Lively Family Massacre Brought War Of 1812 To Southern Illinois

ABOVE, one of the grave markers today at the site of the massacre.

By Alex Haglund

The massacre of the John Lively family by Indians in 1813, in what would later be called Covington Township, Washington County, Illinois, was an act of violence that was shocking, both to people of the time and even now, more than 200 years later.

It was shocking, yes, but was it senseless?

Was it a random act of violence?

Was this sort of thing just danger of the frontier, or was it connected to something larger?

A promissory note signed by John Lively in his estate papers in the Randolph County courthouse in which he promised to pay Pierre Menard $10. This would have been a significant sum during the War of 1812, probably equivalent to several hundred dollars today.

Shawnee Forest Archaeologist and SIUC Associate Professor Mark Wagner will be speaking about the massacre and its circumstances at the Washington County Historical Society’s annual banquet on April 19, and says that far from being random, the massacre was actually an act of warfare, part of a frontier conflict tied firmly to the War of 1812.

A photo taken at the site in 1968 showing five standing stone grave markers.

“In most histories of the War of 1812, Illinois gets overlooked,” Wagner said, “but there was plenty of fighting going on.”

Beyond being an act of warfare, Wagner stated that the massacre was a deliberate act of retribution.

A map of the grave depressions at the cemetery.

The Indians, Wagner said, “war to them was personal. The year before, their villages up by Peoria were attacked by American militia. By their rules, they had to avenge them.”

“It’s exactly what’s in the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Wagner said. Far from being a facet of a bygone era, this type of warfare and the continuing cycle of violence it feeds is not very different from what the U.S. encounters today in its dealings with certain tribal cultures – in Afghanistan, for instance. It’s a cycle that only stops once one side decides to “ease the sorrow” of the other side, typically with a payment.

There were several tribes in Illinois who were involved in this kind of thing, and they were acting in alliance with the British with one goal in mind – keep Americans busy on (what was then) the frontier, so that those same Americans wouldn’t be able to threaten the land to the north still held by the English: Canada.

Women and children like those killed in this raid alongside the men were not just collateral damage, they were targets. It was purposeful retribution for Indian women and children killed in militia raids.

A memorial marker erected at the site of the massacre in the 1930s.

The Lively family being targeted might also not have been a random thing either. John Lively may have taken part in the village raids that the massacre was in retaliation for, and this fact may well have been known by many around the area, with Wagner describing the Illinois frontier in those days as a place where pretty much everyone would have known everyone else.

Wagner would not say whether he thought these Indians would have been specifically targeting Lively himself, but he did state that it was a possibility.

What Wagner does know, and has seen writings and documents which provide evidence for the case, is that these particularly Indians traveled a long way for the raid. The raiding party were members of the Kickapoo Tribe and would have lived at Rock Island, in the northwest corner of the state – quite a haul today, in a car. They were led by a warrior named Little Deer.

With them out and raiding, “people knew about it at the time,” Wagner said, and for safety’s sake, they would have tried to hole up a stockade or fort, the nearest of which would have been at Kaskaskia.

Had the Lively Family done this, they would have stayed alive, but they would have worried for their possessions, their cabin, and their livestock. These worries may have been worse for the Lively Family than some, because Wagner said that they were by no means a wealthy family. So, they took the chance and the decision ended up costing them their lives.

Wagner will be talking about all of this, plus many, many more interesting facts about the massacre, and will also be going into detail about the site today – perhaps the only one like it in Illinois, as well as what other questions archaeologists like him have, and what the future may bring in terms of answering those questions.

The Washington County Historical Society annual banquet is being held on the evening of Thursday, April 19, at the Original Springs Hotel in Okawville. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and dinner will start at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets to the banquet are $15 each, and are available at the Washington County Historical Society Museum or the L&N Depot from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, or at The Nashville News from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Tickets can also be purchased by calling Elaine at (618) 327-8075, Cathy at (618) 977-2252, Don at (618) 327-8465, or Letisha at (618) 531-9564.

History And Families Book

In other news related to the Washington County Historical Society, the final deadline for the Washington County, Illinois History and Families Book is fast approaching – on April 15.

Submissions of family histories up to 500 words with a photo are accepted free-of-charge, and submissions from businesses, organizations churches and government offices can be placed at a nominal cost.

For more information, please stop by the Historical Society Museum or the L&N Depot from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and pick up a flyer (there are flyers at The Nashville News and at other organizations, businesses and offices in the area), or contact WCHS Curator Elaine Rucker at (618) 327-8075 with questions or to make your submission for the book.