Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Des Plaines River -- Part Two
Nature Bulletin No. 607-A   June 5, 1976
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE DES PLAINES RIVER -- PART TWO: ITS HISTORY
The recorded history of Chicago, and the Des Plaines River which has had a vital part in its growth, began in 1673. Father Marquette and Louis Joliet, returning from their discovery and exploration of the Mississippi, had been told by Indians of a short-cut to Lake Michigan. So they paddled up the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers to the Chicago Portage and thence to the lake. LaSalle and his voyageurs commanded by Tonty were the next white men to chronicle travels across the portage and on the Des Plaines.

However, Chicago had been a crossroads and the Des Plaines an artery of travel since prehistoric times. From Channahon to Wisconsin there used to be manmade mounds, singly or in groups, along the river. From artifacts and skeletons found in them it has been determined that most of those in Cook County were built by two ancient races of Indians. A few were effigy mounds typical of those found in Wisconsin and the copper regions near Lake Superior. The others were types common along the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, but smaller. Copper nuggets, utensils and ornaments were found in them.

Obviously, this was the place where the northern and southern races of mound builders came to trade and they carne along the Des Plaines, either in dugouts or on nearby trails. Being natural highways, with shallow fords at several places, those trails were adopted by the Indians who succeeded the mound builders and had large villages at seven strategic locations in Cook County alone. Later, they were used also by white explorers, traders and travelers.

Chicago and all or parts of 14 counties including Cook are in Illinois, instead of Wisconsin, solely because it was recognized that a waterway from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi could be obtained by constructing a canal through the Chicago Portage, down the Des Plaines valley, and thence to LaSalle-Peru where the Illinois River became navigable in all seasons.

The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 established the north boundary of Indiana and Illinois territories at an east-west line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan. In 1816 the governor of Illinois Territory, Ninian Edwards, negotiated a treaty with the Potawatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa tribes whereby they ceded a strip of land between two boundary lines: 20 miles wide from the mouth of the Chicago River to the junction of the Des Plaines with the Kankakee, and 10 miles wide -- on the north side of the Illinois -- from there to the Fox River.

When Illinois became a state in 1818 its northern boundary was established at latitude 42 30', 61 miles north of the 1787 Ordinance line, in order that a canal from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River would be entirely within and could be built by the new state. Accordingly, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, authorized by Congress on March 30, 1822, was begun in 1836 and finally completed in 1848. It eliminated the series of arduous portages that, in very dry seasons, extended as far as Starved Rock -- over 80 miles. Its stimulating effects upon Chicago, northeastern Illinois and the Illinois River valley were tremendous.


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