August 05, 2008

Artifacts shed light on former Kickapoo village

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Most of what is left of a village is in an upstairs room in Faner Hall at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Mark Wagner, an archaeologist with SIUC’s Center for Archaeological Investigations, has the job of sorting through the boxes -- and the bags in the boxes, and the bags in the bags in the boxes -- to come up with a report describing what a large cache of tiny artifacts say about life in the former Kickapoo village known now as the Rhoads site.

“Everything we are finding is new information,” Wagner said.

The site was in Logan County. Before Interstate 55 was built on top of it in the 1970s, the Illinois Department of Transportation hired archaeologists to excavate. However, at the time funds were not available for analysis of the materials. Since then, the artifacts have been in the Illinois State Museum, some on display, some not. Over the last decade, IDOT began funding the analysis and publication of such early projects as Rhoads. Wagner, given his expertise in this geographic area with a specialization in the late 1700s to early 1800s, is the man for the job.

Wagner explained the Rhoads site was a village at a time when Native Americans in the Illinois area and elsewhere were dividing into two schools of thought about the encroaching American settlers. One group, the Accomodationists, sought to fit into this new, small farm culture the settlers brought with them. The other, the Nativists, did not. In fact, they wanted nothing to do with the newcomers. The Kickapoo were very much the latter. Native prophets rose up among the Nativists, urging a return to the old ways -- even though some of those old ways were as much as 200 years in the past.

During the War of 1812, tensions increased and the Kickapoo consolidated in the Peoria area. When Illinois Gov. Ninian Edwards burned the village at the Rhoads site, the village was already abandoned.

Wagner said re-creating the story of life in the Rhoads village has him looking in part at what was not found there, in addition to looking at what was found. While the site contains metal pots, hoes, an axe head and knives -- in spite of the prophets’ plea to be rid of everything imported -- some of the metal shows evidence of usage in ways other than originally intended. For example, a particularly nice find from the site is a hide-tanning kit, which includes a metal bucket and pieces of a gun barrel modified as tanning tools.

Wagner noted that other gun pieces, butt plates from the bottom of a gunstock mostly, also show evidence of being used for their metal and not necessarily for the original purpose. The startling thing about the butt plates is they date to guns that would have been 75 years or slightly older than other artifacts in the site. There is some question whether guns that old were circulating in what was then frontier, or if the Kickapoo held onto guns for an unusually long time. Either way, the presence of exclusively black gunflints indicates trade with the British rather than with the French, who supplied a honey-colored, and superior, gunflint, Wagner said.

Many of the artifacts from the site shed light on trading practices, Wagner said.

“They could get what they needed from the traders,” he said. “But there are a ton of things they don’t want. They want cloth, but not clothes. Overall, they don’t want to be farmers living on small farms. They are very well aware of what a small farm holder is, and they know some of the Native people are trying it. The government wants them to be ‘civilized,’ so some of the trade products become very symbolic.”

A selection of the artifacts will be on display in the University Museum Aug. 19 through Sept. 26. The exhibit includes highlights of all the artifacts in the boxes. And while there is a certain excitement that comes with sifting through artifacts of what was essentially a different world, there is a share of tedium, too. For example, it might seem relatively simple to re-assemble a picture of how jewelry was used to adorn clothing and person. However, to do that, Wagner has to sort through hundreds of tiny beads, smaller by half than a BB, and silver rings each no bigger than his pinky nail, and earrings even smaller than that. If it weren’t for a little pictorial assistance from artists who captured the images of several famous Kickapoo at the time, the task might be bewildering indeed.

Wagner’s Rhoads site report, to be published as a volume in the University of Illinois’ “Studies in Archaeology” series, will be the most complete work available on the archaeology of the Kickapoos in Illinois.

Wagner’s expertise includes prehistory and early history of Native American and Europeans in Illinois and the lower Ohio River Valley. This site plays into his specialized interest in contact between European and Native Americans, making him a perfect fit for handling the report on the site. Other projects include investigation of Native American rock art sites and documentation of 19th century shipwrecks in the lower Ohio River. In reference to the latter, Wagner recently published an essay with Mary R. McCorvie about piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers that appears in “The Archaeology of Piracy,” published by University Press of Florida.