Source: The Kankakee-River of History by Marion Isaacs (1964), pp. 80-91.
The Kankakee has been the subject of many stories and articles….These extracts are presented to given an overall view of the Kankakee River and its people of pioneer days.
“Although the Kankakee Valley is noted for its truck gardens and its flower growers, there is a number of documents on file protesting in behalf of conservation organizations and wild life enthusiasts the complete utilization of the one-time marshlands for agricultural use. The Isaac Walton League is also protesting agricultural use of parts of the valley. The Agricultural Departments of both Illinois and Indiana, and the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture do not agree with the opposition.” …
Prof. Alfred H. Meyer of Valparaiso University in his book entitled, The Kankakee Marsh, published by the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in 1936 says:
Systematic studies in land utilization, undertaken by the Federal Government, and by the respective State Governments, and also by numerous public and private agencies, indicate the need for scientific analysis of the land-utilization program.
There are large areas of marginal land that should be retired from cultivation. The produce does not justify the work and expense necessary to get a satisfactory return.
To bring great areas of rich land into production was the purpose of the Kankakee Drainage Project.
Regions which at one time o another have experienced conflicting claims offer excellent material for land utilization study. The Kankakee Marshland is such an area. Here clashed the interest of the hunter-sportsman-conservation group with those of organized land companies interested in the reclamation of wet lands for agriculture.
The author’s interest was aroused as a result of certain public propaganda and a petition to the Federal Government by a group of Isaac Walton League members to restore a part of the marsh, once nationally famous for its wild life.
The Kankakee country represents an intermorainal marsh reclamation extending from South Bend southwestward to Momence, Illinois.
Down this flat-floored valley coursed the original meandering Kankakee River, now a series of straight ditches. Rising within a few miles of the St. Joseph River and forming a head-water branch of the Illinois River, the Kankakee with its St. Joseph portage provided a strategic link in the Great Lakes-Mississippi route of early travelers—the French explorers, the traders, and the missionaries.
Serving successfully in its native state, the hunter, the trapper, the marsh-hay cutter and then the professional sportsman, the modern dredged Kankakee-ditched and drained—had added over half a million acres to the famous drift farming section of the Central Plains.
The Kankakee is located in the more favorable humid section east of the Mississippi. Its summers place it within the “a” subdivision of the “Df” climatic type of the Loppen System and fairly well within the northern boundary of the corn belt.
Demographical relations are no less significant. Rimmed by a score of towns and villages, the marsh at its eastern end is terminated by the city of South Bend, Indiana, while its western extremity is within 25 mile of Greater Chicago. Less than 150 miles from the nation’s center of population, it is within a few hours of half the population of the nation.
Originally marsh prairies of aquatic sedges, potential grazing areas, wild rice sloughs, home of countless water fowl, flag ponds lined with muskrat houses, a narrow but almost uninterrupted swamp forest, full of game rimming a twisting river teeming with fish, the wet prairies made humanly habitable by the interspersion of sandy island oak barrens surmounting the highest flood waters—such in brief is the physical set-up which attracted the squatter pioneer from the East, who sought contentment in the solitude and seclusion of a marshland wilderness.
In the eyes of the reclamationist half a century later, this same general scene reinterprets itself as an open prairie, practically unencumbered by a forest cover, with a flat valley floor, a high water table, and a presumably rich alluvial bottom soil, located within less than 100 miles from the greatest stock and grain market in the world.
The cultural subtractions and additions incident to the drainage operations have modified almost beyond recognition the general area picture of the prereclamation period. Yet certain elements of the natural landscape and their influence on human culture persist in general outline to this day.
Many of the marsh dunal islands, particularly the unoccupied ones, and much of the original “Meander lands” along the Kankakee are still marked as of old by timber growth of upland and swamp species respectively.
The “islands” presently encompassed by dry land continue to be the preferred sites of regional settlements.
The conditions of the surrounding terrain in relation to the agricultural economy are as significant as the “islands” in respect to the human habitat. The latter, rising conspicuously in the form of sand dunes, were recognized at the outset as “barrens” and as generally unsuited to cultivation. But the soil conditions of the flattish marsh areas appear, for the most part, to have been known only superficially and classified categorically with the common type of river bottom and marsh lands. Whatever typical surficial lowland characteristics they may otherwise exhibit, the subsoil and the “islands” of the Kankakee are strictly unique. Sand with local lenses of gravel or clay constitutes the basic structural material of the valley, while mounds and ridges of typical wind-blown sand here and there commonly attain heights of 10 to 15 feet, surmounting the “sea” of water-laid land. Occupying an intermorial position, with the Valparaiso Moraine on the north and the Maxinkuckee Moraine on the east and southeast, these classic deposits have been classified by Chamberlain as mostly outwash. Part of the valley fill has been attributed to the postulated Kankakee outlet for the glacial waters escaping from the Saginaw lobe by the way of the St. Joseph channel at South Bend.
