OLD PRAIRIE TRAILS AND THEIR TRAVELLERS

From CHAPTER VIII of "Historic Illinois" by Randall Parrish, 1907
Transcribed by Kim Torp


©Illinois Genealogy Trails History Group
http://www.genealogytrails.com/ill/

In those years before white men came to Illinois, as well as during the entire period of sparse French occupancy, the virgin prairies of the country, roamed over by wild beasts and as wild men, were crisscrossed by innumerable Indian trails, leading either from village to village, or else to some more distant point of interest. Some of these were distinctly war trails, pointing the way direct toward distant hostile tribes or to some doomed white settlement along the far-off eastern border; others were the outgrowth of the chase, or the bartering of furs amid distant lodges; while the more important, traversed oftentimes by entire villages in their migrations, were the established routes of the aborigines, and remained much the same during many generations of constant wilderness travel.

The Indian mode of journeying when on foot was always in single file, their war parties oftentimes stretching for a great distance in straggling procession. As a result of this peculiarity, their trails leading across the country, if much used, soon cut deeply into the soft, alluvial soil of the prairie, leaving a plainly marked and narrow track, worn by the hundreds of moccasined feet passing that way. As some trails were thus used for possibly centuries of wilderness travel, and by many different tribes, not infrequently this gash became so deeply cut as to make travelling difficult, and consequently others were started close at hand, thus forming parallel tracks running for miles side by side. Like great uncoiled snakes these trails wound here and there across the level plains, and over the low hills, now skirting the edge of a dark forest, or plunging into its depths, here dipping into some silent ravine, or running beside the margin of lake or stream, yet ever pointing directly, and by the most feasible route, toward the selected destination, however far away.


The natural instinct of the savages as path finders was beyond all question, and those main trails which in an early day intersected the Illinois country, so far as they can be traced by modern research, exhibit few mistakes in judgment. The large rivers were avoided so far as possible, but, when they must be met, were crossed at convenient and shallow fords; the high and rocky hills stretching along the southern portion of the State were penetrated by means of their natural passes, while, wherever the trail led, the best of camping-grounds were always found convenient to the end of a day's travel. Several different points within the limits of the present State appear to have been favorite Indian meeting-places, and were seemingly used as such by more than one tribe, judging from the number and widely diverging trails leading thereto. The most clearly marked spot in this respect is Danville. From here, as a centre, narrow Indian paths branched off like the spokes of a wheel to every point of the compass. The Peoria Lake, or rather the detroit between the lakes, was likewise a favored meeting-place for various tribes, possibly for fishing as well as purposes of barter, while Rock Island and the mouth of the Chicago River were alike largely frequented. From Shawneetown in the far south, numerous well-worn trails led both north and west. During the days of Fort St. Louis, Starved Rock became a centre for widely diverging trails, traversed by many tribes.

Nor, with all these years which have passed since wandering, moccasined feet thus wore away the soft prairie sod, have evidences of these early aboriginal trails totally vanished. The lines were cut, not only across the dreary wilderness, but equally deep have they been impressed upon history.

In the very earliest of those old days of struggle and advance they became the prized inheritance of the pioneers. When venturesome settlers first began to stray cautiously forth from beside those streams, along whose inviting banks they had first made homes, the Indian trails became their natural guides into the unknown interior. They pointed the easier path through the Ozarks, and to spots of fertility and beauty far beyond. Following them, daring adventurers were led far out beyond the uttermost frontier, and thus is accounted for many an isolated settlement, seemingly a mere pin-prick amid the surrounding wilderness. Many of these trails were utilized for years by the earlier settlers as convenient means of communication; not a few afterwards became mail routes, and later still, stage routes, and finally, by the law of long usage, were transformed into permanent roads, which, ignoring all the rigidity of section lines and the authority of government surveys, swept independently straight across the country as the crow flies, as unerring in direction as when first traced thereon by some long dead and forgotten savage. So today, in many portions of this State, one can journey for miles along some old-time Indian trail, which would be alive with thrilling memories of that dead past could it only be induced to tell its long-forgotten story. Even railroads speed through the Ozarks, and across the open prairie, under such savage guidance, and passengers are whirled past scenes of barbaric and historic interest, could the rocks only speak, or the old forest trees give voice.

