Exactly 190 years ago this year, the weather in the northern United States, especially in what was then called the Old Northwest Territory (the region north and west of the Ohio River), for once, proved congenial.
The two years previous to the spring of 1833 had been not only long and hard, but had been deadly, too. The winter of 1830-31 was dubbed “The Winter of the Deep Snow” by early settlers, while 1832 brought the Black Hawk War, the last Indian war fought in Illinois.
But then came the spring of 1833. Wrote the Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian:
“The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”
But all those early settlers were violating the law, in the form of solemn land cession treaties concluded between the U.S. Government and the region’s Native People. Those treaties had assured the indigenous people they’d have the use of the land they’d ceded to the U.S. Government until it was surveyed and put up for sale.
Nevertheless, settlers had begun moving into northern Illinois in substantial numbers in the late 1820s, creating tensions with the resident Native People. A series of near-wars between White settlers and indigenous residents was the result, finally culminating in the Black Hawk War of 1832. The result of these tensions were the various Indian Removal Acts passed by the U.S. Congress mandating the removal of all Native People west of the Mississippi. Removals of Illinois’ Native People were largely completed by 1838.
According to Michigan Territory Gov. Lewis Cass, the indigenous population of Illinois in 1830 was jus 5,900 souls, while that of Indiana was 4,050, and that of his own Michigan Territory was 29,060.
The ancestors of area’s original residents had arrived some thousands of years before, following the herds of giant Ice Age mammals that lived along the retreating edges of the stupendous glaciers. Those glaciers had advanced several times from the north, sometimes covering the area now occupied by Kendall County with several thousand feet of ice, then retreating only to advance once again.
But as the climate finally began warming somewhere around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the ice slowly retreated for the last time leaving a bleak steppe behind. Bleak it may have been, but it was the perfect landscape for the Ice Age mammals that thrived on it, from giant bison to wooly mammoths and their mastodon cousins, and the predators whose food source they were. And that included the bands of human hunter-gatherers that followed the game.
Gradually, the hunter-gatherer tradition gave way to more sedentary lifestyles as the Native People began adapting wild foods by cross-breeding and selective growing to create more nutritious foods that began greatly complementing their diets.
Eventually, some group of native agronomists in South or Central America either brilliantly or luckily hit upon the possibilities selectively breeding maze, eventually coming up with the ancestors of the corn Illinois farmers are so famous for growing today. Two varieties of this early maze worked their way north, called by later-arriving European colonists flint corn and dent corn, proving so productive and nutritious that complicated and culturally diverse civilizations grew up around their cultivation.
The culmination of this rich cultural tradition was the Mississippian Culture whose capital grew up on the floodplain of the Mississippi River just across from modern St. Louis. The Mississippians were cultural inheritors of the earlier Hopewell Culture that was centered in the Ohio River Valley. Both cultures, besides heavily relying on maze agriculture, also built significant numbers of mounds, apparently as part of their religious traditions. While the Hopewell people built not only smaller burial mounds, they also built larger effigy mounds in the shape of animals, the Mississippians tended to concentrate on geometric mounds. They left behind their most spectacular engineering achievement, Monks Mound, across from St. Louis. The largest earthen construction in North America, the towering geometric mound is 100 feet high and measures about 15 acres on the base.
From their capital at the city eventually called Cahokia in the Mississippi floodplain, the Missippian culture spread up every tributary of the huge river, including the Illinois River and its tributary, our own Fox River. These early people not only left behind their finely-worked stone tools, but also their pottery and, even more noticeable, the mounds they build overlooking the river valleys they called home.
The region’s earliest settlers didn’t know what to make of the mounds those early people left behind. The innate racism of the early 19th Century settlement era argued against such amazing constructions being achieved by the region’s Native People, so all sorts of hypotheses were advanced to account for them, from some mysterious long-exterminated race to the lost Tribe of Israel.
While those early White settlers didn’t know who’d built the mounds, they did know the shear number of mounds were often in the way of progress, from building roads to building farmsteads. And if they weren’t subject to being used for road fill or other purposes, all those mounds offered inviting targets for curio hunters.
