Trails of Tears
Native peoples in southern Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Southern Illinois is not usually associated with native peoples. The Metro-East region of Illinois boasts of the great Indian metropolis of Cahokia, western Illinois has the fascinating burials at Dickson Mounds, northern Illinois was home to Chief Black Hawk. But the history of presettlement Illinoisans in southern Illinois is not non-existent, it merely is often overlooked.
This sketch is taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
Around 8,000 B.C. or so, the glacial ice that then blanketed southern Illinois began to receed. Animals became less nomadic, as did the humans who fed on them. People may have taken shelter during winters in the natural caves and rock overhangs that occur here and there along the region’s river banks.
One such campsite lay in a dent on the rock at the bottom of a sandstone cliff scoured by Ice Age floods near the village of Modoc on the Mississippi River in Randolph County, down the road a piece from Prairie du Rocher. The shelter apparently was used for 6,000 years beginning 8,000 B.C. (The site was the subject of painter James Winn’s 1984 Modoc Rock Shelter, which is in the fine arts collection of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.)
Archeologists have dug and sifted their way down through more than 28 feet of sediment in the shelter, each new layer taking them further into a past when people hunted with stone-tipped spears. The sediment consists in part of the refuse the people left, but most of it was left by the Mississippi, which for the past 10,000 years has been busy trying to fill in its valley, leaving layers of silt behind with each flood.
It is on the basis of this occupation that some call the modern village of Modoc, which is undistinguished in any other way, the oldest continuously inhabited place in Illinois, with a pedigree that goes back to the Ice Ages.
Modoc is only the oldest of the known places occupied by native peoples in southern Illinois. All parts of Egypt are littered with the remains of ceremonial complexes, fishing and nutting camps, communal houses, burial grounds, tool-making camps, and stone "forts." The last were usually built atop a cliff or bluff, and included barricades on their landward side in the form of loose stone walls as much as four feet thick and eight feet tall. Euro-American settlers credited their construction variously to the Spanish explorer de Soto and to the American Revolutionary War soldier George Rogers Clark. Today’s anthropologists, better informed and less romantic, speculate that they may have been pounds in which bison were trapped for killing or the sites of unknown community rituals. They might even have been real forts, built to protect trade routes.
Old Spanish maps show one such structure on the Saline River, and French maps note one at Cairo, but they were general across the region. Roughly a dozen stone forts survive in the Shawnee Hills, in Union, Johnson, and Gallatin counties; the last of these is “the Pounds,” which enclosed some 50 acres, making it the largest such structure in the region. Others have been discovered in Jackson County (in Giant City State Park near Makanda) and in Pope County (one stands between Robbs and Glendale). The best-known stone fort is the one that gave a name to the village of Stonefort on the Williamson-Saline county line.
Petroglyphs, or designs that have been chiseled or otherwise etched into a rock face, are another common form of local Native American rock work. Indian rock carvings can still be found near Ava in Jackson County, among other places; several have recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places. South of Ava, near Gorham, rock carvings at Fountain Bluff at the north end of Big Hill take the shapes of wolves, crosses, deer, birds, humans, and geometric figures. Human footprints were carved into rock too, apparently along trails used as trade routes. Their purpose is not obvious, but it is possible they served as road signs. One that was found on Sugar Creek just outside Creal Springs was a tourist attraction back when the springs made the city a resort town; the best known is Footprint Rock in Johnson County.
Nine hundred years ago people of the Mississippian culture dwelt on the crest of the hill now known as Millstone Bluff in the Shawnee National Forest in Pope County. There they decorated rock faces there with images of birds, among other designs. Its carvings earned Millstone Bluff a place on the National Register of Historic Places—the only prehistoric site in the region so recognized. The site also is open to the public, which makes it even rarer; authorities usually do not identify rock carvings in the region because so many have been vandalized or stolen.
The four prehistoric rock-art sites that make up the 111-acre Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve west of Du Quoin and south of Steeleville on the Randolph-Jackson county line compose a rock art Art Institute. One site alone—the Piney Creek site—is the largest documented prehistoric rock-art site in the state. It is crowded with more than 150 petroglyphs and pictographs, the latter images painted on stone using various natural pigments mixed with animal fat. Most of which appear to date to between A.D 450 and A.D. 1500. Many of the figures are winged or horned, which suggests that the art had a role in shamanistic ceremonies, a surmise that is consistent with their location in caves or other hidden places.