And what strange scenes of war and peace, what oddly attired passing travellers, what peculiar mingling of past and present, some of these old-time trails have witnessed in the speechless years gone by! It would be indeed a motley gathering could the ghosts of the trail again walk, and revisit those populous prairies. The story of them today, even in those little glimpses which have descended through the obscuring years, is most fascinating; yet the colors are sadly faded, the trooping men and women but so many spectres, unnamed and unknown. The old Sauk trail; the path leading from the far-away French villages on the Mississippi to Detroit; from St. Louis to Vincennes; and that dim trace extending from the mouth of the Des Moines to the Peoria Lake - all alike are historic and mysterious. About them cluster picturesque memories, legends innumerable, tragedies unspeakable; hardly a mile but has its story of daring endeavor and wild border life. Let us picture, if we can, some of the many who in those other years have passed this way -- the lonely Indian hunter, with his primitive weapons, fearful lest any step might plunge him into danger; the entire village on the move to new territory, the grave warriors stalking on ahead, the laden squaws trailing behind, the hardy ponies dragging the tepees, their long poles scratching up the soft turf; the painted and bedecked war party, armed and silent, skulking through the shadows; the black-robed Jesuit, counting his beads as he treads the weary miles, his one thought the salvation of souls; the wandering coureur de bois, careless of comfort, and ever at home in the wilderness, singing as he toils; the marching troops under the yellow flag of Spain, the French fleur de lis, the cross of St. George, and the American Stars and Stripes; the inflowing settlers, the gay, merry-making French, the grave-faced Americans, and amid them all the sombre-clad nuns of the Ursulines. All this these trails have seen. Here struggled and toiled the early immigrants, seeking spot for a new home in the wilderness; here the dauntless Kentucky hunters passed, their anxious eyes marking each dark covert in search for some skulking enemy; here the infuriated Rangers swept along in hasty pursuit of their savage foe.

History holds in her iron hand no more picturesque story than these trails could reveal were their guarded secrets known. Here met the nations of the Old World and the New - Indian and white, Spaniard, Frenchman, Briton, and American; priest and nun, soldier and adventurer, settler and outlaw, fair patrician women, and outpourings from the Salpêtrière and other hospitals of Paris. They have echoed to bursts of merry laughter, and to cries of agony and implorations of despair. Great soldiers, famous border-men, mighty warriors and chiefs, have helped to wear away this sod. Pontiac and Black Hawk, Keokuk and Tecumseh, Gomo and Little Bird, have all been here. Marquette and Joliet, La Salle and Tonty, Du Lhut, Clark, Renault, Boisbriant, Dubuque, Crogan, Taylor, Harrison, have all in turn borne part in their forgotten history have seen and suffered, toiled and conquered, along these trails of the long ago. Here captives - agonized women and children - have been hurried to distant villages, and a fate of slavery; along here men have been driven under the merciless whip to the fiendish torture of the stake. What suffering and hardship, what yearning and heartsickness, what speechless agony and brave hopes these silent miles have witnessed! And amid it all, bold and undaunted hearts were thus steadily shaping the destinies of a nation, laying the foundations of a mighty State, while through the wilderness, and along these blotted traces, they bore their messages of hope and despair, of peaceful greeting or warlike defiance.

Among these earlier trails marking the Illinois country, both Indian and white, although as a rule the latter utilized the experience of the former, it is only necessary to trace a few of the more important historically. That we are enabled to do this with some degree of accuracy is owing to the careful map-making of Rufus Blanchard.

While not the oldest by many years, the Sauk trail is in some respects one of the most interesting and clearly marked. It formed the pathway along which each recurring year the Sacs and Foxes travelled from their great village on the banks of the Mississippi to Malden in Canada, for the purpose of receiving their annuities from the English government.

