“Plenty of Neighbors”
Native Americans in presettlement Chicagoland
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicagoland was Indian Country for the century and a half between the first visit of the white people and the last farewell of the red. In the early dramas of settlement, the Native Americans were depicted as bit players or extras included to add color to the story, occasionally asthe villains. Scholars now appreciate that their role was central. The Chicago-to-be was given an Indian name—it first appeared on maps of the region in 1684 as “Chekagou” after the stinky wild plant that grew here. Its early economy was based on the trade in furs with Indians, and its culture owed much to Native American ways.
The most celebrated incident in the region’s early history, only mentioned here, was the massacre of the inhabitants of Fort Dearborn by Potawatomi allies of the British at the start of the War of 1812. For a more recent account of that episode, and of the Indian world into which the traders and soldiers had intruded, curious readers should take up Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth Of Chicago by Ann Durkin Keating (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
What follows is taken from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. For more about that ill-fated project, see "See Illinois" in Publications.)
The prehistoric—meaning pre-Euro-American history—presence of Native Americans in today's Chicagoland must be inferred from archeological remains. Such evidence as survives suggests that this old Chicago was, as today, a trading crossroads—the lake, and the rivers that linked it to the continent in several directions virtually guaranteed that. There were few permanent settlements, as Euro-Americans think of them, but seasonal camps inhabited by small groups of hunters on trapping and food-gathering expeditions. In that sense, ancient Chicagoland was a place of immigrants and travelers heading one place or another—in those ways not terribly different from today's city, in fact.
Twenty-first century digging machines frequently poke holes in the past, turning up evidence of old Native American hunting camps, tool-making sites, and (less often) graves, some of which date back to just after the great ice sheet began their retreat.
Even after nearly two centuries years of what archeologists inadequately call “disturbance” by city-builders, the still-buried archives of their occupation are vast. An example of the riches that still lie beneath the feet of busy Chicagoland cities is a ceramic effigy head, some 800 years old, that was unearthed in a Wilmette yard in 1922 by workers digging a pipe trench.
New information about presettlement people turns up, literally, all the time. In the late 1990s, when University of Illinois archeologists prowled the surface of 16,200 acres south of the city on which a third Chicago airport might be built, they found evidence of a Native American presence at 216 sites. In 2004, workers digging for a new garage foundation in Dundee Township discovered a Native American burial ground that could be 1,000 years old.
Wampum Lake between Thornton and Lansing has yielded signs of tool-making near what may have been a salt works. Evans Field occupies what was the site of an Indian Village and chipping station along the Des Plaines River in the west suburbs between Fullerton and North avenues.
Such evidence often consists of stone fragments and pottery shards that to an untrained eye are merely litter. But even a bleary-eyed wagoneer could deduce that the odd-shaped mounds that dotted the region were products of human hands. Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve along the West Branch of the Du Page River once was the home to people of Middle and Late Woodland cultures from about 2000 to 4000 years ago. The burial mounds for which the preserve is named—the only documented pre-historic burial site in Du Page County—are typical dome-shaped Late Woodland effigy mounds. (The Du Page County Forest Preserve District offers occasional guided hikes to the mounds site.)
The Higginbotham Woods Earthwork is an irregularly-shaped earthen embankment in what is today a Joliet city park. Its builders were probably people of the Hopewellian culture who created many such earthworks across Illinois (ca. 100 BC to AD 500), especially in the Illinois River valley. Pioneer accounts state that this mound was merely one of many that once lined the Illinois-Des Plaines river system but Higginbotham is the last of these.
What whites know as the Fisher Site was the largest prehistoric village in the Des Plaines valley. Nearly 17 acres in area, this spot on the south bank of the Des Plaines opposite Dresden Heights (above the I&M Canal State Trail) was occupied by people of the later Mississippian era. They left behind the trademarks of their culture—many ceremonial and burial mounds (nine in all, the largest 60 feet in diameter), earthen lodges, and a large plaza. The burial mounds at Fisher were excavated by University of Chicago archeologists in 1929; the artifacts thus recovered survive in the museum of the University’s Anthropology Department. Most of the rest of the site was deemed less important than the gravel that lay beneath it, and was destroyed before it could be investigated by scientists.
