Archive for the ‘Illinois’ Category

Location: Across the river from St. Louis, between East St. Louis and Collinsville, Illinois

Liz at Cahokia Mounds. Once this was a metropolis.

That was an unplanned blogging break! Back now with regular blogging. This is the first of two posts I will do about sites of the early American culture known as the mound builders. I confess I never learned one particle of information about the mound builders in school, or in any documentary or book until we began our research into Lewis and Clark. I had no idea such an advanced civilization existed in North America. Cahokia Mounds is a gateway to an entirely different way of understanding the history of America before Europeans arrived on the scene.

The mound builders were the ancestors of the Indians that encountered Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other European settles and explorers. They lived in sophisticated cities that centered around large temples and public buildings constructed as monumental earthen mounds. The earliest known mound city has been located near present-day Monroe, Louisiana and dates back to around 3400 B.C. For context, this was almost one thousand years earlier than the pyramids were built in Egypt.

The greatest surviving mound city can explored today at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It seems that about 500 hundred years ago, Cahokia was the site of one of the largest cities in the world — far larger than, say, London in the time of Shakespeare. At its peak, Cahokia was home to over 20,000 people. It would be centuries before another city of comparable size (Philadelphia) arose in North America.

But of all the people that lived in this powerful center of human industry and imagination, nothing remains today but about 80 mysterious mounds. The largest of them, called Monk’s Mound, is 100 feet high and would have been topped by an impressive temple. It is the largest such structure found north of Mexico. The mound is named after a community of Trappist monks who made their home there in Lewis & Clark’s day (in fact, one of the monks baptized little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea). The mounds, their shapes, and their layout are believed to have been governed by an ancient cosmology that is still only dimly understood.

Artist’s rendition of Cahokia in all its glory. No one knows what the original inhabitants of the site called the city. Courtesy Cahokia Mounds Museum Society.

There is evidence that Cahokia was a walled city, and some of the stockade has been reconstructed. The inhabitants followed the sun calendar which they followed with a giant calendar, now reconstructed and called “Woodhenge.”

Cahokia is believed to gone into decline around 1300, and was abandoned before the first Spanish and French explorers arrived in the area. (The mound builders lived on elsewhere — a story that will be in the second post, coming soon.) In fact, the Indians seem to have suffered through some unknown catastrophe that left the region greatly depopulated from what it had once been. In any case, the locals really didn’t know much about their forebears who once lived in the great city, though they continued to venerate its remains.

Generations of white settlers found the mounds fascinating. Early St. Louis was nicknamed “Mound City” because there were so many Native American structures to explore. During his travels during the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, viewed Cahokia Mounds and spoke with the Kaskaskia Indians about the complex. Clark wrote, “They say they were the work of their forefathers and that they were formerly as numerous as the trees in the woods.”

In fact, the entire eastern portion of the country hosted hundreds of mounds, which were explored by scientists and dedicated amateurs like future presidents Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, the heyday of excavation and study of the mounds was short-lived. Most of them were destroyed by development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cahokia Mounds has only been systematically studied since the 1960s, when preservationists successfully stopped a plan to build an interstate highway through it. What has been discovered includes beautiful carvings, ceremonial graves, and evidence of human sacrifice similar to that practiced at corresponding sites in Mexico.

We spent an amazing, delightful day viewing and exploring the huge mounds and learning about the life of the people who lived around them.The visitor center has excellent exhibits and a good orientation movie, along with a tape that you can use to guide you on a walking/driving tour of the great city. I suggest bringing a picnic lunch which you can eat outside or inside in a spacious break area that also contains some vending machines.

Back in St. Louis after our day at the mounds, we walked in the park that surrounds the Gateway Arch. We watched ducks and bunnies playing in the park, people of all types enjoying the Arch and the river, and a stupendous pink sunset behind the Old Cathedral. The silvery Arch reflected the colors back at the sun. It was not unlike the mounds made by the mysterious Indians at Cahokia. Both are expressions of the highest aspirations of mankind.

More great reading:

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (State of Illinois)
Cahokia: America’s Forgotten City (National Geographic)

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Location: One mile east of Metropolis, Illinois (also the home of Superman)

Fort Massac. Foundations of original fort in foreground; reconstruction in back.