Sadly, vandals and weather have reduced most known stone forts to near-rubble. Reservoirs have flooded some rock shelters, and petroglyphs have been chiseled out of the rock in which they were carved by souvenir-hunters; Footprint Rock has several fewer footprints than it used to have for that reason. Some pictographs have been ruined not only by ill-intended vandals but why well-intended fans who have painted over the fading originals to keep them legible.
The pictographs and petroglyphs of southern Illinois are hard to find; even the stone forts are fairly inconspicuous. But every early traveler in the region noted the many very much larger earthen mounds left behind by Native American builders. Mounds stood near Rockwood in extreme southeastern Randolph County, at Shawneetown, at the mouth of the Saline River east of Brookport, among many other sites; their presence at Mound City and Mounds is revealed in those towns’ names; ten mounds betrayed the presence to archeologists of an important prehistoric town site upstream from Metropolis on the Ohio. Rutherford Mound in Hardin County, excavated in 1954 by the Illinois State Museum, was a Hopewellian burial mound that stood ten feet high atop a base approximately 60 feet by 75 feet.
In days past, Native American remains were pillaged by their Euro-American successors for relics rather than information. Graves were especially prized, since pots, jewelry, and weapons often were buried with Native American dead. Much recent archeology was done on the sites of new roads or other public works where excavation is mandated by law. Native American relics on private land are still more likely to end up in the hands of the hobbyist rather than the scientist; a granite celt, or stone ax head, found on a Hopewell site on Beaucoup Creek, near Oraville in Jackson County, was described by a dealer in 2000 as “a great buy,” could be had for $75.
When the French arrived to minister to them, the Shawnee (or Shawanoe) were the area’s principal Native American occupants. Interpreted broadly, the word means “southerners,” as these people dwelt in southern North America until the 1700s. An itinerant tribe, the Shawnee had camp sites and villages throughout the region. Shawneetown was named for one of the latter, which stood on the Ohio River a few miles below the mouth of the Wabash River in the 1740s. The Shawnee are perhaps more widely recalled from the name given the Shawnee National Forest, which sprawls across more than 270,000 acres.
The Shawnee were followed into southern Illinois by other Native American peoples. Kickapoo for a time occupied either side of the Wabash River from Vincennes to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The community located on the ground where Effingham now stands was first named for Wehunka, a chief whose followers had located here. Turkey Hill north of Freeburg in St. Clair County was a campground frequented by peoples of the Illini confederation, one of many in the region.
The Kaskaskia were one of the last of the Native American peoples to occupy the area. An 1803 treaty granted the Kaskaskia a reservation of 640 acres in Jackson County, and for some years a village stood in the Kinkaid Creek bottomland. On the site of Old Du Quoin, which lies east of its same-name successor, the Kaskaskia had a winter camp; the half-white chief who there presided, Jean Baptiste Du Quoin, was famous for the hospitality he offered to travelers making their ways along the nearby main trail from Shawneetown to Kaskaskia.
The Trail of Tears
Southern Illinois was the stage for one of the great dramas of Native American history, when U.S. troops in the winter of 1838–39 steered 15,000 Cherokee on a forced march from their surrendered Georgia lands to a promised new homeland in Oklahoma. There were at least four westward land routes, and the northernmost one passed through Illinois. Nearly 9,000 Cherokee trekked from Golconda to Cape Girardeau via Dixon Springs, Vienna, Mt. Pleasant, and Jonesboro, along a trail now followed by Illinois Route 146. A southern people, the exiles were unprepared for the bitter northern weather. Probably one in four of the original party died from disease or exposure before they reached their destination, which statistic explains why their route has been known ever since as the Trail of Tears.
Family lore passed down to the descendants of some of the Germans settlers has it that the Camp Ground church cemetery outside Anna includes unmarked graves of Cherokee who died here during that winter. The forced march is remembered again today by a generation of southern Illinoisans newly sensitive to its injustice and its cruelty. The route of the march has been designated by Congress the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The State of Illinois has paid official respects by naming a highway rest stop the Trail of Tears Welcome Center and turning the woods in which 13,000 Cherokee encamped outside Ware in Union County in 1839 into the Trail of Tears State Forest.
The exact route of the trail was forgotten for decades. Recent popular and scholarly interest in the native American past has sent researchers scurrying to get out their books and their hiking boots. Many sections have been identified, buried here beneath old blacktop, there passing through weedy cemetery; in places, astonishingly, the ground still retains traces of 19th century wagon wheel ruts. ●
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