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Time: Summer 1673
Place: North bank of the Illinois River, just upstream from Starved Rock
In a village of about 75 small dwellings–rounded huts covered with overlapping mats woven from dried reeds and rushes–a naked, heavily tattooed man sits in his cabin, listening to two pale strangers who have just been escorted up from the river. When the strangers finish speaking, the tattooed man stands up. Laying his hand on the head of a little slave, whom he will offer his visitors as a gift, he speaks:
“I thank thee, Blackgown, and thee, Frenchman, for taking so much pains to come and visit us; never has the earth been so beautiful, nor the sun so bright, as today; never has our river been so calm, nor so free from rocks, which your canoes have removed as they passed; never has our tobacco had so fine a flavor, nor our corn appeared so beautiful as we behold it today.”
That evening, the Illiniwek Indians feed their visitors a four-course meal–literally placing the food in their mouths, “as we would do with a little child.” The Indians, called “Illinois” by the French, show their guests through the village and give them presents: belts and garters and “other articles made of the hair of the bear and wild cattle” (buffalo). The following morning, the man who had greeted them so effusively (the explorers took him to be “the great sachem of all the Illinois”) escorts them to their canoes “with nearly six hundred persons, who saw us embark, evincing in every possible way the pleasure our visit had given them.”
1673 is the opening date of many Illinois histories, but in fact this dramatic encounter was not the first contact between the two cultures: at least 25 years earlier, the Illinois tribe had begun acquiring European merchandise through intermediary tribes; and in 1666, 80 Illinois Indians went to Lake Superior to trade in person at the French outpost of Chequamegon. But “Blackgown” (Father Jacques Marquette, age 36) and the “Frenchman” (Louis Jolliet, 27) are the first whites known to have visited the Illinois on their home turf.
This first visit–friendly, to our ears maybe even fawning–set the tone for the rest of the Illinois’ tribal existence. They were staunch allies of the French and their European successors in North America. They traded beaver pelts and buffalo hides for French muskets and kettles and glass beads. They lived in the shelter of French forts, practiced the Frenchmen’s religion, adopted French weapons and farm crops. They learned the French habit of living in one place all year. To paraphrase Auden, when there was peace they were for peace; when (the French said) there was war, they went. Their reward for this amiable adaptability was a brief prosperity followed by severe depopulation, departure of the French (1765), expulsion from Illinois (1832), and cultural extinction.
The obliteration of the Illinois will not be complete until bulldozers have overrun the last of the buried remains that can tell us about them–the last cabin posthole, the last buffalo-bone hoe, the last arrowhead, the last grave. Is it any wonder that the state’s archaeologists raised an appalled war cry when they learned that bulldozers are poised to move on the village where Marquette and Jolliet were made welcome 314 summers ago?
Time: Fall 1987
Place: North bank of the Illinois River, just upstream from Starved Rock Lock and Dam
Unlike anything whatsoever in its vicinity, Lucille Keating’s home of 30 years towers above the brown bottomland fields of downstate La Salle County. The four-story gray stone house was built in 1852 as an inn and stagecoach stop; Lincoln is said to have slept in one of its 28 rooms. When I arrive, Mrs. Keating is raking branches blown down in the previous day’s storm; she’s happy to take a break and invite me in for talk and tea and tasty treats. She’s a gracious hostess, and she’s had plenty of practice: the state first tried to buy part of her property in 1959; she has wanted to sell for at least 15 years, and she’s been showing visitors the house and grounds for decades.
She shows me a letter from a state Department of Conservation official dated January 23, 1973, thanking her for showing around a group of state visitors on short notice, and concluding, “I hope that we will be able to talk more about the ‘hotel’ in the near future.”
For this bouncy, white-haired grandmother, it was not just a thank-you note but another disappointment. “When these fellows call up, you’d be excited and think, ‘This is it! They’re finally going to buy!’ They’d have 10 or 12 people with them, you’d take them through–and then get a letter like this. And you think, ‘Well, what was that all for?’ Were they checking up on me?”
