Archaeologist-historian Robert Mazrim has uncovered physical evidence of old French Peoria and the Edwards Trace, a precursor of I-55 that goes back to at least 1700. I covered both in the Reader (May 31, 2002, and June 6, 2003), but he’s his own best scribe, as you can see in his new book The Sangamo Frontier: History & Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln. (His Under the Prairie Museum is just off I-55 in downtown Elkhart, Illinois.)

The downstate Illinois frontier wasn’t as primitive as we usually think: by 1818, the year Illinois became a state, all kinds of commercial goods were available and affordable. Between 1829 and 1832 one household near New Salem had at least three pieces of fashionable “whiteware” that were “shipped from overseas, purchased as wholesale goods, sold as retail goods, and broken.”

Many archaeological sites, it turns out, are destroyed because people assume they’ve already been destroyed: one of Mazrim’s better-publicized coups was finding buried relics from the first store in Springfield at a construction site “four blocks down the street from state historical preservation offices…. No one in any agency had even bothered asking archaeologists to examine the site.”

Mazrim’s book is all about those moments when you glimpse the past. At the long-forgotten site of Sangamo Town, now a farm field eight miles upstream from Springfield, he found an old hand-dug pit, four feet wide, eight feet long, and three feet deep, lined up with the platted streets of the old village. One end still showed the marks of a shovel that had cut into the clay during the early 1830s.

The pit contained “organic matter, topsoil, household rubbish, and a thick layer of fine white ash. The ash layer was probably dumped in a single day when the fireplace was cleaned out and shoveled into the pit. In this ash were bits of carbonized wood, some chicken bones, the broken handle of a pair of fireplace tongs, and several brass straight pins….

“When this ash was first exposed to the damp summer air, it momentarily emitted the haunting scent of smoke from a fire that burned very near that spot 170 years earlier.”