It was what might be denominated as a broad trail, the large number of men, women, and children passing along it, with ponies dragging their tepees and household equipments, leaving a wide mark across the prairies. This trail followed as nearly a straight line eastward as the nature of the country would permit, and as a great portion of the territory traversed was level, or nearly so, there are reaches where modern section line roads actually follow this old trace for miles. Then the original pathfinder would meet with some early, but now surmountable, obstacle, and swerve aside to avoid it. This broad trail commenced its long, snake-like course at the present town of Milan, near the mouth of Rock River, crossed the more northern portion of Henry County, probably touching the present city of Geneseo, and then followed the pleasant valley of Green River until well into Bureau County, where it entered upon the higher, rolling prairie. The line swerved here more northeasterly, entering the present limits of La Salle County some two miles south of Mendota, and, crossing the Fox River close to the town of Sheridan, swept over the southern portion of Kendall County, -- where the old Maramech trails converged, -- finding opportunity to ford the Des Plaines slightly below Joliet, and finally traversed Cook County, about two miles north of its present southern limit, until it entered Indiana. It must have formed a sight well worth the seeing, this annual migration of Indians across the unbroken prairies. These were both large tribes, their confederation peculiarly strong, and no doubt they straggled out for many miles along the way as they marched, even while keeping close enough to each other to ward off hostile attack. As they thus passed through country hunted over by both the Pottawattomies and the Kickapoos, it is hardly likely they always escaped without paying toll of blood. As late as 1883, it is said by competent observers, the marks of this passage were still visible in many places, where the prairie sod had remained undisturbed by the plough.

A SCENE ON THE OLD FRONTIER

SHOWING INDIAN TRAIL, AND BUFFALO HERD GRAZING

(We've added the arrows to help point out the trail)

The old villages of the Peorias, which when the white men first came were established at the mouth of the Des Moines River in Iowa, were from a very early age directly connected by trail with the populous villages of the Kaskaskias - both being of the Illinois stock - situated upon the great bend of the Illinois River, near the present location of Utica. This trail was quite largely travelled by Indian trading parties, and probably at some time formed a portion of a direct line of savage communication, extending between the Mississippi and the Chicago portage. It was considerably used during the French occupancy of the country by the Jesuits, and by French traders settled near the Peoria Lake. As early as 1720 there was a French trading-post on Illinois soil opposite the mouth of the Des Moines. For several years this path was believed to be that followed by Marquette and Joliet on their return eastward, but later investigations have apparently decided that their return was made directly up the Illinois by canoe from its mouth. This old trail held its course across the present counties of Hancock, Warren, Knox, Stark, and Bureau, but so far as known has left no existing trace.

The overland trail between Kaskaskia and Detroit, laid out and used by the French for both trading and military purposes, was very early established. The date when it was first passed over by whites has not been recorded, but it was probably as early as 1705 or 1706. It was undoubtedly formed largely by the uniting together of shorter original Indian trails, although the necessity of transportation would cause white travellers to avoid obstacles to which an Indian would remain entirely indifferent. This trail was in almost constant use for years, wagons even being driven on it, and considerable detachments of troops marching its entire distance. To this day it remains, along part of its course, a legal highway in continual use. As originally laid out it ran almost directly northeast across the State from Kaskaskia to Danville, bisecting the Counties of Randolph, Washington, Marion, Effingham, Cumberland, Coles, Edgar, and Vermilion. The present cities of Elkhorn, Salem, and Charleston lie upon the old route. Rivers of any considerable size seem to have been successfully avoided, although smaller streams were crossed in plenty, Salt Creek and the upper waters of the Embarras being of most importance. For the greater distance in Illinois the line of passage led across high, level prairie land, dotted over with groves, the banks of the streams being generally heavily wooded. It must in that day have been a beautiful country in all its virgin freshness, and as the early French residents were usually on friendly terms with the Indian tribes along the way -- the Piankishaws and Miamis, -- there no doubt passed over its winding course many a merry party to whom the long trip proved a continual pleasure. Much of romantic interest clusters about the memory of this old-time track across the wilderness. In those far-off days of French ascendency, when Fort de Chartres was the centre of French power in the great valley, and the commandant of the Illinois country ruled as a little king, this old trail witnessed many a gay and glittering cavalcade. Here passed fair maids and merry matrons of France, not a few in the ruffled petticoat and high-heeled shoes of fashion; beside them gallant soldiers rode with bow and smile, their lace-trimmed uniforms gorgeous in the sunshine. Courtiers of the French court, friends of the great Louis, travelled these sombre miles of wilderness, passing the time with quip and fancy, while many an adventurer, his sole wealth the glittering sword at his side, pressed forward hopefully to his fate in the West. Troops, travel-stained and weary, marched it on their way to battle against the English out-posts; wild raiding parties swept over it through the dense night shadows, and many a despatch-bearer, lying low upon his horse's neck, speeded day and night with his precious message. Would that the dead lips might open to tell again the thousand forgotten stories haunting every camping spot, every shaded nook, through which the old trail ran.