Fort Massac State Park is a reconstruction of a fort that was a major control point on the Ohio River for decades. The first historically documented fort here was constructed by the French in 1757 and called Fort Ascension or Fort Massiac; some historians believe the Spanish may have fortified this spot even before that date. In any case, the fort was turned over to British control in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. The Chickasaw Indians burned the fort to the ground before it was ever occupied by British troops.

In July 1778, George Rogers Clark chose this spot to begin his memorable march across southern Illinois to seize control of the occupied British frontier forts. In my opinion, Clark is easily the most underrated figure of the American Revolution, and the Illinois campaign illustrates why. At the beginning of the Revolution, Kentucky was extremely sparsely populated and under siege by Native Americans backed by the British. Most people thought the territory would have to be evacuated. In retrospect, the alternate history that might have unfolded from this retreat is almost unfathomable. If the United States had ended the American Revolution without possession of the territory west of the Alleghenies, westward expansion might never have happened.

A young officer named George Rogers Clark volunteered to defend the Kentucky territory and much more. With authorization from Virginia’s governor Patrick Henry (Kentucky was part of Virginia at the time), Clark raised a regiment of 150 men. Not one to adopt a purely defensive posture, Clark then went on the offensive to seize the British-occupied forts in the remote west.

George Rogers Clark overlooking the Ohio, by Leon Hermant

Clark’s first target was the village of Kaskaskia, near modern-day Centralia, Illinois. Ordinarily, frontier Kaskaskia was reached by paddling up the Mississippi River, but Clark obviously wanted the element of surprise. He staged a 120-mile march across southern Illinois. The starting point of that historic march was the ruins of old Fort “Massac.”

Ultimately the heroism of Clark and his tiny band would lead to the possession of modern-day Illinois and Indiana by the state of Virginia. The vast territory needed to be defended, as the British, Spanish, and French continued to plot to wrest the western territories from the struggling new nation (this international intrigue is quite thrilling and forms the background for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and isn’t today the day to click that “Buy Now” tab for some exciting summer reading? Thanks.). As a result, the Americans rebuilt Fort Massac. At the height of the Indian Wars of the 1790s, the fort had the largest garrison of any United States fort. It served as the port of entry into the United States for goods coming up river from the Mississippi (under Spanish control).

By November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (George’s little brother) stopped at Fort Massac, under the command of Daniel Bissell. Probably to his dismay, Bissell had orders from President Jefferson to allow Lewis and Clark to recruit as desired from his garrison. He could not have been pleased about allowing the Expedition leaders to cherry-pick his best men. John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse would become the first two active-duty military personnel to enlist in the Corps of Discovery. In addition, Lewis recruited the indispensable George Drouilliard at Fort Massac. The half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter possessed frontier skills and knowledge that would make him one of the most valuable members of the Corps.

Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

In June 1805, about the time Lewis and Clark were struggling to make their epic portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, Fort Massac was the site of an intriguing meeting between disgraced former vice-president Aaron Burr and none other than our old friend, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson outfitted Burr with a barge and letters of introduction to his wide circle of international acquaintances in New Orleans. It is believed that Burr and Wilkinson drew up plans to launch a treasonous expedition of conquest into the American Southwest; Wilkinson would later betray Burr’s plan and order his arrest.

Fort Massac was heavily damaged in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It was, however, used as a training center during the War of 1812 before being closed at the end of the war in 1814. By 1833 it was described as a “ruin.” The fort’s site was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1903, and became an Illinois state park in 1908. Interesting archaeological research has been taking place at the fort site since the 1930s.

The current replica fort lies just beside the archaeological site and provides an accurate model of the fort as it existed in 1802. Visiting the fort is a total blast for buffs of the period. It consists of a four-sided wooden fort surrounded by trenches and palisades. Inside are wooden buildings and barracks. The design and construction of Fort Massac would have been typical of other frontier forts such as Fort Washington, the Cincinnati-area fort where Lewis and Clark first met in the 1790s. Lewis & Clark’s smaller Expedition forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, would have followed the same model.

There’s a good introductory film at the visitor’s center. We especially enjoyed the quaint 1930s statue of George Rogers Clark and spending lots of time exploring the outline of the original fort.

More great reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I

Lewis & Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod


The Four Sergeants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

George Drouillard: Wanted for Murder


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As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s important to remember the long road blacks had to travel to emancipation. Nothing illustrates this better than the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Edward Coles, his young Virginia neighbor.

