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Thursday, March 25, 2010 09:05 pm

Getting to know the natives

The story of this area’s earliest residents, before they were forced to walk the Trail of Death

A Kickapoo man named Cock Turkey, painted by George Catlin in 1830.
It’s easy in this Land of Lincoln Obsession to think that our area’s history began with the sixteenth president or with white settlers in general. But doing so ignores the many Native Americans who lived here thousands of years before there was even an America to preside over.

Dr. Michael Wiant, director of the Illinois State Museum’s Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, is going to tell the story of these often overlooked peoples on Saturday, March 27 at Buffalo Hart Presbyterian Church in Buffalo Hart, northeast of Springfield. He will discuss tribes like the Kickapoo that inhabited central Illinois, including the Buffalo Hart area, as well as other tribes that migrated to the state.

Wiant has studied Native Americans for 40 years and oversees a museum which is also a National Historic Site. Dickson Mounds Museum features artifacts of Illinois River Valley Native Americans and explains their history in the area. The museum’s research into that subject is ongoing. The museum is located in Fulton County, where thousands of artifacts and numerous mounds have been found.

“Illinois, like many other states in the Midwest, has a remarkable archaeological record of native inhabitants,” he says. Part of that record includes stone points, arrowheads and other artifacts commonly found in central Illinois. “Between Elkhart and Mt. Pulaski was a colossal inland lake…that attracted native residents for thousands of years,” according to Wiant. “You may find literally thousands of (artifacts) perched on the bank of this now ancient lake.” (He encourages audience members to bring artifacts they’ve found to his lecture for identification.)

Archaeological evidence like this and written documents left mostly from white settlers who encountered tribes help us understand when Native Americans lived here and “how their lives changed over time,” Wiant says.

He hopes the audience will get a couple messages from his talk. “We owe a considerable amount of our contemporary lives to the developments and inventions of native people” and “studying (them) gives us real insight into the human condition around the world, about how human societies have moved from being hunters and gatherers…to growing crops and living in larger communities.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when Native Americans came to this area, but evidence suggests it was between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, according to Wiant. It’s much easier to determine when most left. That date was 1832. During that year “most of the tribes abandoned Illinois,” he says. By the end of that summer, tribes that hadn’t already moved west of the Mississippi River were encouraged to leave.

Six years later, remaining groups, including bands of the Potowatomi, were forcibly removed. “I’m going to talk about this because I think a lot of people have the sense that the Indian people simply moved on, and this is an example that it’s not the case,” he says.

The path of the Potowatomi’s removal by gunpoint is called the “Trail of Death” and it runs straight through central Illinois and Springfield. Between September and November 1838, the Potowotami were rounded up in northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois and marched to Kansas.

Much of what is known about that march comes from the writings of Father Benjamin Marie Petit, a Jesuit priest who originally ministered to the tribe in their homeland. He tried to block their forced removal through the legal system, but failed. Then the Potowatami, who called him “Father Black Robe,” “begged him to travel with them” on the forced march, according to the Potowatomi Trail of Death Web site.

He did so and chronicled the experience. Of the 800 to 850 Potowatomi who were removed, 42 of them, mostly children, died and were buried en route. On Sept. 28, 1838, when the group stopped east of Springfield for the night, two children died. Historical markers have been placed there on Oak Crest Road, on Springfield’s Old State Capitol Plaza, and at Riddle Hill, west of Springfield — all locations where the group marched or rested.

Illinois’ territorial governor, Ninian Edwards, also left many written accounts of Native Americans who lived here in the early 1800s, before Illinois became a state. At that time the white settlers “were quite alarmed by the fact that many of the tribes were siding with the British,” Wiant says. So Edwards and others organized to confront and combat the tribes when necessary, in order to preserve the territory’s boundaries. Wiant plans to read some of Edwards’ writings during his talk at Buffalo Hart.

His lecture is free and open to the public. It will be held Saturday, March 27, at the Buffalo Hart Presbyterian Church, 10 miles northeast of the I-55/Sangamon Ave. intersection on Rt. 54, then a quarter-mile north on Buffalo Hart Road. Wiant will be available at 1 p.m. to identify audience members’ Native American artifacts. His lecture will begin at 2 p.m. and is expected to last about an hour. For more info call the church at 217/523-2801 or visit its Web site: www.buffalohartpc.com.

Saturday’s program is the second of three lectures in the Buffalo Hart Presbyterian Church series, “A Sense of Place.” The first program was last fall on the geology of the Buffalo Hart area, and the series will conclude Sept. 4 with a lecture on early European settlers of the area.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.
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