But the hour came when the French power grew weak, and all this fair country fell into English hands, and they in turn were compelled to deliver up their brief authority to American bordermen. The trail of George Rogers Clark, made in 1778 from near the site of Fort Massac on the banks of the Ohio River to Kaskaskia, marks an epoch in American history of transcendent importance. Nothing ever occurring in the West has resulted in greater permanent benefit to the people of the United States. In later years this faint track became a largely used trail for the early white settlers, pouring in by way of the Ohio. It was long a regular line of communication between Golconda and the settlements in the American Bottom, travelled by many a hardy immigrant into this new land. A puzzled guide caused Clark to wander somewhat ; and to improve the trail by straightening it for a small portion of the way, was a task ably performed in 1821 by Mr. Worthen. A well-marked trail, laid out by the French and distinguished by red signs painted on trees, ran, via the mouth of the Ohio, between Massac and Chartres. Clark's failure to use this was doubtless through fear of discovery on the way.

Clark, with his little band of Kentucky riflemen, left the Ohio River, close to Fort Massac, at the mouth of a small creek just above where the city of Metropolis now stands, and plunged out into what was to him an unknown wilderness. He aimed at first somewhat northeasterly, seeking possibly thus to avoid serious entanglement in the Ozark Hills, until his column had reached to nearly the centre of what is now Pope County, when he swerved more westerly, his course becoming, because of poor guidance, decidedly irregular as they traversed what is now Williamson County. Their path led across the present site of Marion, whence the direction was straight north until the Perry County line had been crossed. Clark was by this time directly east of Kaskaskia, and his march to that place became as straight as natural obstacles would permit.

The following year he possessed the decided advantage of having competent French guides for his march toward Vincennes. These led him along a path which, for at least a large portion of the way, had been frequently travelled before, it being a connecting trail used by traders since about the year 1710, when Post Vincennes was first established. The mail route between these places, which was opened in 1805, chose a more northern course, thus avoiding the necessity of crossing those streams which gave so much trouble to Clark. This trail, thus utilized by that gallant band of frontiersmen in their desperate midwinter march through the wilderness, and along which they toiled and suffered for so great a purpose in the making of the history of Illinois, ought to be traced with care and marked by suitable monuments along its entire course. Today its direction can only be approximately given, as the best modern authorities differ somewhat widely regarding details. This much, however, we know beyond probable dispute - it led, in somewhat irregular course, because of natural difficulties, through Randolph County, probably crossing into the northwestern corner of Perry a little west of the present village of Craig, touching Washington County in its south-eastern corner, and fording Beaucoup Creek a few miles east of Radom. Jefferson County was crossed very nearly at its centre, the column passing perhaps a mile south of the present city of Mount Vernon, later entering Wayne County close to Keene's Station, just east of which they forded Skillet Fork. Here the course became more northerly, the trail passing some five or six miles north of Fairfield, and striking the overflowing waters of the Little Wabash not far from the immediate vicinity of Maple Grove, in the extreme northwest corner of Edwards County. Richland was crossed near the present site of Parkersburg, the Bon Pas River forded near where the town of the same name now stands, and Lawrence County was entered somewhat east of Henryville. The swollen waters of the Embarras were probably first encountered some four or five miles south of Lawrenceville, from which point these undaunted bordermen waded and swam until they attained the junction of the Wabash.

Crossing over this same territory today, driving easily across the high rolling prairies, the seemingly level plains, and through pleasant groves, descending into wide, well-drained valleys, and crossing the slowly flowing streams by means of substantial bridges, the traveller can hardly imagine the innumerable difficulties, the unspeakable hardships, surrounding every mile of that early march. There can come to him scarcely a fair conception of what a freshet meant to this country in that day of the long ago, or of the immense downrush of water which rendered this wilderness advance one of the greatest military achievements of the century in which it took place. Only men of iron, long trained to combat all the hardships of the frontier, animated by the highest conception of duty, and commanded and inspired by an indomitable leader, could ever have accomplished it and gone forward to grim battle at its end. Illinois can well afford to mark with enduring memorials that course along which they so sternly struggled to final victory and the winning of an empire to the United States.


