Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Frontier in Pre-Columbian Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Frontier in Pre-Columbian Illinois

Article excerpt

Few places better represent the divide between our understanding of North American "prehistory" and Native American history than does Illinois. The state's name derives from the Illinois Indians who dominated the prairies of the state when French explorers Marquette and Joliet descended the Mississippi River in 1673. The one-time numerous and powerful Illinois experienced a precipitous decline after the entry of Europeans into their lands. Because of their rapid depopulation and the diminution of their territory, their colonial experiences have in a manner become shorthand among historians for the deleterious impact of colonialism upon Indians in the Midwest. The presence of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from modern-day St. Louis also assures Illinois a prominent place in discussions of the continent's more distant American Indian past. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries Mississippian Cahokia was a densely populated, intricately planned settlement that served as the political and cultural focal point for a broader Native American community. Today it is routinely presented in American history textbooks as an example of human complexity in ancient North America. Although both the Illinois Indians and Mississippian Cahokia have become important symbols in the public's perception of its indigenous past, they also represent an unfortunate divide that continues to prevent Americans from completely understanding the Native American experience of colonial America.

The chapters of Native American history represented by Mississippian Cahokia and the"historic"Illinois Indians remain divided and disarticulated. In the minds of many, Cahokia remains a prehistoric phenomenon. Its rise and fall may establish an Indian past prior to 1492, but it has little bearing on the unfolding of American Indian history after the arrival of Europeans. Similarly, the Illinois Indians emerge as historical actors only when French missionaries and traders arrive among them. Just as Mississippian Cahokia is deprived of an enduring historical significance, the Illinois are deprived of a pre-colonial history that no doubt informed their actions as they sought to create a colonial world suitable to their needs and aspirations.

This article attempts to bridge these two chapters of the midcontinent's indigenous history by examining how Native Americans created cross-cultural frontiers before Europeans arrived on the scene. American Indians played a pivotal role in the formation of colonial cultures, but this tradition of navigating cultural, economic, and political frontiers had ancient roots. The pre-Columbian archaeological record for the continent is replete with evidence of cross-cultural exchanges between a variety of communities and ethnic traditions, and it should not surprise us that Indian peoples drew upon such past experiences as they sought to integrate Europeans into their world.

Mississippian Cahokia was the political and cultural center of the Native American world in the American Bottom floodplain between roughly 1050 and 1275. Although Cahokia's population is a matter of intense debate, leading researchers estimate that its peak population probably numbered between 10,000 and 20,000; these counts generally exclude the large population inhabiting outlying farmsteads and villages throughout the surrounding floodplain.1 The large earthen mounds and ceremonial plazas at Cahokia served as symbols of chiefly authority and the product of a community effort by people who shared political and religious institutions. This high degree of political centralization and social integration symbolized by Cahokia's monumental architecture markedly differentiated it from previous communities in the region. Cahokia's size, its social and cultural complexity, and its location astride the Mississippi River near its confluences with the Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio rivers combined to give it a profound influence on other Native American communities throughout the mid-continent and beyond. …

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