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The Witness Tree”My Fishing Place,” from the Jersey County Democrat, July 16, 1874. Contributed by Bev Bauser: “I frequently research the Jersey County newspapers, and came across this article. I think visitors to the Jersey County website would enjoy reading about the early history of the bluff area. The original title of the article was ‘My Fishing Place,’ and the story continues in later papers about fishing, but I thought the title The Witness Tree was more appropriate. I dont know who wrote it, it was signed ‘Mc.’ ” None of the information has been verified. Transcription may contain typos.
The Professor came over on Tuesday. I thought you would be through harvest, he said; and my office is terribly hot. Wont it be much cooler on the bank of the river?
We were soon there, with out tent pitched on the grassy bank, beneath the shade of a venerable elm, centuries old. This old tree, on the bank at the mouth of the Illinois river, has been the scene of many strange adventures and incidents connected with the early history of Illinois and the West. It is itself a witness tree, and was the starting point of the fourth principal meridian line. The base of all the surveys in this western country are from five principal meridian lines; the first of which starts from the mouth of the Miami river in Ohio, the second from the mouth of the Little Blue river in Indiana, the third from the mouth of the Ohio river, the fourth from the mouth of the Illinois, and the fifth from the mouth of the Arkansas river. The fourth meridian line starts from the old elm at the mouth of the Illinois, and running north crosses that river seventy-two miles from its mouth. The line crosses the Mississippi a few miles north of Rock Island, and the northern boundary of this State makes its second base line. It passes through the town of Galena and into Wisconsin.
From the bald bluff near by, which towers three hundred feet above the tree, Marquette received his first view of the Mississippi river. Upon the same bluff also stood LaSalle, Joliet and old Father Hennepin, the great explorers, and saw for the first time the rolling flood of the great Father of Waters. Amid thanksgiving and praise, in the exuberance of their joy they erected a cross upon the highest point of the eminence. Upon the cross they left an inscription in French.
The Professor was silent as we stood upon the spot, and I had no remark to make. All the memories of the spot so full of history were sacred. Looking out over the wide expansive view, what a scene presented itself to the explorers! The great river below, and for many miles beyond the opposite shore the rich grassy prairie, with a shimmering gleam of water in the far off distance, which they suspected was another river (the Missouri) coming to join the great river below. There was no name to the rivers then, and they knew not whither they went nor from whence they came. There was still before them the great work of exploration. How easy to imagine their feelings as they for the first time gazed from the eminence on the unexplored regions beyond. To be sure, De Soto had discovered the lower river below them, but of this they knew but little, if anything, of the real truth.
We looked in vain for any trace of the cross left by LaSalle or his fellow explorers. Father Hennepin should certainly have left some sign that would not perish, but inexorable time, or what is more probable, the hand of some illiterate vandal, had carried it away. We discovered, however, that the bald point of the eminence was an artificial mound, for upon turning up a spadeful of earth there was exposed a skull and the bones of a skeleton with a stone hatchet and curious flint implements that had been placed there, without doubt, long before Marquette, or La Salle, or Father Hennepin climbed to the height.
The Professor looked long and earnestly at the relics before he covered up the bones again, and then said abstractedly: Perhaps it was some king who once marshalled his hosts in the valley below hosts of a race that we seek now in vain to know, but the outlines of that far off past are very faint shadowy. If we could only rend the veil away.
We started to descend, following a ledge a sort of faintly defined pathway hammering idly at the rocks, still thinking silently of the past and its histories, when the Professor uttered an exclamation. We immediately retraced our steps, supposing we had found some rare fossil, but found him bending over a crevice in the rock from which there issued a current of air. Upon throwing a handful of leaves into the aperture, they were ejected with considerable violence. The Professor threw his straw hat in the opening, and the hat was blown several yards away. We had once found a considerable cavern in that vicinity by tracing up an aperture that emitted a volume of wind in a similar manner. The Professor was also satisfied that some cavern existed in the rocks, and we went to the western side, as the wind was from that direction, and searched in the deep ravine for an opening. We found several, but none that promised to lead to any cavern of great extent. We had no candle or means of furnishing a light, and finally relinquished the search. One of the crevices we entered, after penetrating some yards, extended downwards. The fissure being somewhat too narrow for a large person, we threw pieces of rock into the darkness and heard them rebound from side to side until lost in faint reverberations in the depths below. We are of the opinion that a large cavern exists in that locality, but cooler weather is a more desirable time in which to prosecute the search.
Wearied with our exertions, for the day was warm, we repaired to the friendly shade of the historic elm. A clear, cool spring wells up from beneath the cliff just above it, and from the waters we had a most delicious draught.
Reclining beneath the shade of centuries, our mind reverted back again to the time when Marquette and La Salle and Father Hennepin had camped beneath the same tree (for both the Professor and myself believe this to be the identical spot spoken of in the diary of these voyagers), drank from the same spring, and in solemn council had smoked the pipe of peace with the Illinois Indians. There were the same rocks upon which Marquette stood when he held aloft the best of wampum; the same rocks upon which Father Hennepin had stood with the cross in his hand trying to make the savages understand that his mission was one of peace. From their camp under this tree the explorers had started out to explore both the Upper and Lower Mississippi.
For all the long ages past, this vicinity has been a favorite resort of Indians the once powerful Dakotas, the Iroquois and the Illinois. They fished and hunted on the rivers bank, and many times from the rocky cliffs has rebounded the yells of savage conflict. The high points of the bluffs, the more gently inclined hillsides, as well as many places in the bottom below, is one vast cemetery, and commingling with the earth, in all the various stages of decay, are the bones of many generations of people. Thousands of broken pieces of rude domestic utensils and curious weapons strew the ground. Upon the walls of the bluff are a few rude attempts at an evident sort of hieroglyphic writing, but time has so defaced it that its meaning will doubtless never be recovered.
The last Indian that made this vicinity their home was the remnant of Black Hawks band. Since the Black Hawk war only an occasional wandering group of Indians have visited their old haunts, stopping a few days, sad-eyed and silent at the graves of their fathers. Black Hawk was an Indian of superior intelligence and foresaw the fate of his people. It is said that many times he could be seen standing upon the highest points of the bluff, looking out over the scene he was soon to leave, sadness in his eyes, hopeless and despondent. Who knows what emotions rent his bosom and twanged his heartstrings, as he stood leaning upon his rifle, the bold outlines of his form like a statue revealed against the horizon. What a contrast between the feelings of Marquette and La Salle, who stood upon the same spot and first viewed the Mississippi, and the unfortunate chieftain, the last of his race, taking his sad farewell.
And departing left behind them, Footprints in the sands of time.
Ages will pass before the ebbing waves will efface them.
Only yesterday I held in my hand the powder horn that Black Hawk wore upon his hip. It is covered with quaint hieroglyphics and devices, in the carving of which is exhibited very considerable skill. The legends and devices on the powder horn are the work of the chieftains own hands, and are without doubt a record of the more important events of his life. This historic powder horn will be of interest to the ethnologist. A number of the early settlers of Jersey and Calhoun were well acquainted with Black Hawk, and among the families of these pioneers are still retained several interesting relics that were the personal property of the chief. – Mc.