Earlier this week, to celebrate our collective birthdays, the Fletchers and Sue and I took a road trip down to Starved Rock State Park. Dinner at the lodge—which was excellent, as usual—was followed by a hike to the top of The Rock, and then a visit to the fine new visitors’ center.
For out-of-towners, Starved Rock is a towering sandstone bluff along the Illinois River near the mouth of the Fox River. It is separated from the bluffs along the shoreline by an eroded canyon, a bit of topographical happenstance that offered some prime fortification real estate during Illinois’ colonial era.
Climbing to the top of The Rock—le Rocher, as the French called it—it a lot easier these days because of well built concrete paths and sturdy stairways. At the top of The Rock, a wide wooden walkway circles the roughly acre and a half space, with benches and lookouts that tourists enjoy. From the vantage point atop The Rock, visitors can look up and down the Illinois River; watch barge tows hauling grain, coal and other bulk cargoes; and enjoy the huge variety of wildlife, from migrating pelicans to soaring bald eagles to squirrels and the occasional groundhog.
I enjoyed the view and watching wildlife, and I also felt a certain amount of satisfaction sitting there watching visitors enjoy the walkway. Because I had a hand, admittedly tangential, in getting it installed back in the 1980s.
The story began on Mother’s Day, 1980, when my friend John Samuel took his family down to Starved Rock to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. As his two sons and his wife walked around the top of the rock, John sat down on a sandstone outcrop and idly scratched at the sand on the path with a twig. As he scratched, what appeared to be a small stone popped out of the ground, and John stared at it intently. Because he immediately realized it was no stone.
Let me interject here that John is an artifact collector who has an almost preternatural talent at finding things with Native American connections that no one else can. And successful searcher and identifier he is, he realized what he was looking at was a bit of human bone. A little more scratching turned up another bone and then another. Carefully covering his finds in situ with sand when no one was watching, John rejoined his family and enjoyed the rest of their afternoon at the rock, taking his secret home with him.
The next morning, he called me, reported his story, and wondered what to do about it. At the time, I was working for the Fox Valley Sentinel as a historical columnist and reporter, and I figured the thing to do was call the folks at the Illinois State Museum and tell them the whole story. Which John did.
At first, state officials were skeptical, but they agreed to meet John atop The Rock to see if something had really been found. It was a quick, eye-opening survey and the area was immediately roped off when it became clear that a body had been discovered in the middle of a walking path at one of Illinois’ most historic sites.
An archaeological team headed by Dr. Ed Jelks was quickly assembled, and a dig was conducted to safely and professionally retrieve the remains. It turned out the burial was right in the middle of the main path around the rock. The young woman whose body it was had been buried inside the walls of Fort St. Louis, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s historic post atop Starved Rock, probably in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Her body was almost touching the fort wall, and she had been buried with a bone matting hook, a tool used to weave the mats the Native People who lived around The Rock used to cover their lodges and for many other purposes. The feet of thousands of visitors who had strolled along the path in which she’d been buried had abraded away some of her bones, the ones that remained were in remarkably good shape. At that late date, some 300 years after her death, it was impossible to determine how she’d died, but that she was buried inside the fort suggested she may have been an important person or was perhaps the wife of a French soldier or trader.
The Illinois State Museum folks were excited at the find; it was one more piece in fleshing out the history of Starved Rock and Fort St. Louis. The folks at the Illinois Department of Conservation were excited because Starved Rock had been confirmed, once again, as the state’s most historic state park. John Samuel was excited because he had helped fill in one of the many blanks in our state’s rich history.
And I was excited because I had a great story to report. It turned out it was an award-winner; my first to win the Best Local Feature Story in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest.
The body of the young lady, who I had dubbed “The Weaver of Starved Rock,” was given a reverential burial elsewhere in the bounds of Starved Rock State Park. And within a year, the wooden walkway had been installed atop The Rock to assure that no other graves would be disturbed by the tens of thousands of visitors who stroll around The Rock every year.
So as I sat there and watched couples and parents with children enjoy walking around The Rock and taking in the spectacular view, I figured I was justified in feeling a certain amount of satisfaction at the outcome of that great story 33 years ago.