Thomas Jefferson by Sully, 1821

Thomas Jefferson by Sully, 1821

United States history owes Edward Coles a debt, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was the man who brought about the reconciliation of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the twilight of their lives. In 1811, Coles was serving as President James Madison’s private secretary when he visited John Adams in Massachusetts. Adams recalled his tense final meeting with Thomas Jefferson, his successor as President, after Adams’ bitter defeat. When Coles mentioned gently that Jefferson spoke of him with kindness, Adams blurted, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” Assured of Jefferson’s affection and respect, Adams put aside his bitterness and wrote Jefferson a letter. The correspondence between the two elder statesmen is a priceless record of their later lives, and a national treasure.

The second reason the U.S. owes Edward Coles a debt came later. In August 1814, Coles, still only 27, wrote Jefferson a letter. Coles was a slave owner but was deeply troubled about it. He wanted to free his slaves, but under Virginia law, the emancipated slaves would be required to leave the state after one year, with no money, property, rights, or prospects of making a living. To Coles, that was a bleak prospect.

He wrote to Jefferson to seek his help in “devising and getting into operation some plan for the great gradual emancipation of slavery.” Mentioning the “renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author,” Coles suggested that Jefferson could use his influence to try to bring about more humane slavery laws in Virginia, up to and including outlawing slavery altogether. If such laws could not be brought about, Coles wrote, he might have to leave Virginia, taking his slaves with him.

Jefferson’s reply was revealing of his personality, his circumstances and his history. While drafting Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson condemned the British crown for the slave trade, saying King George III “has waged cruel war against human nature itself…captivating & carrying [blacks] into slavery.” Jefferson also condemned the King for “inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters.” This language was dropped from the Declaration before passage, at the request of Southern delegates. In 1778, the Virginia legislature passed a bill Jefferson introduced to ban further importation of slaves into the state; he said it “stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.”

Leisure and labor at Monticello

Leisure and labor at Monticello

The key word was “future.” In the present, Jefferson relied upon slave labor for making a living, and in his later years, that living was surprisingly modest. With his farms struggling and debt soaring, slaves were the biggest asset Thomas Jefferson owned next to his homes and land—and he simply could not afford to think about emancipating them. He may have shuddered in writing at the evils of the slave trade and the moral repugnance of slavery, but Jefferson’s hypocrisy on the topic is well known. He had done little to support the actual abolition of slavery.

In his reply to Coles, Jefferson was true to form. He praised Coles for his idealism, but held out little hope that change was possible anytime soon. Recalling past political battles in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson told Coles that anyone who proposed an end to slavery was “denounced as an enemy to his country, and was treated with the grossest indecorum.” The younger generation was no better. “Your solitary but welcome voice is the first which has brought this to my ear, and I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope.” He discouraged Coles from leaving Virginia, saying instead that Coles should simply treat his slaves well and wait for a better time.

Edward Coles

Edward Coles in later life

Coles was disappointed that Jefferson declined to support his cause, but he was not persuaded that waiting was the proper course. By April 1819, Coles had secured an appointment as  Register of the Illinois Land Office. He boarded his ten slaves onto flatboats and headed down the Ohio River, until they reached the new state of Illinois. There he purchased enough land to set his slaves up as farmers and free men.

Coles recalled the morning that he gathered his slaves around him and announced that they were now free to do as they pleased. “In breathless silence they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with expression which no words could convey, and which no language can now describe.” After helping Coles get his own farm started, virtually all of his former slaves settled near him, each man now working 160 acres of his own.

Talk of legalizing slavery in Illinois prompted Coles to declare himself a candidate for governor in 1822. Coles won a tight race, becoming the second governor of Illinois. He immediately challenged the state’s political elite to eliminate the Black Codes and the indenture laws that created de facto slavery. In 1824, the issue was put to a popular referendum, the first such vote in U.S. history. Coles’s leadership prevailed, and Illinois remained free.

To close, here are perhaps the most eloquent words ever written on why waiting for gradual emancipation and civil rights would never have worked. This was written on another April, almost 150 years later, from a Birmingham jail.

Martin Luther King in Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, April 1963

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Further reading:

Full text of Letter from Birmingham Jail
Biography of Governor Edward Coles

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