Open Spaces

Sentinel of the Past

The scenery of Starved Rock State Park has been changing for the last 425 million years. Layer upon layer of St. Peter Sandstone – thousands of feet thick in some places – is all around. Carved by a series of torrential floods attributed to rapidly melting glaciers, Starved Rock contains 18 sandstone canyons amidst a rich ecosystem of life.

By April Anderson | Photo: Joyln Wise

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Canada yew, white pine, and northern white cedar, originating from as far north as Canada, compliment the monochromatic and smooth sculpted rock. Black oaks and white oaks reside on the sandy bluffs, while red oaks and hickories dominate the site’s richer soils providing food for nuthatches, chickadees, and flying squirrels. Shrubs such as black huckleberry, serviceberry, and northern honeysuckle give food and shelter to scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, and raccoons. Asters and goldenrod adorn the autumn landscape with sprays of pale blue, white, purple, and yellow, inviting bees and migrating monarchs to partake of their nectar before winter arrives.

Outdoor enthusiasts can pursue deer hunting, fishing, and waterfowl harvests starting in October, continuing through early winter, much like they have the past 10,000 years (except permits are required now).

A home for people

Around 8,000 B.C., nomadic bands of Paleo-Indian hunters pursued elk, bison, caribou, mammoths, and mastodons in this area. Late Woodland people cultivated maize, squash, and other indigenous plants, gathered nuts and berries, hunted migratory waterfowl, and fished in the Illinois River.

In 1673, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette passed Starved Rock (which they refered to as “Le Rocher”) on their way up the Illinois River and eventually returned to build a Catholic mission and fort. Ten years later, the French claimed the entire Mississippi Valley for France and built Fort St. Louis atop Le Rocher.

The first recorded siege of Fort St. Louis occurred in March 1684 when approximately 200 Iroquois warriors surrounded the fort for six days, threatening the lives of 24 French and 22 Indians. A large group of Illinois returned from winter camp in time to outnumber and chase away the Iroquois, saving their trading partners. From 1691 to 1711, the semi-permanent villages were vacant.

One group of the Peoria tribe that returned in 1712 suffered a siege from the Fox. Using the cover of darkness, a large Fox war party consisting of several hundred warriors came to the settlement (where the Visitor’s Center is located today) to avenge the death of Chief Ouashala's nephew. Trapped between the cliffs and the war party, the Peoria fled to the top of rock, but managed to negotiate a settlement with the elderly chief.

No one knows how long the siege lasted, but there is no archeological evidence to support the claim that anyone starved, according to Mark Walczynski, Starved Rock Educational and Historical Foundation park historian and author of “Massacre 1769: The Search for the Origin of the Legend of Starved Rock”. In the end, the Peoria moved to southern Illinois and the Fox returned to Wisconsin.

A legend exposed

The legend that continues to swirl around this imposing formation states that Ottawa war chief Pontiac was killed outside a trading post in Cahokia, so his allies from Michigan and the Upper Lakes attacked the Illinois to avenge Pontiac’s death in 1769. The Illinois fled to the rock for safety, but died of starvation.

When Indian agent and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft visited the site in 1821, he collected mussel shells, antique pottery, and discolored rocks (likely from a French forge), deducing that a band of Illinois Indians had been extirpated. Hearing the legend, more permanent settlers claimed to find human bones.

By 1832, the story was recorded by Timothy Flint in “History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley” as the “Starved Rock Massacre.” One year later, Chicago lawyer John Dean Caton, who worked on the last U.S. government Pottawatomi treaty in Chicago, confirmed hearing the story. Meachelle, an old Pottawatomi chief, claimed to have been present at the siege when he was a boy. Caton went on to write “The Last of the Illinois and A Sketch of the Pottawatomies”, and share the story he heard with the Chicago Historical Society.

At the 200th anniversary of the Marquette-Jolliet expedition on Sept. 16, 1873, Illinois state legislator and historian, Perry Armstrong, delivered a speech entitled, “A Legend of Starved Rock” based on the story conveyed by an aging Ottawa chief named Shick-shack, who indicated that he had led the attack. Writings by Francis Parkman (“Conspiracy of Pontiac, Vol. II”), Eaton Osman (“Starved Rock: A Historical Sketch”), and Nehemiah Matson (“The Rock of Refuge”) continued to spread the legend.

A walk in the park

Visiting the park, you may feel like writing your own stories. Natural resources coordinator, Jolyn Wise, recommends stopping by the Visitor’s Center to see the park’s educational exhibits and movies, taking the short hike to French Canyon, then hiking to the top of the rock (0.3 miles from the Visitor’s Center) to enjoy the view 125 feet above the Illinois River. For those unable to make the walk, the rock can be viewed from outside the Visitor’s Center or from an observation deck behind the historic Starved Rock Lodge.

October is the park’s busiest month as leaf peepers, birders, photographers, and hikers celebrate nature’s last hurrah. “Each season brings something new,” says Wise, noting that winter is her favorite time of year at the park with its woodpeckers, deer, and icefalls. Thirteen miles of well-marked trails offer unique opportunities to experience nature in a setting steeped with history; just ask one of the park’s 50 daily volunteers.

To learn more about the park’s upcoming special events, visit www.starvedrocklodge.com/events/ or call 815-220-7386.

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April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: team.nature.ed@gmail.com.