“We got our bread by the peril of our lives, because of the sword of the wilderness.” (John Lemen, qtd. in Arrows to Aerojets)
A farmer harvesting in the fertile American Bottom. The bluffs in the distance rise 125-200 feet above the floodplain.
Just south of where the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers of North America converge, there is a 175-square mile area of flat lands that extends from Alton, Illinois, south to the Kaskaskia River. Its western boundary is the Mississippi River, and the eastern boundary is a range of rocky bluffs stretching from one to seven miles from the river. This area is known as the American Bottom.
–Amanda Parsons-Twesten (“The American Bottom”)
The loess soil of the American Bottom is something quite special, both in its amazing fertility and its structure. You could wade through the science on websites like THIS to read about it, but allow me give a layperson’s summary explanation.
Thick sheets of loess were laid down in the flood plain of the Mississippi River over a long period of time during the last glacial period. During spring and summer, the Mississippi River valley served as a conduit for melting glaciers, carrying with it large volumes of silt ground to a fine particle by glacier action. During fall and winter when the melt slowed or stopped, parts of the river valley dried up, and the powder-fine silt became airborne and was deposited downwind. Over time, these deposits grew up to 300 feet deep in some places.
Loess is some of the most agriculturally productive soil in the world, due not because it is particularly rich in organic content, but because (in theory) of its “cation exchange capacity (the ability of plants to absorb nutrients from the soil) and porosity (the air-filled space in the soil).” –wikipedia In short, the soil is super loose and well drained, making a perfect environment for growing root systems.
It’s no wonder pioneers James Garretson, Shadrach Bond and Robert Kidd left the high land at Bellefontaine for the rich soil of the American Bottom. There was a trade off. Typhoid, malaria, and “summer complaint” were the norm. No one knew at the time that they were brought on by boggy soils and mosquitoes. As one anonymous man said, “The greatest invention ever made was the window screen.”
Those dangers are past now that the levee system keeps the Mississippi in bounds year round. Modern farmers in the Bottom harvest huge crops of corn and soybeans or vegetable crops like tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli. I bought a couple of truck loads of this wonderful loess for my own raised flower and vegetable beds and harvested amazing crops too.
George Rogers Clark and the Long Knives
During the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark and his “Long Knives” captured Fort Kaskkaskia and claimed territory that extended the fledgling United States of America from the previous western frontier all the way to the Mississippi River. Included was the land that became known as the American Bottom.
After the war, many of the men, remembering the lush Illinois Country, took their pay in land grants, rounded up their families from points east, and came to settle this new American frontier.
The Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail
They weren’t the first to see the value of the fertile soil, thick forests, and teeming lakes and streams. Before the Americans, French trappers and traders had come in the late 1600s. They settled in villages from Kaskaskia in the south to Cahokia in the north. Of those villages along the Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail, Dupo and Prairie du Rocher remain today. Ste. Genevieve and Old Mines are now in Missouri due to the Mississippi changing course. Others, like Nouvelle Chartres and San Philippe have disappeared. (Read more about the French in Illinois HERE.)
This marker resides at the Waterloo Firehouse.
The Mound Builders
But long before the French, the Mississippian Mound Builders “ruled part of the great floodplains of the American Bottom between the present-day cities of East St. Louis and Collinsville in Madison and St. Clair counties.” (Amanda Parsons-Twesten. “The American Bottom”)
I wish I could tell you that the discovery of Garretson’s blockhouse fort described in Once Again was true. Alas, this was pure fabrication on my part. But one thing is true: as Merri Randall points out, the forts in the American Bottom were essential for the settlers’s survival.
The settler’s would leave the fort during the day to farm their land between the Grand Ruiseau Creek (Carr) and Turnbull Creek (Palmer). They return at night to the safety of the stockade. As a line of defense the timber was cleared for a distance around the forts perimeter. The pioneers cats, dogs and chickens stayed inside the fort and at night the horses were brought inside the walls. Cattle, milk cows and hogs were left in pens outside because the Indians rarely stole anything but horses. It was often dangerous to open the gates in the morning because Indian raiders would attack milking parties or the farmers walking to their fields. Guards were posted all night and militia men were sent to the fields with farmers to protect against attack. The swivel cannon would be fired if Indian trouble was imminent and the settlers would run back to the safety of the fort.
–Arrows to Aerojets
HERE is a description of various fort styles in Illinois along with several cool drawings.
The French had built Fort de Chartres near Prairie du Rocher in 1720 to protect the French villages and keep the British out of the Illinois Country. Then the American came and during the period between 1786 and 1795 put up their own blockhouse style forts. James Piggot’s fort was the largest, most fortified of any of them. In 2013 archaeologists and historians tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint its exact location. But we do know that it sat approximately where the little airfield is on Bluff Road just west of Columbia, Illinois.
Shadrach Bond’s blockhouse was near the junction of present day HH Road and Bluff Road. South of there in present day Harrisonville, was Brashear’s Station. James Lemen, Sr. built a stockaded cabin around which New Design grew up. Golden’s Blockhouse was built in Monroe City. Nathaniel Hull’s was near Fults. Going’s Blockhouse was built in present day Burkesville, and Moredock’s Blockhouse was near today’s Mordock Lake.
By the time of the War of 1812, there were blockhouse forts all along the Kaskaskia Trail approximately every 10-20 miles.
My thanks to Dennis Patton for helping me understand where the forts were and for the photos of the Bond and Kaskaskia Trail memorials.
Standing on the bluffs, you can get an amazing view of the American Bottom. This photo can’t begin to capture the beauty even during the winter when the crops aren’t growing. I took this photo while standing in Eagle Cliff (Miles) Cemetery. Shadrach Bond’s blockhouse fort and holdings were just below Eagle Cliff.
For other more spectacular photos please visit CLIFFTOP, a conservation group committed to preserving the bluffs.
Eagle Cliff/Miles Cemetery
The cemetery lay unprotected to idiot vandals (barbarians in the truest sense of the word) for many years. With the hard work of volunteers the cemetery was cleaned up and the mausoleum and headstones were repaired as much as possible. It is now being monitored by cameras to prevent further molestation.
There are about 2000 graves in the Eagle Cliff Cemetery, but only about 450 remain clearly marked. James Garretson’s is one, along with that of Shadrach Bond, senior and his first wife Rachel (Gott) Bond. Rachel was the first person to be buried in Eagle Cliff (1806). Bond married Garretson’s widow Isabelle (Kyle) Garretson. Presumably, she’s there, too, but I haven’t yet found her marker.
You can read more about Eagle Cliff-Miles Cemetery HERE.
No matter that vandals have done their best to destroy the graves of these early pioneers of the American Bottom, God knows where each is buried.
It would be so nice of you to share!