Other trails leading in various directions through this Illinois country are of less historic and romantic interest, and their story may be outlined in few words. One of the most interesting is that lonely track left across the northern counties by James Watson Webb, in 1822. At that time, being an officer stationed at Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River (rebuilt in 1816), he volunteered to bear tidings of a threatened Indian uprising to the unsuspecting garrison stationed at Fort Armstrong, which stood at the lower extremity of Rock Island looking down the majestic Mississippi. It was in the midst of a severe Winter, and he travelled alone, without a guide, through unknown territory roamed over by hostile savages. His first point of destination was La Sallier's trading-post, situated on the south bank of Rock River, about on the line now existing between Lee and Ogle Counties, a few miles north of Dixon. This had just been established, and was the sole point of civilization in all that country. From here Webb's course was laid almost directly to the Mississippi. Reaching that river in the vicinity of Fulton, he proceeded down the eastern bank until he arrived in safety at Rock Island, and delivered his warning. It was a most perilous journey, not only on account of the hostiles haunting every mile of it, but also the natural dangers of the way, greatly accented by the severe season during which it was accomplished. The territory covered by this solitary traveller included Cook, Du Page, Kane, De Kalb, Lee, Whiteside, and Rock Island Counties. On his return trip Webb chose a more southern route as being safer, crossing Henry and Bureau Counties, until he reached the Illinois River, when the water-ways were followed back to the mouth of the Chicago.


The route of Governor Edwards into the Indian country during the War of 1812 started at Camp Russell, just above the present site of Edwardsville, in Madison County, and passed directly north through Carlinville, Macoupin County, sweeping somewhat east of where Springfield now stands, and then led about three miles west of the present city of Lincoln. Just across the southern line of Tazewell County, near the present town of Centre, they discovered their first Kickapoo village, and destroyed it. From this point their march was almost directly north, until they came to the second village along the eastern bluffs of the Illinois, which after a skirmish was also destroyed. This must have occurred not far from the post-office of Spring Bay. Hopkins's rather disgraceful raid with his mounted Kentucky riflemen, from Fort Harrison on the Wabash, expecting to cooperate with Edwards's column, succeeded in crossing Edgar, Vermilion, Champaign, and Ford Counties. Livingston was penetrated possibly as far as the town of Strawn, where the sight of distant raging prairie fires caused the soldiers to mutiny and retreat.


General Howard's more important advance into the Indian country the following year started from the same point as did Governor Edwards's, but pursued an entirely different route. His command followed the course of the Mississippi until opposite Fort Madison, Iowa, when it struck directly southeast across Hancock, McDonough, and Fulton Counties to the Illinois River, opposite the site of Havana. From here, cutting across the sharper bends in the stream, the general course of the river was followed until Gomo's village, where Chillicothe now stands, was reached and destroyed.
The Fort Clark and Wabash trail was a well-travelled road after about the year 1815, and was probably used long before that date. It led from the site of Terre Haute, Indiana, to the north shore of Peoria Lake, and was extensively used by immigrants, as well as traders. Kellogg's trail was the first overland route between Peoria and Galena. It was laid out by an early settler of that name in 1825, and was heavily travelled for many years. It crossed Marshall, Bureau, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, and Jo Daviess Counties. The first mail route in the State was established in 1805, extending from St. Louis to Vincennes, with a branch to Kaskaskia. It crossed the present sites of Belleville, Carlyle, Salem, Maybury, and Lawrenceville, and much of the road is still preserved. The second ran from where Mount Carmel now stands south to Shawneetown, and was placed in operation in 1807. Chicago possessed a mail route running south to Danville in 1832, and one west to Dixon in 1834. Ottawa and St. Charles were thus connected as early as 1830, and Galena was reached via the Dixon route in 1834. Criss-crossing the State were many other trails of less importance, yet all alike holding much of interest to those who desire information about early frontier life. The old roads growing out of these dim tracks across the wilderness were the arteries through which flowed the life blood of Illinois.

Return to the Illinois Genealogy Trails State Data Page

Return to the Events Page