She has a letter from 1981 in which another conservation department official regrets that they can’t agree on a price for the historic property, which the state would like to buy and preserve. “They come here and tell me how nice and well taken care of the place is. The archaeologists think it’s great. Then you get a letter like this, that says I’m asking too much for it because it’s farmland.” It is that, of course–good black sandy loam–but it’s more than that: “There’s a mile of river frontage here. Where can you find a mile of river frontage between here and Chicago, between here and Peoria? You can’t.” Mrs. Keating thinks her property–the house and a 131-acre farm–is worth $550,000. In 1984, when the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois offered her $200,000, she flatly refused and, deciding the preservation community was too fickle, began looking elsewhere for a buyer. Now she has found one.
A group called the Landings Development Limited Partnership has agreed, Mrs. Keating says, to pay about what she has asked, in a deal to be finalized this November 4. The partnership–its visible members are David Koontz of Ottawa (the seat of La Salle County) and Dorelle Denman of Chicago–plans an upscale “residential/vacation community” of pole-frame houses on generous half-acre lots, with Keating’s home to become a bed-and-breakfast operation. The lots are being marketed both locally and around Chicago. According to Mrs. Keating, several dozen have been sold along the riverfront–“now they’re going into some of those behind the lake.” A lake is to be dug as part of the package.
Preservationists and archaeologists are aghast at this development, but Mrs. Keating is not impressed. “The state always manages to find money for what it really wants to buy,” she says. “They just waited too long. Mr. Emerson [chief archaeologist for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency] is so vocal. He said there were 200 dead Indians buried on this property. I thought, how preposterous. I don’t know that. How does he know it? I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’ve never found an Indian marker around here to say this is a grave. If I’d known that, I would have cut my fertilizer bill down.”
Nor is she burdened by guilt over what is, after all, a real estate transaction: “Edmund Thornton [former chairman of the board of Ottawa Silica, board member of the La Salle County Historical Society, and chairman of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission] is creating such a disturbance now. Well, he sold his sand factory last year. I never interfered with that sale. Whatever he did, he did. It should be his business, not my business. But he sure interferes with my business.”
On his first return trip to the so-called Grand Village of the Illinois, Father Marquette stopped to spend the winter of 1674-75 in a cabin near what is now the corner of 26th and Damen. He wrote that during the winter some Illinois tribesmen stopped by–obviously already in thrall to the European trade: “I do not think that I have ever seen any savages more eager for French tobacco than they. They came and threw beaver-skins at our feet, to get some pieces of it . . .”
Still, at first, the Illinois adopted European technology selectively. They found guns useful in hunting bear and deer, and in making war on the more innocent tribes to the west–wars that garnered them slaves to barter with other tribes for more European goodies. But for the tribe’s yearly communal buffalo hunt, the muskets were too heavy, too inaccurate, and too frightening to be as useful as their own bows and arrows.
“When they have shot their arrows at a buffalo that flees, often taking away the arrows stuck in his body, they outrun him, they are so quick and nimble,” wrote Andre Penicaut in 1711; “and when they pass by the buffalo they tear the arrows from him on the run and use them again and again to shoot the same buffalo until he drops.”
“I very seldom try to justify the importance of archaeology,” sighs Tom Emerson. “If people don’t give a damn about it, it makes no sense to say, ‘We want to understand the social organization of prehistoric people.'” Still, he has to try.
“This is one of the two or three most important archaeological sites in the state of Illinois. It’s the major surviving village of the Illinois Indians that we know about. What we’re talking about on this site is the destruction of the entire history of a people”–a people important enough to have bequeathed their name to the state itself. “They’re only casually mentioned in the historical documents. Once this is gone, they’re blotted out forever.” To build vacation homes here, he told the La Salle News-Tribune, “is like bulldozing a national landmark to put up a McDonald’s.” The state wants to see the site preserved intact.
