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See Illinois (unpublished)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.
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. ●