Ancient Mysteries in Mid-America

Strange History Is Everywhere If You Know Where to Look

Less than a two-hour drive from Chicago, a lonely boulder perched atop a steep-sided hill overlooks thousands of daily commuters speeding by on the expressway below from their suburban homes to jobs in the big city and back again each day. Absorbed in the mundane affairs of modern survival, they are oblivious to the magical monolith that still points its unchanging finger at the sky, just as it did centuries before the suburbanites’ forebears came to northern Illinois.

This part of Illinois, the Prairie State, comprises flat farmland as far as the eye can see in all directions, so the appearance of a 50-foot-high hill crowned with a solitary stone is strikingly anomalous to anyone taking notice. About 100 feet to the southwest, across Interstate 88, is a hill of almost equal height. Both, together with the vicinity they dominate, are referred to locally as “Indian Hills,” although the Sauk tribes, which inhabited the area until the early nineteenth century did not, according to their own oral traditions, haul up the one-ton stone to its lofty position atop the higher of the two hills.

It was already in place, they recount, when they immigrated to the region, according to midwestern archaeologists, sometime during the first half of the fourteenth century. The Sauk did, however, venerate the monolith as a manitou, or sacred object, left behind long ago by “shamans of the Moon,” who set up the hilltop altar uncounted generations ago. The stone itself is crystal-veined granite, probably a remnant of the last ice age left by a retreating glacier, 10,000 years ago. Investigators nonetheless conclude at least some of it was roughly worked to shape its uncharacteristically pointy top, although centuries of continuous weathering have effaced all possible traces of human modification. In any case, getting the massive boulder up the steeply inclined slope to the summit must have been a collective endeavor of no small effort.

In fact, given the purported technical limitations of pre-Columbian Americans, we can only speculate on how its removal to the hilltop was achieved. It is the same dilemma we face when confronted by the creation of Britain’s Stonehenge. Nor does our comparison with that more famous site on the Salisbury Plain end there: In the Arthurian tradition of Stonehenge, Merlin, the Round Table court magician, supposedly levitated the heavy monoliths through the air and set them up into concentric circles. A surviving legend among the Sauk recalls that the ancient shamans, through the power of their sorcery, floated the Indian Hills Stone from its original location at the bottom of a riverbed and set it gently down to face and pay homage to the moon goddess.

As the lunar alignments of Stonehenge are recognized today, so the Illinois megalith has been precisely oriented to the most northerly rising of the Moon. The phenomenon may still be seen from the adjacent hill across the expressway. Judging from the exactness of its position and the substantial physical labor that went into erecting it, the Indian Hills Stone apparently meant a great deal to whoever set it up. While any connection between a Midwestern monolith and Stonehenge may seem farfetched, Sauk traditions of moon-worshipping shamans and ancient European myths of a prehistoric worldwide civilization should at least give us pause for reflection.

Once each year, the Moon seems to rise from out of the Indian Hills Stone itself and then balance momentarily at its apex before resuming its voyage across the night sky. At such significant moments, the stone does indeed resemble an “altar of the Moon,” as the Sauk described it. The orientation must have been particularly important for prehistoric Americans. Some seventy miles north of the Indian Hills Stone, in southern Wisconsin, lies the Pyramid of the Moon. Part of Aztalan, an important ceremonial center from circa 1200 to 1325 CE, the earthen temple mound is likewise aligned with the most northerly rising of the Moon. The same alignment occurs much farther away, in east-central Ohio; and the gargantuan Newark mound group, which was laid out and used as an enormous, ritualized lunar calendar by an unknown people at least 2,000 years ago.

The observation of the Moon at its most northerly point undoubtedly heralded an annual, universal beginning of some kind associated with the resurgence of female energies. These deal primarily with psychic phenomena—dreams, visions, telepathy, healing, clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc.—all the elements, which belonged to the shamanic experience recalled by the native Sauk. The ancients undoubtedly employed the Indian Hills Stone for the practice of their spiritual craft. Interestingly, whenever the Moon rises at its most northerly point on the earthly horizon, it exerts its strongest gravitational pull on our planet. Astronomers refer to this surge of attractions as the Maximum Lunar Declination.

Seismologists regard the Moon’s optimum effect as a possible cause of earthquakes, which may be sometimes triggered when the Maximum Lunar Declination stresses unstable tectonic plates within the earth. Criminologists know that the full Moon at this time always coincides with peak periods of violent human behavior. Of course, the pre-Columbian observers who so laboriously lifted and precisely oriented the Indian Hills Stone may have been interested in the most northerly moonrise simply because the Moon appears largest in the sky at this moment. Whether or not they could appreciate the seismic or sociological implications of the Maximum Lunar Declination, the ancient shamans at least seem to have understood that the Moon exerted its greatest power at its northernmost position, a power that influenced the human psyche, particularly those relating to paranormal experience.