But a good deal of blotting out has already happened. Father Claude Allouez in 1677 counted 351 cabins in the Grand Village–“most of them . . . situated upon the bank of the river.” Two small excavations performed on the site–in 1947 and 1970-72–confirm the priest’s observation: the village seems to peter out about 250 feet inland, although other parts of the property may differ, and La Salle said the village extended seven-tenths of a mile inland. In any case, this strip of settlement has been narrowing. In the 1930s, Starved Rock Dam was built to allow grain and coal barges to navigate the river, raising the water level ten feet and submerging one island that the Illinois had farmed. About 60 feet of the north bank has washed away since then. In 1971–during an excavation funded by Edmund Thornton’s Ottawa Silica Company Foundation–archaeologist Margaret Kimball Brown waded out and surveyed the shallow, sandy riverbed near shore. She spotted the remains of eight Indian fire pits: piles of large, fire-cracked rocks heavy enough to have stayed put when the bank eroded. As retired University of Illinois historian Natalia Belting puts it, “Most of the places the Illinois lived are under water.”
The land that remains dry has been plowed about a foot deep every year for decades, churning up and obliterating the Grand Village cabin floors and any remains several inches below that. Sandstone bedrock lies only four to six feet below the surface. What’s left are fire and roasting pits (whose heavy rocks resisted the plow), graves, and the bottom few inches of the deeper postholes dug in the ground for cabin frames–a thin, precious layer of evidence, squeezed between the river, the plow, and the rock.
The developers of the Landings have said almost nothing to the media (although Koontz did find time to tell me that his enterprise advertises in the Reader). What they have said in public has not been reassuring. “There are people who swear that once a tunnel led from the mansion to the river,” says the promotional brochure. “We’ll find out when we begin working with the bulldozers.” To scholars accustomed to working with nothing larger than a shovel, this sounds like a plan to investigate a piece of fine china with a wrecking ball.
The scholars are not mollified to learn that the vacation homes will be built on poles rather than on fully excavated basements. “The developers’ line [at an August 12 meeting] was, ‘Pole houses are sympathetic to the environment,'” grumbles Tom Emerson. “Well, their concept of sympathetic is not the same as mine.”
No doubt, two dozen poles won’t churn up as much ground as a full basement. But the archaeologists aren’t in the business of trying to save 60 percent of the burials instead of 30 percent; they say they need it all. The fastest way to bore (or disgust) an archaeologist is to show off your collection of arrowheads gathered hither and yon. Their interest is not in the relics, but in the information they can glean from them; once the objects’ surroundings have been messed up, most of that information is gone. University of Illinois archaeologist Charles Bareis: “What people miss when they see Raiders of the Lost Ark is that people live in patterns. They live in systems, whether they’re living today, or 50, or 500 years ago. These people moved up and down the Illinois, they gardened, they killed animals, they lived and died–archaeologists have to recover that system. Once that context is disturbed, the archaeologist is like a surgeon trying to operate when a big part of the body has been blown away.”
Of course all this is true of every archaeological site. Even if the United States is not like England–where, according to one saying, you can put up a tent anywhere and have reason to call it a museum–there are plenty of significant sites here, and they can’t all be saved. Why is this one special?
Probably no one would have dug on what is now Lucille Keating’s property if it were not for a woman named Sara Jones Tucker. As director of the University of Chicago’s Ethnohistorical Laboratory in the 1940s, she systematically studied the French missionaries’ and explorers’ manuscripts, sifting through their references to the Grand Village between 1673 and 1680 (when the Iroquois drove the Illinois west into Iowa). The travelers were able to identify this village–unlike most–by relatively unchanging landmarks: the junction of the Vermilion and Fox rivers with the Illinois River, the rapids in the Illinois at Starved Rock and Marseilles (now flooded by dams), the now submerged island, and Starved Rock itself. “The Grand Village,” summarizes Margaret Brown, “was on the north side of the river between two rapids, below the Fox River, above the Vermilion, and approximately a mile upstream from Starved Rock.”
When U. of C. and Illinois State Museum researchers dug in that vicinity in 1947, they found evidence that the site had indeed been a village in early historic times; very likely they had found part of the village. On that basis, their dig–called the “Zimmerman site” after the 1947 owner–was in 1966 both named to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark. Illinois has 55 National Historic Landmarks (the more elite designation); this may be the only one that is a cornfield.
