Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

The Illini and Potawatomi Struggle at Starved Rock

Refer to caption
The Illini and Potawatomi Struggle at Starved Rock by Fay E. Davis
Oglesby, Illinois Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

When Fay E. Davis was invited to paint the mural for the Oglesby, Illinois post office, she had already completed two post office murals for the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, one in Chester, Illinois, the other in Ligonier, Indiana. Davis was awarded this third commission in 1941, based on her competent mural designs submitted for the U.S. Maritime competition.1 However, the town of Oglesby and its postmaster John F. McCann had been urging the Section to place a mural in the town’s post office since the fall of 1939. Furthermore, the postmaster and local citizens already had a list of possible subject matters for the painting, which included local Indian lore and across from state parks, including Starved Rock and Deer Park.2

Shortly after Davis accepted the invitation to paint the mural, she traveled from her Chicago home to Oglesby to meet with McCann and other citizens to determine the best possible subject matter for the mural. The townspeople remained steadfast in their belief the mural be “a historical one concerning Starved Rock.” 3 Their voices were heard, and Davis set out to sketch designs for The Illini and Potawatomi Struggle at Starved Rock. The Illini or Illiniwek was a confederation of twelve smaller tribes which included the Cahokia, Peoria, and the Kaskaskia, the latter who maintained a large village near Starved Rock.4

Starved Rock is named for after a legendary battle between the Illiniwek Confederaton of Indians and the Potawatomi, and while it is possible this event took place there are no verifiable historical accounts. According to the story, Ottawa Chief Pontiac was murdered in 1769 by a member of the Illiniwek Confederation of Indians, after which the Chippewa, Potawatomi, Ottawa and Kickapoo sought revenge for the killing of the great warrior. The Illiniwek engaged in a battle with the Potawatomi, eventually making their way to the place commonly referred to by Indigenous tribes as “The Rock.” This high vantage point was generally considered to be a tactical advantage in warfare, but rather than engaging the Illiniwek, the Potawatomi, knowing there was limited water and food at the top of the precipice, decided to wait them out. If they descended the rock for food and water, they would be killed or they would die of thirst and hunger if they stayed. The legend recounts that only a handful of the trapped Illiniwek escaped this perilous situation; the majority stayed on the top of the rock and died. The rock was thereafter referred to as Starved Rock.5

Rowan agreed on the subject matter, but the design process and completion of the mural were fraught with problems. Rowan’s first complaints were two-fold: first, the original sketch was too gruesome, and second, the artist, in his opinion, had adopted the style of the Mexican muralist Orozco “without complete assimilation of the qualities of his distinguished work.”6 By June 14, 1941, Rowan accepted a revised sketch, but his criticisms of Davis’ work continued. He specifically criticized her depictions of the Indians, writing she had represented them as “ugly little forms,” and “I see no reason why you have to draw the Indians in such an ape-like manner.”7 By January of 1942, the mural was nearing completion and Rowan, while still not completely satisfied with Davis’ painting, seems to have resigned himself to that fact the painting was not going to meet his expectations.

Although generally the Section did not always approve depictions of violence in the murals they commissioned, in this case it was allowed. Davis’ painting is unique in that the conflict is not between white settlers and Indigenous people, but rather between two tribes. Despite the legend’s recounting that the Illini and Potawatomi were in a standoff at Starved Rock, Davis elected to depict a chaotic battle between these two tribes.

The tumultuous scene depicts several nearly nude Indian warriors on horseback, frantically riding across the rocky landscape. The pictorial space is shallow, and, in many instances, the position of the horses and riders is reflected in the undulating rocks. The scene is devoid of vegetation with the exception of a few dead trees, perhaps an indication of the eventual death to take place on the site. A rider in the lower right corner of the composition has been thrown from his horse, while a solitary female figure, cloaked in red with an infant on her back, looks toward the action. In the upper left side, three Indians aim their arrows at an oncoming horse and rider. There is little to aid in distinguishing these two tribal groups with the exception of hairstyles. The Indians on the left side of the composition wear Mohawks, a hairstyle associated with the Potawatomi. While the figures in the center and right side of the painting have long braided hair, representing the Illiniwek.

Certainly Davis took artistic license when depicting the battle, and had little concern her image was not a recounting of the actual legend itself. However, this did not seem to bother the people of Oglesby. Davis wrote to Rowan that the mural had been installed on January 31, 1942, and “There were several people of that community in to see it while I was there and they seemed pleased.”8 Postmaster McCann confirmed he and the community were satisfied with the painting; writing to Rowan, “there have been a lot of favorable comments.”9

Despite Rowan’s misgivings, the town seemed to appreciate the mural, until 1993 when a post office custodian launched a complaint that the nudity in the mural created a hostile work environment. He filed this complaint under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, citing a section that prohibits sexual harassment in the work place. The painting was covered, but could be viewed upon request. Local residents who had previously paid little attention to the painting, joined forces in support of uncovering the historic work of art. After an investigation, it was determined the nudity in the painting was not offensive. The legend of The Illini and Potawatomi Struggle at Starved Rock remains uncovered and on view in the Oglesby post office lobby.10

By Denise Neil-Binion, Delaware/Cherokee Nation, PhD Candidate, Art History, University of Oklahoma

Tribal website:


1) Edward Rowan to Fay Davis, February 18, 1941.

2) Edward Rowan to John F. McCann, September 14, 1939 and McCann to Rowan, September 22, 1939.

3) Davis to Rowan, April 31, 1941.

4) “The Illini,” Prairie Pages, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Vol. 1, No. 1,, accessed July 19, 2016.

5) The story and similar versions can be found in multiple sources including: Eaton Goodell Osman, Starved Rock: A Historical Sketch, Ottawa, IL: The Free Trader Printing House, 1895 and H.A. Rhoads, “Legends of the Starved Rock Country,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, (January 1914): 509-516.

6) Rowan to Davis. May 6, 2016.

7) Rowan to Davis, July 23, 1941.

8) Davis to Rowan, February 1, 1941.

9) McCann to Rowan, February 6, 1942.

10) Wes Smith, “The Mural Minority Janitor Drives `Pornographic' Public Art Under Cover In Illinois Town,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1993,, accessed July 19, 2016.

Indians at the Post Office