Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Kankakee River

(from the May 26, 1982, Lowell Tribune, page 12)

So many interesting stories have been told about the Kankakee River through the years, we would like to retell some of them and comment on the influence of the river on the pioneer and the early settler.

The river is unique in that it has an ancient Indian portage at one end and an atomic age power plant at the other. One historian noted that between these two points there are a thousand strange tales.

Early explorers jokingly said that the Kankakee was as wide as it was long. Old maps show the many names of the river -- the Thekiki, Huakiki, Aukiki, Sauwauseebe, and finally Kankakee. The French explorer and mapmaker Siegnelay also used the names: Akaki, Tiahkekink, Kienkiki, Theaskiki, Auequeque, and Quinquiqui.

The Kankakee River rises from the springs and swamplands of Northwest Indiana about three or four miles southwest of the southernmost bend of the St. Joseph River, where the City of South Bend is located. The village of Crumstown is considered the nearest settlement to the marshes that indicate the beginning of the river. Historians have written that it was probably used as a canoe waterway well over a thousand years ago.

During the straightening of the river in the early part of this century, bones of ancient animals were discovered, including mastodon, sabretooth tiger, giant beaver, and a type of large elk, all dug up by the excavating machinery. In all its twisting and turning, the river was nearly 200 miles long, but today, after the dredging and straightening, the length is about 120 miles.

It meets the Des Plaines River in Grundy County, Ill., to form the Illinois River.

Charles Bartlett, in his book "Tales of Kankakee Land," had this to say of the Kankakee: "More than a million acres of swaying reeds, fluttering flags, clumps of wild rice, thick growing lily pads, soft beds of cool green mosses, shimmering ponds and black mire and trembling bogs -- such is Kankakee Land."

He wrote that the wonderful marshes with their silence, their vastness, their misty haze and their miry depths, make them the very realm of forgetfulness and oblivion. Weston A. Goodspeed, in his 'History of Lake County, 1882.' wrote "The southern part of Lake County is very wet, is known as the Kankakee Marsh, and is principly noted for hay, rick islands, water fowl, batrachians (frogs), mosquitoes and the impractibility of pleasureable, or even successful passage across its spongy surface."

Pioneer John Brown wrote in 1884, when he was Auditor of Lake County, "It is a slow sluggish stream with a fall of from one-to-one and one-half feet to the mile in this state. It being very crooked and the land on either side being low and marsh, the water moves very slowly and these low lands, forming what is familiarly known as the Kankakee Marsh, are for a period of time each year covered with from one to three feet of water.

In those early days, about six sections of land in the southeast corner of Lake County were covered with timber, composed mostly of ash and elm, with some sycamore and gum trees, and with oak on the islands. The balance of these wetlands running west to the state line was open marsh, covered with heavy growth of wild grasses, wild rice, and flags.

'Flags' are varieties of plants with long sword-shaped leaves, including plants of the Iris family.

In 1884 the number of acres of wetlands in Lake County in the Kankakee Valley was about 6,000, and in the seven counties through which the river flows in this state, about 600,000 acres.

In her book " The Kankakee," Fay Folsom Nichols wrote: "The glory and fame of the river's timbered bottom lands -- the Grand Marsh -- mecca for hunter and trapper for over a century, went to the far corners of the globe. The super-abundance of its wild fowl and fur bearing animals and fish were almost unbelievable."

LaSalle, at the wishes of his King, Louis XIV of France, explored the area of the Kankakee in 1679, when the territory belonged to the Potawatomi, his party including the first white men to paddle their canoes in its current.

Before the pioneers and early settlers arrived in the northwest corner of Indiana, the Kankakee attracted many tribes of Indians and was the home of French traders and trappers. It is believed that the first tribe in possession of the Marsh lands were the Miami, then the Wyandottes, followed by the Illinois, and finally the Potawatomi, the principal tribe in the area.

The Potawatomi migrated from Wisconsin in the late part of the 17th century and replaced the Illinois Tribe. They spoke the Algonquin language and were closely related to the Ottawas and the Ojibwas, with whom they had once formed a single tribe.

It is surprising to read that some of the "Last of the Mohicans" came from the east and hid themselves on the islands of the Kankakee, an asylum for a persecuted race and a place where the camp fires of their tribe went out forever.

Many stories were told of the old land marks bordering the river that show it was the favorite hunting ground of the Indian. Many of the islands had mounds and burying grounds.

Pioneer John Brown said that he had seen no larger or finer grapes anywhere than some he gathered on the islands, and which he thought were planted by the Indians. These grapes could have been a survivor of a cultivated variety brought from France by the early white people who entered the region.

On Curve Island was the so called "Indian Battle Ground," the entrenchments covering a space of about four acres, in almost a perfect circle, with many deep holes inside. Many relics of the past have been unearthed in that area.

One large Indian encampment was on Red Oak Island, where two French traders, James Bertrand and Louis Lavoire, had trading posts. They lived among two hundred Indians, and both men had Indian wives.

A trader named Laslie, also French, ran a store on Big White Oak Island south of Orchard Grove. Pioneer Charles Kenney told the story of visiting the Frenchman and his Indian wife on New Years, 1839. He and his son had been in the marsh looking for horses, stayed all night and enjoyed the hospitality of the trader and of the Indians on the island.

The Indians in the area in 1834, when Lake County was surveyed, and when the pioneers came, were those who acknowledged the white man as a conqueror. Some of the Potawatomi were still on their hunting and trapping grounds when the first settlers came, and were mostly friendly.

Every area, town and settlement along the Kankakee has its own story to tell, with many versions of how it was along the Grand Marsh.

We will continue to tell the tales of the Kankakee in next month's column.

Last updated on April 7, 2003.

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