Lucille Keating’s farm, then, is unique:
(1) The village there comprised probably 7,000 people at its peak, making it, as Chicago attorney and historian John Swenson observes, one of the biggest cities in North America at the time. (By comparison, Montreal had a population of 1,500 in 1672, and Philadelphia wasn’t even founded until 1681.) Emerson believes there are “hundreds and hundreds” of Indian burials on the 131 acres, basing that estimate on the two dozen unearthed in the relatively small digs of 1947 and 1970-72.
(2) More important, we know who lived there. There are two other Illinois Indian villages identified both historically and archaeologically, but they are smaller and of later date (after the tribe had become much more “civilized”). Natalia Belting, contradicting Emerson, says the Illinois Indians are actually “better documented in the historical record than practically any other tribe in the midwest. They are very little known archaeologically and that’s why this is important.” Adds Northwestern University archaeologist Robert Jeske, “Just upstream at the La Salle County Nursing Home is a very large late prehistoric site. Tons of fantastic stuff have come out of that. There are sites like that all up and down the river. They get trashed regularly because they don’t have this historical connection.” In other words, the Grand Village site is a place where prehistory blends into history, offering a unique opportunity to match up pottery fragments and posthole patterns–archaeologists’ usual stock in trade–with the names and voices of the Illiniwek.
Although this matchup was among the original goals of Tucker’s project and of the two digs that have been done so far, the match has not yet been made: several different clusters of pottery and burials and cabins have been found, and it’s still not clear which belong to the Illiniwek and which to their related predecessors or cousins. Nor is it clear where the new “Grand Village” was located after 1682, when the Illinois returned from Iowa to be near La Salle’s Fort Saint Louis on Starved Rock. That would be quite a find, because for a few years the Illinois, together with nearby Shawnee, Miami, Missouri, and Mohicans, crammed the area around the Rock with an astonishing 18,000 people (the estimate given in Helen Tanner’s Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History). La Salle wanted to form these tribes into a French-backed confederacy capable of resisting the British-backed Iroquois; the scheme failed when he lost his backing in Canada.
Many more minor mysteries will go forever unsolved if the Grand Village site is destroyed. For example, the Illinois are historically attested to have had firearms from an early date. According to Raymond Hauser, a history professor at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove and a close student of the Illinois, they used firearms to great effect against less sophisticated tribes and in fact built a new kind of war around them. The Zimmerman digs so far have revealed numerous scraps of brass and iron and glass, pieces of kettles, and a beautifully preserved French compass–but not one piece of musket or musketry hardware. Where are they?
The missionaries who came to convert the Illinois don’t seem to have been much subtler than a musket. The account we have of the first two masses celebrated in Illinois says that Father Marquette thus “took possession of that land in the name of Jesus Christ.” It was the spring of 1675–Marquette’s second and final visit to the Grand Village–and he wanted to address everyone, but no cabin was large enough. So they gathered in “a beautiful prairie, close to a village . . . this was adorned, after the fashion of the country, by Covering it with mats and bearskins. Then the father, having directed them to stretch out upon Lines several pieces of chinese taffeta, attached to these four large Pictures of the blessed Virgin, which were visible on all Sides. The audience was Composed of 500 chiefs and elders, seated in a circle around the father, and of all the Young men, who remained standing. They numbered more than 1,500 men, without counting the women and children.”
Two years later, when Father Allouez arrived to continue the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, he and his colleagues “erected in the midst of the town a cross twenty-five feet high, chanting the Vexilla Regis in the presence of a great number of Illinois of all tribes. . . . The children even came devoutly to kiss the Cross, while the grown-up people Earnestly entreated me to plant it there so firmly that it might never be in danger of falling.”
For 40 years–since before the administration of Governor Adlai Stevenson–the state of Illinois has known that this property is an archaeological treasure. Twenty-one years ago–during Governor Otto Kerner’s second term–the federal government gave it the purely honorific title of National Historic Landmark. In all that time, up until the past few weeks, the state has failed to protect the site in any way.