According to the Rev. E.W. Hicks writing in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The mounds in this part of the State are generally small, but quite numerous. Between one and two dozen are clearly marked on the bluffs along Fox river, in this county, and doubtless many others have been wholly or partially obliterated. One of the finest is on the county line at Millington, on Joseph Jackson’s land. It was dug into by a committee of citizens about forty years ago, and found to be a great burial heap. Numbers of human teeth were taken out, but some fragments of bones found were replaced and again covered. It is probable that these were remains of Indians subsequently buried there. Three rows of five mounds each are found on the northern bluff of the river: one on Mrs. Duryea’s land, near Bristol; another on Truman Hathaway’s; and a third on D. R. Ballou’s, above the woolen factory at Millington. In Mrs. Duryea’s mounds were also found in 1837 some teeth and a decayed skull. Others partially effaced are at the mouths of the Rob Roy and Rock creeks, and are only a few feet above the level of the river, proving that since they were built the river has flowed in its present channel. The Rob Roy mound a short time ago was partly uncovered by water, and George Steward, of Plano, our indefatigable archaeologist, picked up there, three hundred and twenty fragments of ancient pottery, and others may be found by any one curious enough to look for them.”
Elmer Baldwin, in his excellent 1877 history of LaSalle County wrote of the people who he believed built the mounds: “Their works remaining are their only history. They exist at Ottawa, LaSalle, Peru, and other points along the Illinois and Fox [rivers], and always on a commanding and sightly location, in fancy giving the spirits of the dead a view of the scenery they doubtless loved so well when living.”
Joslyn and Joslyn, on the other hand, recorded in their 1908 Kane County history the typically racist interpretation of the day, of the region’s indigenous people: “So the land which the red man failed to use was taken from him and given to those who would utilize it. But they left the graves of their ancestors behind, and several mounds in Aurora and vicinity are known as Indian burying grounds. Bones and arrow heads are all that remain as evidence that the country was once inhabited by another race.”
We can take at least a little comfort that all of our ancestors weren’t entirely insensitive to disturbing the dead, even if they were Native American dead. In the May 27, 1880 Kendall County Record, the paper’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a proposal was at hand by the residents of Millington to spend an afternoon picnicking in a grove near the village that contained several Indian burial mounds. The writer suggested it was wrong to desecrate the graves, even though the ancient Indians in question had not been Christian. “The cemeteries of the present day may in time become subject to investigation—they are so already to a small extent—the silver plate of coffins and jewelry on corpses may prove more desirable relics than the arrow heads and other trinkets of the Aborigines. The setting of precedents should be discouraged.”
And finally, on April 7, 1897, the Record reported from Millington: “The oldest landmark and relic of the red men in this vicinity, the Indian mound on Mr. Lewis Jones’s lot, and probably the largest of its kind in Kendall or LaSalle counties, is now no more, for the work of leveling it commenced Saturday and is now about finished. A great many people said it seemed too bad to destroy it, but it is located near the front of the lot and near where a house ought to be placed if the owner saw fit to build one. Mr. Jones’s family are known to be hustlers, but they did not care to have a hump on their front yard so, for reasons mentioned above, the historic pile has been leveled. As is generally known, the mound was an Indian burying place and was opened a number of years ago by relic hunters We do not remember just what relics were found or how many, but not all of them were unearthed at that time, for a few were discovered the other day, which proves that the redman’s remains have not yet all crumbled into dust. Monday, a part of the frontal bone of a skull was found and one of the bones of the lower limbs. They are of a dark brown color and have much the appearance of decayed wood, but the shape and porous structure proves them to be human bones. Quite a number of arrow heads of various sizes and shapes were also found.”
Some of those once-numerous mounds, so laboriously built by long-vanished Native People, still exist up and down the Fox Valley. Mound groups in both St. Charles and Aurora are still visible by the sharp-eyed investigator. And, of course, the World Heritage Site at Cahokia still maintains its wonderful collection of mounds and its truly amazing cultural interpretive center that is well worth a trip to see.
And while we don’t have any bonafide mounds left here in my hometown of Oswego, we do have a possibility of sorts. My good friend, the late Dick Young, was always convinced the rise around which the Oswego Township Cemeterey on South Main Street was developed might well be a remnant mound. As Dick noted, it’s in the right place, on the brow of the river valley overlooking the river, and it’s the only mound along that stretch of land, making it certainly look artificial.
If it is a remnant mound, it seems somehow fitting that our ancestors ended up using it for their own funerary traditions in conjunction with the people who lived here many hundreds of years before.
William Keating was the Geologist and Historiographer for Major Stephen Long’s expedition that crossed the Fox River valley in 1823. The explorers set out from Chicago on June 11. The next day, Keating reported: “On the west side we reached a beautiful but small prairie, situated on a high bank, which approaches within two hundred and fifty yards of the edge of the water; and upon this prairie we discovered a number of mounds, which appeared to have heen arranged with a certain degree of regularity. Of these mounds we counted twenty~seven ….”