Mississippians also built the largest Native American burial mounds in northern Illinois, which lie just west of the Interstate 55 crossing near Channahon’s Front Street along the Des Plaines River. Constructed approximately A.D. 100 to 1200, the Briscoe Mounds (named for the farm on which they were found) are two round mounds, not yet excavated, that have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
The romance of the buried treasure lures more than the anthropologically-minded to Native American remains. Deliberate theft of artifacts—in effect the theft of history—has stripped many a Chicagoland archeological site of irreplaceable items. The above-mentioned Winfield Mounds was a typical casualty. It was looted of artifacts in the 1920s, although some information had since been recovered from materials like bones and pottery shards deemed not worth stealing by pot hunters. Many of these bits of stolen history have found their ways into local collections over the years; it is the rare local historical society that does not have some locally collected Native American artifact stuck in a closet.
Most of the damage to Native American archeological sites is inadvertent, inevitable when construction crews “excavate” sites using backhoes. The Jere Day farm in Palos Township in today’s southwest suburbs was the site of one of the many Indian cemeteries in the region that were plowed up; village sites too were obliterated, and bones, spear and arrowheads, pottery that might have graced museum display cases ended up in buckets wielded by local collectors.
Something like settled life was encountered by the first Euro-Americans in mid-1600s. Its authors were recent arrivals like the Miamis who by the mid-seventeenth century had established some villages along the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. But these “historic” Indians were itinerants as well. The Miamis during the 1650s abandoned the region and when French travelers came through the area in the 1670s it was people of the Illinois confederation who camped here. The Miamis returned for a time as the 17th century closed, but in the early 1700s Miamis and Illinois both left northeast Illinois, for Indiana and southern Illinois respectively. The future Chicagoland—not for first time—was left open to hunting by anyone, as a kind of pan-Indian preserve.
It is not clear which Native American populations peopled the region over the next several decades, as there were few whites to note them. The Mesquakie or Fox Indians established a village on Lake Pistakee, in modern Lake County, between 1710 and 1735 but withdrew to their native Wisconsin. The region was unsettled because of constant warfare between the French and the Foxes, which embroiled much of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. By the 1740s, however, the Potawatomis had constructed a permanent village on the Chicago River, and within a decade they had been joined by Ottawas and Chippewas; other settlements sprouted along the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers.
When Euro-Americans again frequented the region in early 1800s it was occupied by the Illinois Confederation, and later (mainly) the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi built sizable towns of semi-permanent structures and farmed small plots of land. They were avid traders, and accepted peaceably enough the presence of others who were content to use, rather than own, the lands they occupied—Sacs, Foxes, French, Ottawas, English, Chippewas, even early Americans.
Both the Illinois and the Potawatomi were fairly recent immigrants who had been pushed into the Chicago area from their home territories in eastern North America by fur wars and political disputes. The Potawatomi for instance were forest people who dwelt along the northern shores of Lake Michigan from Lake Superior to Wisconsin. For centuries, therefore, Chicago of the “presettlement” era was much like an ethnic neighborhood of the later city—always lived in by Native Americans, but never by the same Native Americans for very long.
There was an Indian village on the high land (“West Ridge”) just south of today’s Wilmette Harbor. Indian villages flourished in the area of today’s Glenview on land now occupied by the Glen View Club and along the Des Plaines River at Central Road, with a smaller encampment reported near where Glenview and Shermer roads meet. St. Joseph Cemetery at Cumberland and Belmont Avenue in River Grove was the site of an Indian village. In Winnetka, Native Americans buried their dead near the site of North Shore Country Day School, and a trading post stood at what is today the corner of Green Bay and Elm in that Lake County town; the 10th tee of the Indian Hill Country Club was built atop a knoll once used by ancient Americans as a lookout, and camps and villages dotted the high grounds that today carry Ridge, Gross Point, and Waukegan Roads through that area. (Indian Hill survives as a station stop on the Metra UP North line.)
Indians made camp here and there around the site of future Libertyville, too, purportedly drawn there by local mineral springs. Highland Park stands on the site of two Potawatomi villages; on Sheridan Road there used to stand a bent tree that the Potawatomi twisted as a sapling to mark one of their trails. The area encompassing present day Glenview was home to Potawatomi when the first whites arrived in 1832.
A large Potawatomi community sprawled along the Du Page River near Plainfield in Will County. The area where Lisle is located was originally home to four Potawatomi villages. Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park appropriated a Potawatomi village and burial ground. (Native Americans occasionally returned to visit the burial mounds well into the Civil War era.) A few more permanent settlements are known from within the boundaries of modern Chicago.
The essential point is not who lived where and when, but the fact that the first whites in the area did not wander into a pristine Eden, but what was, in the context of Native American culture, a developed region with established trail network, trading links, and village sites. ●
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