It has tried. The records are sketchy and scattered on both sides, but they seem to confirm the judgment of Northern Illinois Archeological Society president Tom Zmudka of Oglesby: “The state had many opportunities to purchase the property, but never got serious about it till they stood to lose it forever.” “The state” until 1985 was the Department of Conservation, which had many nonhistoric responsibilities as well as an often contentious relationship with landowners. In 1959, the department took the Keatings to court in an eminent domain proceeding to buy some of the submerged islands in the river, in order to protect a duck flyway; then, when the court set the price too high, it didn’t make the purchase. According to one source, in the early 1970s the state held an option on the property and chose not to exercise it. Further negotiations in the late 1970s and early 1980s foundered, both because the state would not meet Mrs. Keating’s price, and because at that time the Department of Conservation wanted to buy only the western portion (where most excavations had been made), not the entire 131 acres and house.
Mrs. Keating’s insistence on a development price (around $4,000 per acre) rather than a farm price ($1,000-$3,000 per acre) was confirmed, as she says, “about ten years ago, when the state paid $480,000 for 38 acres of swamp across from the entrance to Starved Rock State Park. [State records say it was 158 acres.] So I don’t think $550,000 for 131 acres of usable river frontage was unreasonable at all.”
The conservation department apparently paid that price, which is indeed comparable to Keating’s asking price for her property, because the “swamp” in question was in danger of industrial development. But at least one knowledgeable local observer feared that a similar fate might lie in store for the Keating property. Says Edmund Thornton, “We were always concerned that it might be developed as a barge terminal or some such. The recent announcement [of the Landings] came somewhat as a surprise because it involved residential development in that floodplain.”
Likewise, as Mrs. Keating says, the state does seem to come up with the money when it really wants something. In 1981, when a state fiscal crisis was cutting deeply into welfare and mental health budgets, Governor Thompson and lawmakers of both parties quickly saved an exquisite Frank Lloyd Wright creation–the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield–by borrowing the necessary money, selling $1 million in general obligation bonds.
From an outsider’s point of view, of course, “the state” is an incorrigible and often irrational monolith, which Mrs. Keating gave up on in 1984. But in 1985 Governor Thompson split off the historic-preservation functions of the Department of Conservation into a separate department, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. “For us it’s a new ball game,” says IHPA public information officer Marygael Cullen. “We would consider this site a priority.”
Even if the state lacked the money to meet Mrs. Keating’s price and the will to go the eminent domain route, there has for ten years been another, much cheaper way of giving the Grand Village some protection: the Illinois Register of Historic Places. The village would seem to be amply qualified, and most Historic Places get nominated and registered without the owner’s active participation.
Being a registered Illinois Historic Place may not permanently save a building or village from defacement or demolition, but it does provide for delay and negotiation. Anyone who wants to demolish a “critical historic feature” of a registered place must ask IHPA for a “certificate of appropriateness.” If that is not forthcoming, the owners must negotiate with the agency in good faith. They don’t have to agree to anything, though: after 210 days with no settlement, they are free to make whatever changes they want, certificate or no. (According to deputy state historic preservation officer Ted Hild, this has happened only once in the program’s history.)
A little more than a week ago, on September 23, the Keating property was nominated for the register by the University of Illinois department of anthropology. If the nomination is approved by the Historic Sites Advisory Council (one of whose members is the chairman of said anthropology department) and the state historic preservation officer (who happens to be Michael Devine, head of IHPA), the property could be registered as early as November 29.
Why wasn’t this done long ago? Perhaps because it’s a bit unconventional–no other archaeological site in the state is so listed. Perhaps because the site is neither conspicuous nor scenic–there are no mounds to catch the public’s eye, as at Cahokia. Perhaps the agency just didn’t have time to encourage a nomination. “We only have so many staff,” says Marygael Cullen. “It’s like we’re always putting out fires.” Or, as she acknowledges, “We were perhaps complacent. It was in a rural area, on a floodplain . . .”
Contrary to the ethnocentric slurs of early historians, the Illinois Indians had a sophisticated and successful farming-hunting-gathering economy. Each household planted corn after frost in the spring; the plants were perhaps a yard apart, and in between the women planted beans and squash or pumpkins. In June, when it was time for the village to leave for the summer buffalo hunt, they weeded the patch for the last time–anyone who has grown squash in a garden will know why they didn’t have to worry about weeding the corn anymore. After the six-week buffalo hunt, which provided most of the year’s meat, they returned to the summer village to harvest and store food. In early fall, the group broke up into smaller winter villages, hunting and gathering individually and in small groups. This whole setup was based on seasonal migration, which in turn depended on the tribal view of land as a common, inalienable possession used by all and belonging to all.
