Sleeping on the Hill
Lessons from the dead in western Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Two famous graveyards are to be found in the Spoon River country of western Illinois—the one imagined by poet Edgar Lee Masters and the very real burial mound left behind by the peoples of the Mississippian culture. Each in its way has taught us something about the human condition.
These notes are taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (See Publications for more about that project); some of this material also appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves. I must 'fess up and admit that some of the passages in this version first appeared a generation earlier in pieces I wrote for Focus and Illinois Times.
The Spoon River and its two main forks drains all or parts of nine counties in the old Military Tract of western Illinois—Bureau, Fulton, Henry, Knox, Marshall, McDonough, Peoria, Stark, and Warren. The river tends generally southward for 161 miles, nearly paralleling the Illinois River for almost 100 of them before curving to empty into the larger stream at Havana. The river’s name is ultimately Indian in origin. It was called A-ma-quon-sip-pi—sip-pi, the river of the A-ma-quon, which in the Algonquin language used by the Pottawatomie meant mussel, or mussel shell. Mussels are, or were, common in the river and the Indians used them for dipping food.
The Spoon River is the heart of what might be called Illinois’s brown water country. In most seasons the Spoon is modest in mien—it averages 47 feet in width—but in flood the river is one and a half miles wide. Outsiders may see in its behavior evidence of a complex, even poetically perverse nature; in Illinois it is simply what most rivers do. The stream drops approximately 406 feet throughout its length, imparting much soil-eroding energy to its currents. This is bad and good. The Spoon and the nearby Lemoine are, with their tributaries, the busiest of rivers hauling topsoil to the Illinois. (Where the Spoon’s current slows as it enters the sluggish Illinois, so much silt piles up at its mouth that low natural levees have formed along the Spoon’s banks.) More happily, the ravines that the river has cut into the surface have since become festooned with trees, giving the valley all the attributes humans find beautiful in a landscape save grandeur.
Its valley makes the Spoon a plausible choice for an officially designated scenic river, at least in the opinion of the locals lobbying for such status. Tourists flock to the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Fall Festival, held each October. The festival—a sort of Tour de Fulton—is a self-guided ramble of approximately 140 miles through eighteen towns and villages in Fulton County—from Avon and Astoria to Vermont and Waterford. It must be noted that not that everyone is there to ogle the scenery. Jeff Biggers of the PBS program “The Savvy Traveler” encountered on his visit “a backed-up traffic jam the length of an L.A. freeway” caused by people stopping to browse in what he called “the longest sprawl of flea markets in the rural Midwest.“
The Spoon River is not known around the world for its traffic jams, however, but as the setting for one of the best-known works of verse in the U.S. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Masters came into the valley of the Spoon when his family moved from Petersburg to Lewistown in 1881. His first ride across the Spoon River bottoms did not make a good impression. “The farmhouses for the most part were ramshackle, some of them mere log houses,” he recalled many years later. “As it turned out, the people who lived here were wretchedly poor and drunken, some of them vicious and criminal. My mother found all this out to her great disgust. And as we drove along she took in the scene amid exclamations of distaste.”
As anyone who survived high school lit class knows, Anthology is a collection of more than two hundred apocryphal epitaphs from the graveyard of an imagined Spoon River town. For the most part, the portraits are fictional composites of people Masters knew from the area. He found in them much narrow-minded provinciality, which caused critics to put Masters’ work on the same shelf as the much better Winesburg, Ohio, among books (to quote critic John Hallwas) “challenging the standard view of the small town as the wholesome epitome of American values and mores.”
Masters’ method of exploring a community is not unique, even to the Spoon River valley. As anthropologist Robert L. Hall explains, “There are . . . pre-Columbian American Indian cemeteries in the Spoon River country that are next to unknown in literary circles but whose stories are every bit as poignant as those from the graves to which Edgar Lee Masters . . . called attention.” The most famous of these composes Dickson Mounds in Fulton County, just west of Ill. 97 between Havana and Lewistown, which for decades was one of the major on-site archaeological museums in the U.S.
Dickson Mounds is, with Cahokia, the best known of Illinois’s Native American sites. It consist of a sprawling burial mound on the crest of a bluff more than 90 feet above the Illinois River valley floor. It was created by people living in villages on the bottomland below—a village that anthropologists know as the Eveland site and later villages such as the palisaded mound town found at the Larson site, about mile away. Several generations of villagers ended up there, their graves cumulatively forming the principal prominence of what are known as Dickson Mounds.
