Lost and Found
Exploring—and exploring for—historic sites
See Illinois (unpublished
The historian and the tourist don't always get along. People want to see the spot where things happened, and historians don't always know where that is; people want to know why things happened, and historians don't always know that either.
This treatment of that old dilemma is taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark set out with the Corps of Discovery that had been commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to explore and map the Northwest Territory. The undertaking, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, left from Camp Dubois,on the Illinois side of the Mississippi near its confluence with the Wood River, also known as the River DuBois, which camp had served as the marshalling point for the Corps from December 12, 1803, to May 14, 1804.
The bicentennial of the start of that epic journey occasioned a rush to commemorate the spot. The problem was, which spot? The Wood River now empties into the Mississippi near East Alton, some five miles upstream from where it did in 1804, so it was there that the Wood River Heritage Council built a replica of the camp.
However, a second reconstructed Camp River Dubois stands at the present mouth of the Wood River, four miles south of the above-mentioned site on Route 3 in the town of Hartford. This site enjoys official endorsement as the camp's site—the National Park Service designated it Trail Site #1 on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and a bit upstream from Hartford is the Corps of Discovery Monument—in spite of it being miles from where the men actually camped. It was also at Hartford's Camp River Dubois that the $7 million Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center was built; there visitors may see a full-sized keel boat replica, a reconstructed barracks, and the inevitable orientation film depicting the Lewis and Clark journey.
It is probable that both sites are inaccurately placed. According to the NPS, the site of the original Camp Wood (the term the NPS prefers to Camp DuBois) was on the south bank of the Wood River in Illinois, but a major shift in the Mississippi’s channel left it on the Missouri side of the Mississippi.
In the winter of 1680, a party of some thirty men led by Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, built a fort on the southeast bank of the Illinois River just below Peoria Lake. Meant as a base for a French expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, it was christened by LaSalle Fort Crevecoeur (“broken heart”). Some accounts suggest LaSalle named it in memory of the recent loss of his 45-ton capacity boat, the Griffon. It is more likely that LaSalle was being patriotic rather than sentimental, and named the fort to commemorate the recent capture of Fort Crèvecoeur in the Netherlands by French forces. One of the first permanently intended European buildings in the middle of America, Fort de Crevecoeur proved anything but permanent in fact. The fort was damaged by mutinous troops only three months after it was built, and was later burned by Indians.
The structure was to last much longer as an item of controversy. Opposite Peoria is Fort Crevecoeur Park, which contains a reconstructed fort, purportedly on the site of the original. Officially, the old fort was designated as having stood on the bluff overlooking the river—a comely spot, perfect for a park—rather than its more likely situation on the bank, on land long since taken over by industry.
The Peoria Historical Society erected a small monument where it decided the fort was; in 1935 the State of Illinois erected a granite marker that the Federal Writers Project’s guide, Illinois, says, circumspectly, marks the “probable” site of the fort.
James Gray, describing the reconstructed fort in his book, The Illinois, indulges in a sarcasm that is entirely merited.
The view of the lake is handsome. The landscaping of the grounds has been done simply and with taste. The monument has dignity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it except that it is not the true site of La Salle’s fortress, and everyone knows it. The actual one is somewhere down among the railroad tracks. The commission appointed to place the monument reported vaguely that the attractive piece of ground chosen by them would be prettier and really more satisfactory until such time as the public came to know better.
How much better today's public knows the actual location of the fort is unclear. For most people who use it, the rebuilt fort is significant only as a pretext for a park. ●