Bradley attaches great depositional significance to the former lake waters occupying the basin which he denominates “The Old Kankakee.” Since many of the sand mounds and ridges are elevated above the highest possible level of the postulated lake, or of actually known marsh waters, which must have been shallow in either case, the sand of the higher elevated spots are clearly Aeolian in origin.
For about eight or nine months of the year, water from one to four feet deep covered an area of from three to five miles each side of the river. The area thus assumed the characteristics of a lacustral river rather than an ordinary marsh. Especially was this true at the time of winter ice jams and spring freshets. Having an elevation of approximately 720 feet at its source, the Kankakee trails its way tortuously along the very slight sloping and much oversized valley to a point near Momence, Illinois.
Here at an elevation of 615 feet it encountered a natural dam of Silurian limestone outcropping in the river bed. Within the small drop then in only a little more than 100 miles of river—with a meandering distance of 250 miles—the drop was only five inches per mile. In one instance the drop in a space of 35 miles the gradient was only 15 inches. This was at the site of the natural dam.
This small drop, together with annual floods, conspired to make the Kankakee a notoriously rambling stream, ever abandoning old and establishing new channels. As a result there was formed an intricate maze of ox-bow lakes, sloughs, and bayous similar to that depicted by the early map of Ahlgrim.
It was Herbert Skinner, a local historian, who wrote: “The wandering Kankakee was not a very satisfactory political boundary between the northern and southern tiers of counties. And all the distance down the river, from the South Bend portage to the junction with the Des Plaines, the conspicuous characteristics of the river became Yellow River Junction, Ox Bow Bend, Prairie Bend, Cornell Island, Frye’s Landing, North Bend, Adam’s Ridge, Eagle Bayou, Grape Island, Indian Garden, Water Valley, Point Comfort, Snake Island, Bogus Island, and Bissell Ridge—and dozen of others.”
The swamp was a continuous collection of adjacent marshes, with streams descending from the marginal moraines into almost stagnant swamp waters, forming in many cases, deltas and ridge-chains. On almost every link of these chains, called islands, a trapper at some time lived in a shanty or cabin, claiming the area by virtue of some locally devised “trapper’s rights”. These rights were recognized by the whole fraternity, and were bought and sold as frequently, or perhaps more frequently than were the claims of the settlers.
These “trappers” were designated as such by the pioneers although the Indians had for many centuries been skillful trappers themselves. These Indians had occupied the swamp lands each season, as conditions permitted. As soon as the French traders appeared, they intensified their trapping to trade peltries for machine-made blankets, hatchets, guns and ammunition, ornaments, clothing—and—unfortunately “fire-water.”
When the Spanish explorers turned their horses loose and departed from this continent, the Indians began to possess the animals—which had greatly multiplied—and soon the whole region was being traversed by the Red Man astride his “Indian Pony.” The whole Kankakee valley was marked by these animals, turned out to drift southward in winter and recaptured in the summer that followed.
At the time of the first government survey, there were many stray “ponies” mentioned, along with scattered groups of wigwams, not attached to any local village or settlement of Indians, and “many mounds.” It will be noted, however, that these field notes did not call them “Indian Mounds” and apparently didn’t recognize them as being man made. That discovery came about 26 years later when settlers commenced leveling them to facilitate farming. There were also numerous descriptions of the Kankakee Islands.
Where the Kankakee meets the Illinois state line, there were until forty or fifty years ago a number of great bayous on the river. Here it was that the Kankakee twisted and turned for dozens of miles seeking an outlet. The drop was so insignificant that the river wandered unchecked, creating many islands which were great, heavily timbered sections of high ground with forests of walnut, oak, elm, and sycamore.
Then came the ruthless lumberman and the need of the settlers to destroy much of those great forests. River steamboats and riverside saw mills came into the picture, and for years, the lumbering establishments took the place of the fur industry. With the coming of the riverman, loggers, and mill hands came the uncouth characters that represented a different but equally picturesque element. Sites that were known to the trappers as Yellow Banks, Hess Slough, Garden of Eden, Indan Gardens, Black Oak, Huyck’s Bayou, Ox Bow, and Thayer’s Landing, and many others all the way up to the South bend country, again became prominent for the loggers. Places that had for a hundred years or more been the home of fishermen, trappers, and hunters became the sites of logging camps.
Following the loggers came the reclamation promoters who secured state support for the diversion of the crooked river into long straight channels. The draining of age-old lakes caused the death of uncounted thousands of fish, young water fowl, and small water animals.