The main mound originally contained the remains of perhaps 3,000 people, the first of whom were interred around A.D. 1250. The burials stopped at Dickson Mounds at about the same time that Cahokia, the great Mississippian city to the south, went into decline. The causes of the collapse of the Mississippian culture in the Mississippi valley, including its outposts along the Illinois such as Fulton County, are unknown. Religious or political change, warfare, climatic shifts, and disease have all been suggested; the latter is suggested by the fact that the last round of burials in the Dickson mound included large numbers of mass graves.
The Dickson of Dickson Mounds was Don Dickson, a chiropractor whose initial interest in bones was not anthropological but medical. Since settlement, Illinois land owners collected grave goods from Indian burials on their properties such as pots and jewelry, ignoring the bones of the dead. Bones were little more than trash, a nuisance; local lore recalls that the hillsides of the Illinois valley were white with bones each spring that had been exposed by plows.
Don Dickson found such remains professionally fascinating. He carefully exposed the burials of 234 individuals for study, leaving the bones as he found them for the most part. The exhibit excited curiosity, morbid and otherwise, and Dickson unexpectedly found himself the proprietor of a tourist attraction. The State of Illinois acquired the site in 1954, after years in which the Dickson family bore the expense of sheltering the exposed remains. The mound was made the centerpiece of a state park; later, when its scientific value was better appreciated, the diggings were managed as a branch of the Illinois State Museum, which in 1972 opened a mound-shaped museum of which the original excavation was one wing.
The clues to the lives led by these people are not, as in Masters’ poem, inscribed on tombstones—there are none—but in the graves themselves. Objects buried with the dead hint at their social status and occupation. Other stories are told by the bones themselves, from which science can derive not only the deceased’s age, sex, disease, and cause of death but the history of accidents he or she suffered. “The Dicksons were able to convey the picture of pre-Columbian Indians as human beings who lived in families, loved, laughed, cried, prayed, and believed in a divine creator and an afterlife,” writes Hall, “and for many white visitors to Dickson Mounds this came as an unexpected revelation.”
In 1989, the board of the Illinois State Museum decided to close the burial exhibit on grounds that such displays evidenced a too-familiar racist insensitivity to Native American beliefs. The decision was not popular among the current residents of that part of the valley, who feared loss of tourism income and who had come to identify with the deceased as fellow Spoon Riverans. In part because of that opposition, the then-governor overturned the museum board’s closure decision. That order was itself overturned by that governor’s successor, with the result in 1992 that the burial exhibit was closed and sealed; as Hall put it, consciously recalling one of Masters’ famous lines, “Today, the Dicksons themselves lie sleeping on the hill, and the Indians whom Don Dickson roused from seven centuries of sleep have returned to their own slumber.”
Stripped of its original purpose, the museum has been reinvented as an anthropological center in the broadest sense, devoted to the explication of ethnicity of all flavors. To make up for the loss of its main attraction, the museum created new exhibits emphasizing aspects of American Indian spirituality. In addition to its Indian exhibits, the museum hosts crop meets and English country dancing and folk music concerts. The refurnished museum opened in 1994 to a public that seems barely interested. Annual attendance had been averaging about 72,000 a year; since the reopening, the bones-less museum has attracted about 34,000 per year.
Near the Dickson Mounds village site another cemetery was found, a low oval mound overlooking the Illinois River valley. The cemetery is known to archeologists as the Norris Farms #36 site—the thirty-sixth archeological site found on that admittedly sizable property, which suggests how rich the area is in Indian remains. Its occupants are or were people whom archeologists call the Oneota, who arrived in the middle Illinois River valley seven hundred years ago. What we know of them was learned from such archeological digs as the Morton site in Fulton County. Here was found the remains of a small village of thatched houses. Perhaps 200 residents lived at the site for fewer than 20 years. It was excavated in the 1930s and again in the 1980s.
When the Oneota arrived, the region was still occupied by Mississippian peoples. Oneota people were slightly shorter than Mississippian people. (The average male among the former was 5' 5" tall, while females were 5' 3" tall.) They lived in simple villages rather than socially complex towns, and subsisted on a poor diet that led to a variety of diet-related diseases (including tooth decay). Social conflict was unusual among the Mississippians but was apparently commonplace among the Oneota; nearly half the individuals buried at Norris Farms, thirty-six, died as a result of violence. Many were scalped, others apparently had their heads cut off, presumably to be taken as trophies of war.
Writes anthropologist Hall, “The Oneota cemetery delivers a message that almost screams to us from the graves.” That message is that the myth of an idyllic Indian past is unfounded. Hall notes that the occupants of many pre-Columbian graves are thus twice martyred—“once by the weapons of their enemies and again by the skepticism of their friends.” ●