibly missing an opportunity to have a more forward-looking art. In “Clinic on Constructive Contribution,” Enrico Fermi explains the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction, which took place on Dec. 2, 1942 in Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project. The “Transforming the Prairie” painting seems like a throw back, something that could have been done in the 1930s. The other two new paintings were: “The Rise of Chicago,” depicting the rise of the city after the Great Fire, and “The Key,” illustrating immigration to Illinois. This painting gets at Illinois’ growing diversity. However, it and The Rise of Chicago were both removed recently. Renovation took their wall space to restore historic windows, according to a 2011 article in the State Journal-Register.

The base of the capitol’s inner dome features a number of friezes, several of which depict scenes with Native Americans. Here is one example. Some of the narrative is lost to history. The artist who did the work died before it was done and left no key. According the guide, the images include the Lincoln Douglas debates, a pioneer preacher conducting a religious service in a settler’s cabin; and the surrender of Black Hawk at Prairie du Chien.

Check out the main link to the guide for more information.

As a P.S., check out this New Deal mural in the Herrin, Illinois Post Office titled: George Rogers Clark Confers with the Indians Near Herrin, Illinois. It’s reminiscent of the painting in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room, with Father Hennepin towering above everyone else. They have gone to lengths to get it restored (see article).

This Day in History: The Treaty of Greenville

The Treaty of Greenville was signed August 3, 1795, ending the Northwest Indian War in the Ohio Country and other areas. In the treaty, the Indians ceded large parts of modern-day Ohio and what is now downtown Chicago. The treaty followed negotiations after the Indian loss at the Battle of Fallen Timbers a year earlier, the last battle in the Northwest Indian War. According to Wikipedia:

The parties to the treaty were a coalition of Indian tribes, known as the Western Confederacy, and United States government represented by General Anthony Wayne for local frontiersmen. The treaty established what became known as the Greenville Treaty Line, which was for several years a boundary between Indian territory and lands open to European-American settlers. The latter frequently disregarded the treaty line as they continued to encroach on Indian lands. The treaty also established the “annuity” system: yearly grants of federal money and supplies of calico cloth to Indian tribes and thus institutionalized continuing government influence in tribal affairs, giving outsiders considerable control over Indian life.


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