An even greater feat of organized labor in ancient Illinois than the Indian Hills Stone still stands in the southern region of the state, in the Shawnee National Forest, the largest natural preserve in the United States. Unknown to most of the 10,000 visitors who annually hike its trails or camp at its tent grounds, the vast park hides the gaunt ruins of a prehistoric civilization. Even cynical academics are baffled by the rampart and confess astonishment at its massive construction. By no means confined to the exclusive interests of dispassionate archaeologists, the so-call “Lewis Wall”—named after Abraham Lewis on whose late nineteenth century farm the structure was first found—is part of a mystical atmosphere that pervades the whole park.

Spreading for 280,000 acres are the natural stone columns and twisting canyons, which gave this part of the Shawnee National Forest its name, Giant City. The sheer cliffs and colossal embankments do indeed appear as though the titans of regional Indian legend crafted them. No less impressive for having been raised by the forces of time and water, the Lewis Wall is unquestionably man-made—but by whom?

Archaeologists are unable to associate the Lewis Wall with even the ancestors of local Indian tribes, who never engaged in large-scale stonework. Native American tradition assigns its construction to antediluvian ogres. They were said to have arrived at the eastern shores of Turtle Island (North America), clinging for their lives to great trees uprooted by some terrifying destruction wrought by the Great Deluge. Eventually, the giants reached the Shawnee Forest and rested atop a high cliff. Here, the oversized flood survivors erected a stone wall to mark off the immediate vicinity as a sacred precinct. In time, the old giants died off, but their sturdy rampart, revered by subsequent generations of Plains Indians, seemed to defy the passage of time.

The old wall perfectly bisects the top of a steep cliff, running on a linear, east-west axis for 285 feet. Six feet at its highest point, with an average thickness of five feet, the structure is a dry-stone battlement comprising an estimated 40,000 stones, all of them conveyed by hand up the sheer incline from a dry stream bed 190 feet below. Total weight of the surviving structure is about 200,000 tons. In its original condition, this figure could have been almost doubled.

Stone cairns, or ceremonial rock piles, and a pit appear near the entrance. The bulwark was raised ingeniously by fitting together mostly flat stones chosen for their moderate size and roughly uniform fit. Thanks to an availability of organic materials embedded in the Lewis Wall, it has been reliably and repeatedly radiocarbon dated to the mid-first century, a time when Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the Emperor of Rome. That the structure has stood largely intact for the last twenty centuries in this major seismic zone is proof of its high-level workmanship. It stands, in fact, directly over the New Madrid fault, responsible in 1811-1812 for the most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

But the Giant City wall is not unique. It was once part of a network of stone ramparts spanning hundreds of miles. At least a dozen other, similar examples, identically situated atop forested cliffs, were arranged in a line across southern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and into Tennessee. All were built, occupied and abandoned within the same time period: 150 to 300 CE. While a single-walled site still stands in Tennessee and two more survive in Ohio, all the Indiana walls were demolished in the nineteenth century by early settlers, who regarded them as handy quarries for the building of wells and the foundations of farm buildings. The same fate befell most of the Illinois ramparts, but two or three may still be found under thick, woodland vegetation.

Two hundred thirty miles north of the Lewis Wall sits the largest, most impressive manmade structure in the Illinois River Valley erected by mysterious Mound Builders at the same time Emperor Hadrian ruled Imperial Rome, about nineteen centuries ago. Although just fourteen feet high, some 1,900,000 baskets of soil went into the two-acre, circular earthwork. Standing near the east bank of the Spoon River—made famous through the Anthology by local dramatist, Edgar Lee Masters—it belonged to the Hopewell Culture that expanded throughout the Middle West from about 200 BCE to 400 CE.

Rockwell Mound was the leading feature of a settlement and ceremonial center stretching three miles on either bank of the river, now known as Dickson Mounds. Farmers have obliterated most of its details, but a modern, local museum displays dioramas recreating prehistoric living conditions of the Hopewell, plus superb examples of their copper workmanship. Test diggings at the Rockwell mound revealed no trace of burials, results which, in addition to the earthwork’s flattened top, suggest it was built specifically for large-scale gatherings for ritual, ceremonial, or public pronouncements.

