As if on cue a pair of sandhill cranes trumpeted 300 feet beneath the bluff. They rose from the Mississippi River floor, circled, and flew off across the tree tops till their honking could be heard no more.
* * *
Almost forty people had gathered in the Jo Daviess County Conservation Foundation (JDCF) land stewardship shop at the Portage Preserve on a Saturday morning in May, preparing for a two-mile hike back into the woods despite a forecast hinting at rain. Chloris Lowe from the Ho-Chunk nation and regional archaeologist Phil Millhouse would be our guides to interpreting the Native American burial mounds tucked deeply away in the woods near the confluence of the Galena and Mississippi Rivers.
The Portage Preserve, located southwest of Galena, is a 316-acre farmed and forested refuge owned and maintained by JDCF, a non-profit conservation land trust organization whose mission is to preserve lands in Northwest Illinois with natural or cultural herite. The site is home to over 50 Native American conical and linear mounds dating from 200 BC to 800 AD. The property’s valleys also cradled rock shelters and Native American villages.
“This area was a central place for indigenous groups who lived here for thousands of years,” said Millhouse, who had developed his love for archaeology walking these grounds repeatedly as a youth growing up on a neighboring farm. “Once it became sanctified as a burial ground, people kept coming back to. There are layers of history here.”
Steve Barg, Executive Director of JDCF, next introduced Ho-Chunk past-President Lowe, reminding the audience, “We often honor our fourth and fifth generation landowners, as we should. But we also have among us peoples whose ancestry on the land goes back hundreds of generations. Should we not also honor them?”
Lowe spoke of his own ancestors, his grandfather, who “taught me to hunt and fish and who lived to be almost 103.” Some 15,000 years before him, the first humans set foot on this landscape, Lowe explained, hunting mammoths and other prehistoric wildlife at the edges of the glaciers that lurked only a hundred miles to the north.
“This is all sacred land, but the mounds are special places,” he continued. “The life and spirit we have continues on forever. Our bodies will return to the earth, but our life and spirituality goes into the soil and regenerates back out. Everything we have comes from the earth and returns to it.”
Lowe then reminded the audience of their own sacred duty as we headed out on the two-mile walk: “You are the latest generation on the landscape. Someday people will look back at your impact.”
* * *
The hike took us first along the edges of the Portage Preserve’s leased farmland to the edgewood where JDCF has built berms and slow drainage features to stem the spread of massive ravines that threaten the surrounding woodland.
Then we entered the woodland where the mounds ride the ridge down to the river overlook.
Millhouse paused at Mound 16, a conical mound dating to the Middle Woodland period between 200 BC – 400 AD. In addition to burials, such mounds often contained copper, obsidian, and other artifacts from across North America, indicating extensive trade networks even in these early times. “Wealth was often buried so it wouldn’t accumulate” with individuals and families, he explained.
Millhouse admired the mound builders as “brilliant soil scientists” who constructed the mounds so that they have stayed intact over thousands of years. The process itself was complex. First, the mound builders leveled off a ridge or bluff top before construction. At a mound site they would next remove the soil and dig a burial chamber into the yellowish subsoil, erecting a log crypt in the center. After burial—often of several individuals—the builders mounded topsoil over the crypt in layers in such a way as to resist erosion. Soils for the mounds differed from the surrounding landscape, often hauled up from the river to the ridge tops, basket by basket.
Lowe paused the group at one of the mounds as well. Shifting our attention from death to life, he described a Ho-Chunk wedding, picking up on Millhouse’s point about avoiding the accumulation of wealth. In a Ho-Chunk wedding, said Lowe, the families exchange gifts of Native American heritage, but the bride and groom themselves do not receive gifts. “They leave the ceremony with the gift of each other’s families.”
From there we walked slightly downhill along a path lined with mounds. Some had been desecrated by looters and early archaeologists, who have since developed non-intrusive means of studying mounds. Some had been damaged by trees that had toppled over time. But many of the mounds were fully intact, some of them as tall as a standing man.
Burials were not limited to the mounds, either, but occurred between and among the mounds as well. Nevertheless, a line of mounds continued down toward the overlook. Mounds nearer the overlook were smaller and constructed more recently, from 400-800 AD. Stone box graves—burials and artifacts capped with slabs of local dolomite dating to about 1400—likewise dot the bluff top.
Along the way we marveled, too, at a giant oak whose girth it would have taken several of us to encircle. This oak would have been here when the land was less forested, when it was instead oak savanna with prairie grasses spreading beneath the occasional hardwood on the river bluff.
Then came gasps as the river valley came into view. Another oak bent crooked near the bluff and framed the backwaters among its branches. “Can you imagine what has happened on this landscape?” Lowe said in contagious joy. “The ceremonies that must have occurred here.”
And the mated pair of sandhill cranes honked out their reply and took flight.
(Unlike many of the JDCF properties that are open to the public, the Portage Preserve is accessible only for occasional staff-led events.)