To the French, of course, this was no way to make a living. The Jesuits made strenuous but unproductive efforts to tame the buffalo to pull plows. They had more success harnessing their human converts. They introduced, and the Illinois accepted, domestic animals–chickens, cattle, horses, and, most destructive, hogs, which went wild and consumed many of the wild foods and roots the Indians had eaten themselves. The animals made it both possible and necessary to stay in one place; less than 50 years after Marquette and Jolliet’s first visit, the Illinois were selling chickens back to the French. In 1733, French veterans in the country were even being encouraged to learn about the Illinois Indians’ agriculture, in hopes that the soldiers would catch on to the idea of settling down in the New World!
“The destruction of the Illinois economy,” writes Raymond Hauser, “was not the result of a single dramatic event. That destruction took place gradually, over the period of a century and a half . . . To take advantage of the hide and fur trade opportunities, the Illinois tribe became in part a society of specialized commercial hunters . . . To please the Jesuit missionaries and to become better Christians, pious in habit and sedentary in residence, they also became in part a society of peasant villagers . . . By the time that the Anglo-Americans began to move into the Illinois country in numbers, the traditional Illinois economy had ceased to exist.” Natalia Belting: “By Pontiac’s time , the young people just plain didn’t know how to do anything.” When the English came in, showing no respect even for Indians who lived in one place and farmed, it was already too late. There was no going back.
If and when the Landings is fully developed, it will consist of 189 lots (and perhaps not quite that many pole-frame houses–at least one person is said to have bought three adjoining parcels), plus a ten-acre landlocked lake, tennis courts, a swimming pool, roads and septic facilities to serve the homes, and the bed-and-breakfast inn in the midst of it all.
Rural La Salle County is a pretty good place to build all this with a minimum of governmental interference. The county has no zoning and has not joined the federal flood insurance program; the state has no law regulating development in floodplains, although there are those who think it could use one. But no place is perfect. The developers must satisfy the county’s subdivision ordinance, and in order to do this they must among other things get OKs from the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Water Resources and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Division of Water Resources is concerned only with whether the houses’ poles would seriously retard the flow of water in the event of a river flood. The Corps of Engineers’ charter is, or could be, broader–and the developers seem to be doing what they can to keep from falling under it.
This is the best evidence we have that the Landings partners know what they are building on and want to evade the archaeological issue. The Corps must give a permit for any construction that might affect navigation on the Illinois River. Once it decides that a given project requires a permit, the agency must then also investigate the archaeological effects of that construction–at the developers’ expense. Corps officials won’t put a dollar figure on it, but IHPA archaeologist Tom Emerson–who devoutly hopes such a project won’t happen–estimates that a proper, full-scale archaeological investigation of the Keating property would take two full seasons and cost between $750,000 and $1,000,000.
“We have looked at several alternative plans” for the Landings, says John Betker, who is handling the project for the Army Corps. One early version, he says, had “a navigable river system running through the property” leading to and from the Illinois River. Another had the artificial lake connected to the river. Either of these would probably have required the Corps to issue a permit for the entire development; either, in other words, would have entailed an archaeological investigation. Plans now call for the lake to be landlocked, and so it probably will not require a Corps permit.
The Landings brochure, in its “artist rendering of plat,” displays 39 boat docks on the river. These too would probably require a Corps permit and an archaeological investigation, at least of their immediate area. But now, according to Betker, the developers say they have no reason to build those docks after all: Landings residents can rent spaces in the nearby Starved Rock marina instead.
None of these maneuvers is conclusive. The Corps has not finally decided whether a permit is required, or what area it will cover if it is. But by cutting the lake off from the river, and by eliminating the planned docks, the developers appear to be doing their best to avoid having to get a permit–and to avoid the expense and delay of finding out exactly what kind of historic information their project will destroy.