An interesting synchronicity appears in the modern history of Rockwell Mound, which, according to local Miami Indian oral tradition, was originally known as the Place of the Great Speaker, because chiefs used the earthwork to address their people. Havana, the pioneer town surrounding it, conducted its first community meetings atop the structure, from which Illinois politicians declaimed in the spellbinding oratory of nineteenth century speech making.

The most famous of those statesmen was Abraham Lincoln, who felt drawn to speak from its summit. One of his controversial debates with Stephen A. Douglas took place there in October 1858. Since then, the mound top has witnessed numerous pubic gatherings, including many open-air musical concerts under an old fashioned gazebo. Rockwell Mound is most dramatically approached from the south, up a short flight of stone steps. At the summit, immediately before the visitor, lies a colorful flower garden in front of the gazebo. To its right is what appears to be a large grave. It is, instead, a former lily pond filled in with dirt, although how or why an early nineteenth century headstone got there, no one knows.

Whenever great, natural earth power and dramatic human actions interact, they produce a sacred center of extraordinary luminosity. Such is certainly the result at Starved Rock, ninety-five miles southwest from Chicago. One of Illinois’ best known natural attractions is also among the State’s least understood. The 1850-acre parkland surrounding Starved Rock is a forested paradise of sometimes hidden, always dramatic, waterfalls spilling through bizarre canyons and monumental rock formations crafted by the hands of time into weirdly splendid towers. Its name derives from an incident in September 1680, when the last of the Illini Indians were driven to the summit of a high bluff overlooking the river associated with this now-extinct tribe.

They had for unknown generations been the foremost native people of the region. But by the late seventeenth century, a coalition of enemies drastically reduced their influence through a series of vicious wars, in which torture on both sides figured all too prominently—the Illini preferring to roast living captives on a spit. A long string of defeats substantially reduced Illini numbers, until a tribal remnant made its last stand atop the tall bluff. Around its base gathered much larger numbers of Pottawatomie, Miami, and Kickapoo warriors, all bent on genocide. While protected from the besiegers by a naturally unassailable position, the trapped Illini began to fall victim to a smallpox epidemic and starvation.

Schick-Shack, who grew up to become a Pottawatomie chief, was a nine-year-old witness of the standoff. He recalled how the disease suffered by the Illlini “caused them to dig pits around the outside of the Rock in the soft dirt, in which they could roll to ease their agony” (Wood, Norman B., Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs. IL: American Indian Historical Publishing Company, 1906). Their situation became more desperate still, when food and water began to give out. Some Illini tried to make a break for freedom through the woods but were captured and brought to a high outcropping just east of the bluff, where their less rash fellow tribesmen were still holed up. Here, at what was subsequently remembered as Camp Rock, the Pottawatomie tortured their screaming captives to death in full view of the beleaguered Illini.

A young man and his new bride, however, escaped excruciation, when, hand in hand, they broke free from their captors and leapt into the canyon, 400 feet below. Known since for the liberation through suicide, Camp Rock is also regarded as the original “Lovers’ Leap.” Taking courage from their example, some of the Illini similarly killed themselves by stepping from the ridge of the bluff. This self-immolation was interpreted by their enemies as an omen for victory and triggered a combined assault. The Pottawatomie and their merciless allies stormed the summit of the Rock, only to find the littered corpses of old men, enfeebled women and small children who had already died of disease and starvation.

But Starved Rock’s human history predates that bloody event by many centuries. Sometime after 900 CE, a large and prosperous ceremonial center flourished near the base of the Rock along the banks of the Illinois River. It was an important way station or clearinghouse for many kinds of trade goods, including marine shells for mother-of-pearl items, rare nuts, raw copper; animal pelts, brightly painted pottery, stone effigy pipes, arrowheads, and most of the ritual objects precious to the enigmatic Mound Builders.

About midpoint between the great, pre-Columbian capitals of Cahokia across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, and Aztalan, 190 miles north in Wisconsin, the inhabitants of Starved Rock’s nameless city witnessed commercial vessels traversing the region’s extensive river routes for two centuries. Then, around 1100 CE, the bustling commercial center was abruptly, inexplicably abandoned. For the next 600 years, the Illini ancestors, whose fate would give the site its gruesome name, occupied Starved Rock.


CAPTIONS: The Indian Hills’ Stone appears precisely oriented to lunar moonrise at its most northerly, point, when the Moon is at its largest in the night sky. Makanda’s Lewis Wall, one of at least nine, similar, prehistoric structures running in a staggered line across southern Illinois.

By Frank Joseph