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I&M - Cultural Heritage  

The single most visible place important to our knowledge of Corridor archeology is Starved Rock. Well known in history, this sandstone butte is rich in cultural resources. It stands on the south side of the river near the town of Utica in the midst of one of the most intensely utilized areas of the Corridor. Your tour of the archeological resources fittingly starts with this famous geographical feature. Before introducing the archeological spots in the Corridor, a review of the significant periods of occupation is useful. Archeologists recognize that the Native Americans who met the first Europeans had long been in the area we call Illinois. Just as Europeans once lived in caves, became farmers, erected cities, waged war and became industrialized, so too did the lifestyles of Native Americans change. As a matter of convenience, archeologists divide the prehistory of the Native Americans into four periods in addition to the Historic Period. Each of these major time periods within the l2,000 year occupation of the region is marked by an important economic development. Distinctive artifacts stand out as important traces of these epochs of land use.

PaleoIndian Period (to 8000 BC)

Native Americans entered what is now Illinois during the late Ice Age, or Pleistocene. These early peoples were organized in small, highly mobile bands which hunted large game animals. Their principle weapon was the spear. Distinctively chipped stone spear tips, called Clovis points, are the principle remnants of this time period. Small camping sites are found mainly in well-drained upland areas on high ground, far back from the river. Another favored location is along the crest of the bluffs overlooking the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. Hunting probably focused upon herding animals, such as elk, bison, and caribou. Now extinct animals such as the mammoth and mastodon were probably hunted at well.

The climate of northeastern Illinois at this time was influenced by a mountain of glacial ice occupying the Lake Michigan basin. Climate in the Corridor was cooler then, resembling that found today in Hudson Bay.

The present-day Illinois River was filled with water and sediment flowing from Lake Michigan. A mixed tundra and open spruce forest occupied the area until about 8900 BC when a pine and ash forest replaced the spruce. About 600 years later with the transition to a milder, temperate climate came a moister deciduous forest dominated by oaks.

Archaic Period projectile point made of cold hammered native copper from Starved Rock

Archaic Period (8000 - 500 BC)

Native Americans, with the end of the Glaciers, found northern Illinois increasingly congenial to hunting and gathering. Climate and vegetation patterns approaches those of the present day, and in this newly established environment, Native Americans thrived. With the extinction of many large Pleistocene animals, the foragers living along the upper Illinois River turned to hunting modern species of game, especially deer and waterfowl, and to gathering wild plant foods. Grasslands expanded into the rolling uplands from the Plains regions. Today this prairie land is planted in corn and soybeans. Large chipped notched paints are common indicators of this period. Less common, but just as distinctive, are the large grooved axes, various polished ornaments, and the occasional stemmed and socketed knife blades hammered out of nearly pure copper nuggets. Compared to those other time periods, Archaic peoples make broader use of the numerous ecosystems throughout the Corridor. For the first time, Native Americans established a campsite on the summit of Starved Rock.

The Woodland Period (500 BC-AD 1000)

The introduction of crude, grit-tempered pottery marks the beginning of a period in which native plant foods gave way gradually to the increased use of domesticated plants. These plants, which include sumpweed, goosefoot, sunflower and squash, were domesticated from native stock over a long period of time, providing food for an increasingly sedentary population. In this period, decorative arts became more elaborate, trading networks expanded across the continent, villages grew in size and became more permanent, and the dead were buried under mounds placed at locations that marked the heartland of settled territories. This development peaked during the Middle Woodland or Hopewellian Sub-period (200 BC - AD 400). Representative sites of this period were the Utica and Adler Mounds. These mounds housed the dead who were interred in sunken crypts with pottery and other objects, including copper and marine shell artifacts acquired through long-distance trade.

100 BC - 350 AD

The Mississippian Period (AD 1000 - 1673)

Large villages and cemeteries came into being in the upper Illinois River valley, founded upon an economy that combined maize agriculture with older practices of hunting and gathering of natural foods. Maize (or Indian corn) and the common bean were introduced from Mexico via the American Southwest. These two tropical plants, in combination with native squash (of the pumpkin type), laid the foundations of an important agricultural system that swept the Midwest. The success of this system produced important changes to native lifeways. Settlements were now large, permanent villages composed of substantial, partly sunken earth lodges. Cooking pots became more spherical in shape to adapt to new methods of cooking food, particularly maize. Agricultural tools became more common. Substitution of the bow and arrow for the spear introduced small arrowheads (mainly triangles of chipped stone) into the tool inventory. Burials occurred in large cemeteries located in broad and low earthen mounds. Copper objects, ear ornaments, and copper and shell gorgets suspended around the neck set apart prominent individuals from the others in death. The Briscoe Mounds are examples of mounds of this period. The beginnings of this system took place around AD 1000 when cultures centered at Cahokia in the greater St. Louis area began to exercise powerful influence in the upper Illinois watershed. Emblems of distinction at Cahokia were exported widely, some finding their resting place in the upper Illinois River valley. Material culture in the Corridor took on an appearance that was to persist with minor changes until the advent of European explorers. Major villages that became established in this period were Old Kaskaskia and the Fisher site.

Spoon of mussel shell found at the Mississippian Period Gentleman Farm site

The Historic Period (AD 1673)

Sometime before Father Marquette discovered the Illinois Indians living at Old Kaskaskia, native ways of life had undergone a change in one respect: greater village mobility. This shift resulted from the adoption of wide-ranging bison hunting twice a year. Although villages were large and permanent, occupants were used to moving their housing frequently. They lived in long wigwams which were covered with light-weight mats that could be erected and dismantled with ease. The Illinois Indians made heavy use of bison meat and starch-filled tubers of water lily plants. These food sources made use of natural habitats found in the Corridor. Bison were common on the grasslands, and edible tubers grew in quantify in the swampy wetlands along parts of the Illinois and Des Plaines, particularly in the swamps of the Sag.

Later, inter-tribal warfare in the l7th century increased the trend toward more mobile life, especially after 1660 when Iroquois raiding parties penetrated northern Illinois. The Iroquois carried guns which had a devastating effect on midwestern tribes. These weapons were unavailable in sufficient quantities to Illinois Indians until LaSalle and fur-trading Frenchmen penetrated the Illinois Valley. With the establishment of a steady influx of weapons, along with useful household items, beads and other ornaments, populations in Illinois stabilized.

The chief trading place in the 1680s was Starved Rock. As a consequence the upper Illinois River valley became a magnet for native peoples over a very wide area, reaching a peak population of 10,000 for a brief time. Widespread traces of occupational use of the canyons, plateaus and bottomland plains around Starved Rock during these early decades of European contact testify to the impact of concentrated settlement on the area. During this period, Old Kaskaskia was a major village from which Jesuit priests wrote long, informative accounts of the Illinois Indians. Other places of Indian habitation were the summit of Starved Rock and the promontory, called Hotel Plaza, below the bluff on which the Starved Rock State Park lodge sits.

After the Illinois tribes left the Corridor, it was occupied by other Indians as part of a general westward migration in advance of the spread of peoples of European descent. Disease and warfare took a heavy toll of Native Americans in this period. Of these Native Americans the Potawatomis and associated Ottawa and Ojibwa settled and utilized the Corridor the most extensively. Chicago was the base of a large populations, but small villages were established throughout the Corridor. In 1816 these native peoples ceded lands within the corridor and by 1833 had left northern Illinois for Kansas.

Pottery jar of the early historic period from Old Kaskaskia

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