Coming from a continent awash in absolute monarchs, the French could not fathom the nearly anarchic structure of Illinois society. Jolliet and Marquette believed they had been greeted by the “great sachem of all the Illinois,” but there was no such person. Their greeter was probably his village’s “peace chief,” a kind of cross between a mediator and an informal justice of the peace. (As for war–before the new European weapons appeared–Natalia Belting says, “When a young man decided to go on the warpath, he and his friends, he would be war chief for the duration of that raid. The point wasn’t so much killing as it was seeing how close you could get to the other village without them knowing, and bringing back something to prove it. And he was responsible to the mothers of his comrades. If he lost anyone, he was turned over to that one’s mother, and she could do with him as she wished–including sell him as a slave.”)
“It is true, there are chiefs among them,” wrote a bewildered Father Gabriel Marest, “but the chiefs have no authority.” Not being able to deal with a headless social system, the French blithely proceeded to turn the Illinois into a replica of themselves by bestowing authority on “medal chiefs,” tribesmen to whom they gave medals and whom they treated as if they held kingly authority over their “nation.” The Spanish, British, and U.S. followed suit. As the Illinois became more settled and more Christian, they began to accept the medal chiefs as authority figures too. “Gradually,” writes Raymond Hauser, ” . . . the Illinois chiefs began to exercise authoritative power, [and] the tribe abandoned its traditional system of consensus for the centralized, vertical authority system of the whites.” In less than a century the tribal society had been turned inside out. “By 1767,” Hauser writes, “the investiture of a new Illinois subtribal or village civil chief required the approval of a colonial official.”
Since news of the Landings hit Springfield in early August, the state Historic Preservation Agency and its allies have been scrambling to make up for lost time. At present they lack the legal and financial levers needed to move or prevent the development (IHPA’s goal being to preserve the information in place, not just dig it up).
The site is, after all, private property. There’s no state or federal government money in the development (which could trigger an archaeological review). It may well not require a Corps of Engineers permit (which could do likewise). The site is not–yet–on the Illinois Register of Historic Places, which would ensure at least some delay and offer a chance for negotiations to take place. There is no money in IHPA’s current budget with which to buy the Keating property, although the agency may well ask for some during the legislature’s fall veto session later this month. (Without the money, taking the owner to court under eminent domain would be pointless.)
So the IHPA has been squawking, with various results:
- From the Tribune, the agency got a front-page story espousing Mrs. Keating’s point of view, and a more balanced editorial.
- The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission–chaired by the ubiquitous Edmund Thornton–passed a resolution September 3 approving of the bed-and-breakfast, but viewing the rest of the Landings with “great apprehension and concern”: “The archaeological importance of this site is synonymous with the greatness of our state and nation . . . [it] has been inundated by flooding from the Illinois River on a historically consistent calendar.” The resolution was directed to the chairman of the La Salle County Board’s development committee; it must OK the development, but its legal authority is a subdivision ordinance that makes no provision for state or national greatness.
- IHPA has contacted the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Trust for Public Lands in hopes that one or more of the groups might be able to buy the property and hold it long enough for IHPA to find the funds to buy it back from them. None of the groups has committed itself to anything, but none has refused, either.
- The agency has stimulated some protest against the development by contacting the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Indian tribes whose ancestors may possibly be among those buried at the site. NCAI works to protect the integrity of Indian grave sites, and so is often at odds with archaeologists; policy analyst Karen Funk says she’s pleased to be on the same side with them for a change. She adds, however, that this is “one of the hardest cases I’ve encountered. There’s no state law [protecting burials], there are no tribes in the area [the closest one, the Miami Nation of Indiana, has written to Governor Thompson in protest], and it’s private land–I can’t find any federal hook on it. It may be a matter of just plain convincing someone not to do something.”
- IHPA has followed up on a variety of tips regarding other laws that might regulate or delay the development. The Landings has not registered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Interstate Land Sales Act, for instance. But the act, which is mainly a consumer-protection statute, does not impose any limits on the project, nor (according to IHPA attorney William Wheeler) does it even appear to require that the developers inform lot purchasers that they will be living atop what was once an archaeological gold mine.
