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See Illinois (unpublished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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.