Pioneer Struggles: Great Sauk Trail ‘Where Mastodons Walked’

Maybe it’s the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions or just being home more, but I have a number of new friends. Like a retired senior citizen, I get up before breakfast and fill my bird feeders on my 40-acre Sauk Trail property. There are so many that the local Audubon Society asked me to count them for a survey. Last winter, in a 15-minute period, I saw 10 different species (22 cardinals top the list) and three bald eagles. Also counted as new friends are squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and deer. In the evening, I hear owls, coyotes and see bats swooping about munching on mosquitoes.

In the 1840s, the first white settlers saw the same wildlife. And for 500 years, the numerous native Woodland American tribes. And before it was the Great Sauk Trail, it was the Paleo and Archaic Indians who had hunted buffalo, mammoth, mastodons and giant ground sloths. Proof are the many stone artifact collections valued by current residents.

The oldest physical feature in Bureau and Henry counties is the terminal moraine that became the Great Sauk Trail. It was caused by the halt of the Wisconsin Glacier, about 25,000 years ago. The glacier pushed rocks and debris at 2 inches/year until the climate warmed enough to stop the movement. It was over a mile thick. The top of an ancient glacial moraines (hills) became the western Illinois watershed. Rainfall flows north to the Mississippi River and south to the Illinois River. Top elevation is 580 feet above sea level. Annawan is 305. The next 10,000 years saw the melting of the glacier which caused a 10-mile-long lake. Pre-historic mastodons walked on the high ground to keep their feet dry. This ancient superhighway was first used by the Paleo Indians beginning in 9000 BC who camped at the edge of the lake. They hunted, made shelters and raised families, and their children hunted, made shelters and raised families for thousands of years. We are just a speck on a huge timeline. Different time … same place on earth.

A while back, Black Hawk East College, Kewanee, hosted an evening event called, “The Local Connection to the Great Sauk Trail” sponsored by the History and Political Science Department and Sauk Trail Organization for Preservation (STOP). The program consisted of five native American Tribal Preservation Officers (TPO) discussing their tribal connection to the area. The Illinois State Historical Preservation Agency chief archeologist also commented on our public interest and responsibilities. Winnebago, Kickapoo and Sac Fox spoke of the excellent hunting grounds and summer and winter camps along the trail. These Woodland Indians called the area Lake Wenno or “place of great abundance.” By the 1700s, the Great Sauk Trail, was a trade route used by the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo and Potawatomi native American tribes traveling east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers (Saukenauk or present-day Rock Island) to Fort Massie, Canada. The 450-mile trail was the Interstate 80 of the day.

The Miami Nation was located in Northern Indiana and when they were forcibly removed to Kansas, the Great Sauk Trail became their “Trail of Tear.” A youth skull has been found and secured at the Bureau County Historical Museum for proper internment. For some, though, it meant freedom! The Great Sauk Trail was part of the Underground Railroad where 4,500 runaway slaves found their freedom in Canada. There are documented “stations” in both Bureau and Henry counties. And for some travelers it meant a new life. In 1848, a 7-year-old girl from Ohio traveled the trail by wagon with her parents and settled in Annawan — three miles north of the trail. That little girl was my great-great-grandmother. She married an Englishman in 1864 and they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1914. I have the news clipping! The century farm is still in our family. They are buried in a pioneer cemetery next to my great-great-great grandparents, just north from the Sauk Trail. That is my personal connection.

To the south was a vast rolling 4,000-acre forest called Barren Grove stretching from Kewanee to Mineral. All around Barren Grove one could only see vast marshland and virgin prairie, a barren view. It supplied lumber for early cabins and later towns. Two cabins are still standing, the Little cabin (1837) in Wethersfield and the Bowen cabin (1846), two miles south of the Sauk Trail on Illinois Route 34. On the trail is a stone monument noting the Studley cabin (1837), the first in Neponset Township. To the north are Cornwall, Annawan, Mineral and Gold townships. The melting glacier left a huge swamp, that once drained by Belgium and English settlers, became some of the most productive farmland in the world.

Johnson Sauk Trail State Park sits astride the trail and features 1,365 acres and many recreation opportunities. The 58-acre man-made lake has a maximum depth of 21 feet and features excellent populations of largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, channel catfish and bullhead. Hiking trails provide an eight-mile loop around the lake. Hunting and camping are also popular.

If you have fished, hiked, hunted, camped, canoed, enjoyed a picnic or played music there, you have a connection. Just turn east at the Illinois Route 78 Great Sauk Trail sign and enjoy the winding road through Kewanee and Neponset townships. On a cloudless day, you can see 20 miles to the north to Walnut and 20 miles south to Bradford. It is the same path the mastodons walked to keep their feet dry. The Great Sauk Trail is our centuries old wildlife preserve and history museum. Welcome fellow travelers!

Lt. Col. Dick Wells (retired) is a property owner on the Neponset Township, Great Sauk Trail and the elected Neponset Committeeman. He is proposing a 12-mile long historical corridor ordinance in Bureau and Henry counties to protect the area from commercial development. This is article No. 6 of a 10-part series. His next focus will be on underground railroad and pioneer religion.