The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln

By Robert Mazrim | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Hole in the Map

Down in the Sangamon River bottoms in August, everything is green underneath the dark shade of the massive cottonwoods. Snakes slither underfoot, and big, nearly invisible spider webs wrap around the face. Poison ivy creeps waist high, and biting flies circle incessantly. Ahead in the deer path that leads to the water lies a little pile of bloody mass, from something brought down last night. Even within the occasional patch of sunlight, there is a nagging presence that reminds us that alone, and without our machines, we are at a disadvantage. These are modern thoughts, very new to this ancient landscape.

The Sangamon River drainage is situated in the geographic center of the state of Illinois. The river is about 250 miles long, and drains over 5000 square miles of land.1 Its headwaters lie in what was once the high prairie of Illinois, now known as Ford and Champaign Counties. The river empties into the Illinois River near the town of Beardstown. The Sangamon has always been a shallow and slow river for much of the year (figure 8.1). The channel quickly fills and floods during the rains of spring and early summer. By September, however, it is waist deep in most places. The valley itself is broad and still thick with trees. Of the 5000 square miles that it drains, about 80 percent were blanketed by prairie when the Americans first arrived. It was in the remaining 20 percent covered in hardwood forest that 12,000 years of human activity had resided. With a few exceptions, it was not until after the close of the

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