CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The 325th anniversary of the first European contact with the Illini, a once large and powerful confederacy of Native American tribes that lived in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, is being celebrated this summer, not with cake and ice cream, but with shovels and buckets.
Working in severe summer heat, a group of 19 Midwestern high school and college students enrolled in a University of Illinois/Western Illinois University archaeology field school are excavating the Illinois Village site in extreme northeastern Missouri. It was there, in the summer of 1673, that a French Jesuit priest by the name of Father Jacques Marquette and a Canadian fur trader named Louis Jolliet hiked up a shoreline footpath near the mouth of the Des Moines River and found three Indian villages and friendship with the Ilinois, as Marquette spelled the tribe's name.
Under the supervision of U. of I. archaeology student Eric Hollinger, who is field director of the summer course, the students have been excavating two of the villages that were settled on a hill not far from the bank of the Des Moines, and now are searching for the third village that Marquette reported.
"We hope to find it," said Hollinger, noting that a geophysical survey of the entire 110-acre site is being done to locate the houses and to map the village layout. Students are being trained to do test excavating and to use ground-penetrating radar at the site, also known as 23CK116 and as the Haas-Hagerman site. So far, several pits have been found, along with trade beads, brass, copper and iron. Many Great Lakes Indian experts have visited the site this summer and worked with the students.
Eventually the animal remains found at the site, which is not far from Keokuk, Iowa, will be sent to labs at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, where scientists will catalog and study the animal bones, shells and other remains, said Robert Warren, associate curator of anthropology at the museum.
According to Lawrence Conrad, professor of anthropology at WIU and faculty instructor for the field school, the site of first contact with the Illini has been in question for a long time.
"For a century, scholars have debated whether the site of the first contact with the Illini was near the mouth of the Iowa or of the Des Moines River," Conrad said. "Generally, the Iowa River was considered the best candidate, and there are formal markers at the mouth of the Iowa indicating that that was the place. However, excavations at the Haas-Hagerman site over the past few years indicated that it was the site of first contact."
In 1994, Conrad said, WIU and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources sponsored a field conference at Keokuk, inviting archaeologists interested in the early historic period.
"There were some doubting Thomases," Conrad said, "but after they saw the site and material from the site, they became believers."
Missouri's Department of Natural Resources owns the portion of the Indian village where the field work is being done.