As the 18th century unrolled, the European demand for meat and robes transformed the Illinois’ communal buffalo hunt into an ever more commercial and dangerous enterprise. In a sense, the tribe–which had probably numbered more than 13,000 in the 1650s–found itself forced to consume its own substance. By 1800 fewer than 80 Illinois remained east of the Mississippi River; by 1814, the last buffalo was gone from the region, and territorial governor Ninian Edwards had had to “call in” the pitiful remnant of Illinois (known then as “Kaskaskia” after one of the subtribes) for their own protection and put them on welfare. But the signs of doom should have been plain more than half a century before.
“The European trade demands placed . . . the tribe in a position of impossible contradictions,” writes Hauser: “The more the Illinois traded, the more they depleted the resources on which rested the hunting foundations of their economy; but as those resources disappeared, the Illinois became still more increasingly dependent upon the traders to supply them with the goods of life. And as the buffalo herds receded, the communal hunts became ever more dangerous because of the rivalry and hostility of other armed tribes, competing with the Illinois for the same shrinking resources.” The ever compliant, adaptable Illinois had finally become their own prey. “The annihilation of the buffalo thus came to involve the disruption of the Illinois tribal economy and the annihilation of the Illinois tribe itself.”
The state may not be negotiating with the developers, but at least one archaeologist is. Robert Jeske, chief of Northwestern University’s Chicago Area Archaeological Program, stumbled on the situation last summer while doing some exploratory digs for the National Park Service’s Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. “We ran into some trouble” trying to do a test excavation at the Zimmerman site, he says. “Mrs. Keating was very obstructionist, but the Landings people let us on and were very cooperative.”
Jeske agrees with IHPA’s Tom Emerson that ideally the site should be preserved. But he’s afraid it won’t be. “They’re going to destroy the site and there’s no legal way I can see to stop them.
“Given that, I don’t have to have Tom Emerson’s unbending will. I can say, ‘If you’re going to trash this site, how about letting us get some information out first?'” The developers have said all along that researchers could dig there as long as it didn’t cost the Landings anything and didn’t delay the project, but no archaeologist has money lying around for such an immense project on such short notice. On September 14 Jeske submitted a proposal to the developers that they pay for “some initial work to discover the extent of the damage.” Once he has determined which areas of the property are richest in artifacts, then he expects to ask them for more money to salvage the buried information.
Tom Emerson says the developers at one point offered Jeske $50,000–an amount Emerson considers absurdly small given the size of the task. Jeske won’t confirm or deny any figures, although he and Emerson agree that a complete dig would cost at least $1 million. “I’d prefer we not talk dollar amounts. The developers are going to make a fortune on this”–he estimates an average price of $28,000 a lot, which would come to a gross of over $5 million–“and I’m trying to make them feel guilty. I’m going to try to weasel as much money out of them as I can. I’ve told them so.”
If Jeske sounds like a man on a tightrope, he is. He’s preparing a fallback position for the preservationists, who hope it will never come to that but who must admit that a little information is better than none. He’s also offering the developers a chance to enhance their image; he has found them reasonable people too.
“For people who are trashing sites, they’ve been really cooperative. One thing they’ve never done is stonewalled or dragged their feet on any of this stuff. They believe it’s their legal right to trash the site, and they’ve been very straightforward: we can do the work, but they don’t want to pay very much and they don’t want to be delayed. I say, ‘I’m going to try to convince you to spend as much money as you can.’ They say, ‘Go ahead.'”
Jeske hopes to parlay any developer funding into matching grants from other sources; and he sees a glimmer of hope for a long-range compromise. “Our suspicion is that the heaviest concentration of material is in the western portion of the site,” where most of the previous excavations have been done. “There’s not much proof for that. But since the developers’ plans are to develop the eastern half first, and the western half only after a couple of years, it’s possible we could swing a deal to mitigate the damage on the east half, and meanwhile the state could get together the money to buy the west end.” (This is the portion the Department of Conservation was trying to buy in the early 1980s.)
But that speculation is as far as he will go. “I don’t deal with the political stuff. I’m just a digger of holes in the ground.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin, Illinois State Historical Library.