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Mounds of History

Native peoples in western Illinois

See Illinois (unpublished)


This is a brief sketch of the native peoples of various cultures known to have made their homes in the old Military Tract from the retreat of the glaciers until a new inundation—this time of aggressive Euro-American settlers—swept them west. While Indians occupied every region of Illinois at some time or other, the history of western Illinois along the great rivers that frame it is especially rich.


This material is taken from See Illinois, my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (See Publications for more about that project.) Some of it appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Hose Thieves.

More about native peoples in western Illinois can be found here and here.


The western Illinois encountered by the first Europeans was peppered with mounds that were plainly the product of (to quote one local history) the “labors of an ancient people.” Mounds were especially common along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. While the purpose of burial mounds is straightforward enough, not all mounds were grave sites. Many seemed built for communication, defense, or ritual; some might have served all three ends.


Local histories record the presence in McDonough County’s Bethel Township of an irregular row of as many as 20 hillocks, ranging up to six feet high and up to 25 feet wide at their bases. Souvenir hunters found the mounds to be treasure troves of stone axes, spear and arrow heads, ornaments, and human bones. More systematic investigations of such mounds began in the 1930s, when archaeologists from the University of Chicago were attracted to what came to be known as the Ogden-Fettie Mound Group, a group of about 30 mounds on the grounds of the Dickson Mounds Museum in Fulton County. (The site includes the remains of the village of the Middle Woodland peoples who built them.) Happily, these artifacts were salvaged for science; some  are on show at the Dickson Mounds Museum, and others rest in the Illinois State Museum’s collection in Springfield.   


The archeological studies of Native American sites in western Illinois by now make a sizable mound themselves. The region’s rich diggings have added crucial pieces to the puzzle of prehistoric life in this part of the continent. Several archaeological and cultural “traditions”—the complex of tool-making techniques, building styles, and the like by which various people make themselves known to us—were originally defined using artifacts and other data from the region.


Generalizing about the region’s Native American past is more than ordinarily foolish. The people known to anthropologists as the Mississippians, for example, occupied this part of Illinois for 500 years, which is some 300 years longer than the tenure to date of the most recent wave of Euro-Americans. “Mississippian” is the name given the culture that built Cahokia and which flourished in western Illinois and the rest of the Mississippi River valley 700 to 800 years ago. The urban, sophisticated Mississippians moved north from their great city in the American Bottom into the valleys of the middle Illinois and the Spoon rivers. (Disputes about why they moved have livened anthropological journals for years.) The interlopers for some time lived in apparent harmony with less advanced cultures already in western Illinois. How and to what extent the Mississippians influenced their country cousins is only slowly coming into focus. Imagine trying to infer the impact of WalMart on western Illinois towns some 1,000 years hence, using only the artifacts people left behind in landfills before and after, and the difficulties become clear.


The physical form of the Mississippian occupation of the middle Illinois River valley seems clear enough. Civilization then consisted of a few “focal” towns that consisted of a central, probably ceremonial plaza featuring one or more platform mounds, the plaza surrounded by a dwelling area that averaged 10 to 15 acres in area. Remains of eight of these towns have been found along the Illinois River between Peoria and the terminus of the Illinois River, one every 80 miles or so. These towns were centers of networks of lesser villages that usually lacked temple mounds but still boasted central plazas—the rough equivalent, perhaps, of the town squares that feature in most western Illinois towns of the Euro-American era. At a farther remove from the focal towns in both location and scale were smaller settlements that lacked the physical organization of towns; least permanent of all were many temporary sites such as hunting and fishing camps, tool-making camps, and gardens that dotted the hinterlands.


This structured, quasi-urban life of the Mississippians had disappeared in the decades just before white-skinned peoples arrived. Small villages were again the locus of social life. Populations dwindled; indeed, some parts of Illinois do not appear to have been occupied by Native Americans at all between 700 and 300 years ago. The Mississippians in Illinois were joined by newcomers from elsewhere in the Mississippi valley.  The integration of these newcomers—known by the archeologists’ term Oneota—was apparently less than peaceful.


By the time the French arrived in the 1600s, the Oneota culture as such had disappeared too. It is not yet clear which of the Native American tribes encountered in western Illinois by European travelers were descended from the Oneota people or their contemporaries, if indeed if they were descended from them at all. The styles of pots recovered from late-prehistoric sites in Illinois do not match the pottery styles used by Illinois Indians of the historic era, which hint that the ancestors of Illinois’s most recent Indian inhabitants came from Ohio.


The historic Native American peoples had no future in the American-run Illinois either. One Fulton County chronicler explained that a good many settlers there had come from the southern states, many of whom had relatives and friends massacred by the In­dians of Kentucky and Tennessee, and these southerners as a rule looked upon the Indians as their natural enemy. In his article, “Getting Rid of the Red Men,” John Hallwas collected various contemporary accounts of whippings and other violence against the region’s Native Americans, usually administered in retaliation for unproven offenses against farmers’ livestock.


The fighting during the Black Hawk War of 1832 occurred to the north of the old Military Tract, but it affected western Illinois just as profoundly, by opening the region to settlement by whites. The ouster by arms of the Sauk and Mesquakies from Illinois was the denouement of a legal farce that began in 1804. Chiefs meeting with U.S. officials in St. Louis ceded some 23,000 square miles of land their compatriots controlled in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. In return they were given goods worth $2,234.50 plus future annual payments in goods worth $1,000 each—this in an era when the Sauk and Mesquakies were accustomed to taking in $60,000 a year from the fur trade. The Indians’ representatives were probably drunk or hung over when they put their marks to these terms. They certainly were confused about their meaning, and in any event were not empowered to speak for anyone but themselves. Historians have abandoned their habitual equivocation to label the deal as “formalized larceny” and "one of the most notable swindles in American history."


The landmarks of this most recent Native American occupation were familiar parts of the landscape in the early 1800s. It would have been hard to find a farmer that didn’t have a collection of stone arrowheads and battle-ax heads culled from his fields. About the horse amassed by his uncle, whom he visited as a boy in Pike County, Floyd Dell would recall, “I pored over them lovingly . . . . I wanted some of those Indian arrow-heads as I had never wanted knives, tops, kites or marbles.”


Mount Pisgah Park in Fulton County Park near Ellisville stands on the site of an early Indian village. Local histories describe the Illinois River bottomland between California Bend on the Spoon River and Liverpool as one continuous camp site for the Sauk, Fox, Chippewa, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomi. One of the structures on the National Register of Historic Places in Fulton County is the Indian Ford Bridge near London Mills. The Euro-Americans who built Rushville found evidence of camps of long standing north of town; a gnarled and knotted oak tree at the corner of the intersection of Jackson and Washington streets was found to have scores of stone arrowheads buried under its bark, where they had been implanted by practicing young warriors or children at play. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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." 

Illinois Labor History Society

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. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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