Spring arrived on the Illinois prairie March 20, and just as they have for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, farmers in the Fox River valley are getting ready to plant their crops.
The first Illinois farmers were Native People who cultivated their ﬁelds of corn, beans and squash in Illinois’ rich river and creek bottom lands. In Kendall County, these early farmers worked along the Fox River, especially in the Maramech Hill area near Silver Springs State Park, as well as farther north to the Oswego area along Waubonsie Creek.
It turns out that the distant ancestors of those indigenous farmers of 1,500 and more years ago also were doing a little farming. Archaeologists are confident that even before actual farming began, Native People were selectively breeding native grains and other plants to make them more productive. So Illinoisans have been at this farming thing for a long, long time.
What really brought farming to the forefront of Illinois culture was the introduction of maize – corn. Corn’s genetic development and cultivation was perfected in South America by the highly organized, civilized Indian groups there. The crop gradually moved north following trading routes, eventually arriving in Illinois via the Mississippi River valley. Corn became the basis for the huge Mississippian-era city at what is now Cahokia, Illinois, on the Mississippi River floodplain. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Native Americans lived in the city about 1,000 years ago. The huge earthen pyramids they built as bases for their religious temples still stand as reminders of how economically powerful corn made the residents of Cahokia.
When European traders first penetrated North America, gradually working their way west from the Atlantic coast, they found that corn was traded among Native American tribes. The Chippewa Tribe, which was centered among the Great Lakes, had invented the birch bark canoe and made the versatile vessel the basis for their cultural tradition, trading throughout the region. Chippewa traders traveled the Great Lakes, trading copper, pipestone and the canoes themselves throughout the region for corn grown on the prairies of Illinois and other Midwestern states.
The French, Dutch and English used the Chippewas‘ existing system of trade routes – and the marvelous canoes they’d developed – to establish the lucrative fur trade in North America.
The ﬁrst permanent settlers in Illinois were French colonists who settled in villages along the Mississippi bottomlands near modern St. Louis in the early 1700s. The colonists immediately began growing corn and wheat on the rich river bottomlands, just as Native People had been doing for hundreds of years. During the Revolutionary War, Illinois corn sent down the Mississippi and transshipped to the original 13 colonies helped feed Washington‘s armies.
After the Revolution and the War of 1812, American settlers began arriving in Illinois in large numbers, and the native farmers, whose ancestors had lived here for 10,000 years, were gradually pushed out. By 1837, virtually all of Illinois’ Native People had been removed to less-fertile lands west of the Mississippi River. In many cases, those early American land grabbers simply took over productive ﬁelds and began growing their own corn where Native American crops had grown the year before.
In the Kendall County area, the Oswego Prairie, the Rob Roy Prairie, the Somonauk Prairie and other large expanses of gently rolling grassland had to be “broken,” or plowed, before crops could be planted. Over the centuries, wild prairie plants had formed a tangled mat of vegetation 3 to 6 inches thick that overlaid the deep rich prairie loam. Our black prairie soil is largely loess, which is wind-blown soil deposited over the centuries it took for the last glaciers to retreat north from our prairies, and then deepened by centuries of plants growing and dying, adding their biomass to the organic matter comprising Illinois’ incredibly rich soil. In those pre-settlement days, the big bluestem grasses and other native plants would grow each spring and die back each winter in a natural composting cycle.
In spring, thunderstorms that came with March and April showers would ignite huge grass ﬁres on the prairies. Moving at 30 to 40 mph, these awesome conﬂagrations would incinerate hundreds of thousands of acres of dried prairie plants, stopping only when they reached a stream of sufficient width. Prairie fires also were started by Native People seeking to modify and improve the habitat for grazing animals they hunted.
Prairie fires killed off trees and other woody plants, and added potash and other nutrients the grasses needed for nourishment. Since the prevailing winds come from the west, those early settlers found the west side of Kendall County’s streams had only narrow bands of timber, with thicker stands on the east banks. Because they withstood prairie fires better, oaks tended to dominate on the west side of streams while other varieties prevailed on their east banks.
Those early Kendall County pioneer farmers carried one major tool with them on their trek from the East – their plow. Early 1830s plows had iron shares or wooden shares faced with iron. The simple walking plows of that era were not capable of “breaking” or plowing under the tough, thick prairie sod, so special breaking plows were used.
Peter Specie, a French Canadian living in Kendall County when the settlers arrived, owned such a plow, and he made a fair living by renting his services to the settlers. Specie was a frequent visitor in Chicago courtrooms and traded whiskey to the Indians, but those are different stories.
Those early wooden and iron plows were not too different from ones used by farmers in the Middle Ages. It took an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere to invent a better plow, one with a steel share that would “scour,” or polish itself, as it turned over the soil. Since the soil did not cling to the self-polishing surface of Deere’s plowshare, it proved much easier for horses and oxen to pull, as it easily cut through the thick, tough prairie sod.
Today, as another growing season begins, the bright green and yellow descendants of Deere’s first steel plow can be seen busily cultivating the same prairies his horse-drawn implements worked 150 years ago, continuing a tradition whose age can be measured in millennia.
• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.