The natural beauty of the Kankakee, once the most picturesque of rivers, especially that portion that lies between English Lake and Momence, has been created into a straight, ugly ditch. On some recent maps the name of the famed river, which was once called the Teakiki by the Indians until the coming of the Mohicans who called it the Kankakee, appears as The Kankakee Ditch. On the Bellin map of 1743, it was shown prominently as the River du Teakiki. As late as 1814, on the Arrowsmith map, the original name persisted, but on the Choppin map, dated 1834, the name is shown as Kankakee. The site of Hennepins’ temporary settlement is designated as “Hennepin.”
Early map makers at various times indicated the tribes of Indians that were then in possession of the Kankakee Marsh Lands and the many islands and lakes. First, there were the Miamis, then the Wyandottes, followed by the Illinois, and finally, the Pottawattomies.
Arrowheads, stone axes, awls, drills, mortars, skinning tools, and anchor and ceremonial stones of these various tribes have been collected all along the river for years.
The Beaver Lake country is pretty well identified in the
historical writings of the early explorers and priests, as is also the ill-famed
Bogus Island. Thus, it is quite likely that LaSalle and his men in 1679 were
encamped there. It was about Christmas time in 1679 that LaSalle came down the
river enroute to the Mississippi. Hennepin wrote of it as a land of beauty and
plenty. After the departure of these explorers came the Jesuit missionaries. A
long era of unwritten history, touched only occasionally by the Military in its
official reports followed.
From 1700 to 1800, the Kankakee was a rendezvous for many warring tribes—first fighting each other and then fighting against the advancement of the white man. Up until the time of the ill fated Battle of Tippecanoe and the Ft. Dearborn Massacre and the Black Hawk uprising, only French courer de bois, living with their Indian wives and brood of half breed children, occupied the valley. Unfortunately, they were not writers.
Kankakee Rapids. Bourbonnais, Maneno, St. George, Momence, Lake Village, Shelby, DeMotte, Hebron, Lowell, Lake Dalecarlia, Thayer, Wilders, English Lake, LaCrosse, San Pierre, Toto, Brems, Davis, and Union Center are the names of modern towns and villages that were originally settled by the venturesome French-Canadians.
The Kankakee Valley has always been the flyway for the migrating birds of North America between the southwest and the northeast. First came the red headed Teal by the hundreds of thousands, then came the mallards, geese, and swan by uncountable thousands. Figures cannot give an adequate description of the wild fowl that annually occupied the Marshes of the Kankakee. Bever Lake, an expanse of water which covered over forty thousand acres, was often virtually covered with water fowl. Wild birds by the wagon load were hauled into Chicago markets. Swan, weighing from sixteen to twenty one pounds, sold at a dollar each. The other birds were sold aat lower prices. Sometimes hunters would skin the swans. Disregarding the excellent meat, they would tack up the beautiful feathered bird skins. When dry they would sell them for their feathers and for the much sought after Swan’s Down. The market was frequently better for feathers than for birds. That was in the days when every family had to have two or three featherbeds. The northward movement of the wild fowl over the flyway was within a period of ten days. Always, the southward migration occurred between the days of the 25 and 30 of October. Each great flock of birds had a leader. They came into the swamp area under his leadership. At a given sign, maybe at midnight or midday, in early morning or late evening, he would signal his followers and away they would go for another year.
To the explorers, missionaries, and traders of New France, the Kankakee was a most important river. It was the funnel through which the French-Canadians poured into the Old Northwest.
It was the waterway to the Wabash via the Iroquois River. Over its surface the French settler from Canada traveled to Vincennes and St. Louis. It was via the Kankakee that LaSalle and Hennepin journeyed to the Mississippi.
The Kankakee river rises in Indiana near the southern hook of the St. Joseph and empties into the Des Plains at Rock Rapids in Northern Illinois. It permitted the Jesuits and the Franciscans to go to the Mississippi when most travel was necessarily by water. It was the canoe route for untold generations of Indians going north or south. It was truly the home of the last of the Mohicans. It was the always protective hunting ground of all the Algonquin tribes.
Down the Kankakee came a goodly part of the Prophet’s followers to their ill-fated Battle of Tippecanoe. Down the Kankakee came the Miamis and the Pottawattomies to join in the Massacre of Ft. Dearborn.
There were thirty large islands in the Kankakee between the Prairie Portage and the natural limestone dam at Momence. These islands were covered with heavy forests, which became the inaccessible hiding places of counterfeiters, highwaymen, horse thieves, and train robbers for half a century.
The Kankakee Valley was the first area of the Old Northwest to be inhabited by white settlers. It is a most historic area described in the Jesuit Relations. It was the mixing bowl of the French Canadians and the Indians, caught between the military forces of four nations and the pioneers of the first Northwest Territory.