The meandering Mackinaw changes its course

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In this column we explore topics related to the history of Pekin and Tazewell County during the period of the past two centuries or so. This week, we’ll take a look at a remarkable matter of natural history having to do with one of our area’s natural, primeval features: the Mackinaw River, an important tributary of the Illinois River.

Water has probably flowed down the Mackinaw into the Illinois River far longer than anyone can imagine. The river’s source is far to the east, near the village of Sibley in Ford County, and it then meanders and wends its way for about 130 miles through McLean, Woodford and Tazewell counties.

However, a survey of old maps and atlases reveals that the Mackinaw River’s outlet was not always where it is today. The river formerly flowed through what it now Mason County, but, as David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society recently brought to my attention, at some point between the 1830s and 1860s, the Mackinaw shifted its course. No longer did the Mackinaw River continue a generally westward course until emptying into the Illinois in Mason County near the spot where Chautauqua Lake is located today. Instead, the Mackinaw took a northward turn and found a new outlet at a location on the Illinois just west of the modern-day Powerton Fish and Wildlife Area.

Early Illinois maps and sources document the old course of the Mackinaw River. An 1815 map by Rene Paul (Plate XL in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830), for example, shows the “Macanac R.” flowing west-south-west into the Illinois River at a point nearly opposite the mouth of the “La Marche” river, a good ways south of Peoria Lake. No northward bend in the Mackinaw is shown.

Macanac River 1815

This 1815 map by Rene Paul (Plate XL in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830) shows the “Macanac R.” flowing west-south-west into the Illinois River at a point nearly opposite the mouth of the “La Marche” river, a good ways south of Peoria Lake. No northward bend in the Mackinaw is shown.

Another early publication, Zadok Cramer’s 1808 “The Navigator,” reprinted in 1818 and excerpted in the July 2009 Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly, describes the “Sesemi-Quain” and “De la March” rivers, tributaries of the Illinois, before coming to:

“The river Michilimackinac, comes in on the south-eastern side, above the two just mentioned, and 195 miles from the Mississippi; it is navigable 90 miles, 50 yards wide, and has at its mouth 30 to 40 small islands, which at a distance look like a small village. Some distance up this river is a coal mine, on the banks are red and white cedar, pine, maple walnut, & c.”

“Michilimackinac” was the full, original name of the Mackinaw. But the distance of “195 miles from the Mississippi” does not accord with the course and length of the Illinois River today. A 1998 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “Illinois Waterway Navigation Charts” shows the present mouth of the Mackinaw at about 148 miles upriver from Grafton, Ill. (which is where the Illinois joins the Mississippi River today), while the former mouth of the Mackinaw River was at a spot approximately 124 miles upriver from Grafton.

An 1819 map of Illinois by John Melish (Plate XLVI in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830), presents the “Michilimackinac R.” flowing much as Rene Paul’s 1815 shows the “Macanac R.” The same basic water course for the Mackinaw can be found on an old 1822 atlas map. Baldwin & Cradock’s 1833 atlas also shows the mouth of the Mackinaw far to the south of its present mouth – but significantly, this atlas map illustrates that before it found the Illinois, the Mackinaw flowed into an extensive swamp in what was then Tazewell County but is today Mason County. This old swamp bears on the changed course of the Mackinaw.

A map obtained by David Perkins, formerly a plate illustration in an 1879 book, shows northern and central Illinois in 1835. This map also shows the old swamp, but traces the course of the Mackinaw along the southern boundary of the swamp. Notably, however, the map also shows a stream or rivulet along the swamp’s western boundary, running in a generally northerly direction up to the Illinois River at a spot near the present mouth of the Mackinaw.

1835 Illinois map from 1879 book

This map, formerly a plate illustration in an 1879 book, shows northern and central Illinois in 1835. This map shows the old swamp, but traces the course of the Mackinaw along the southern boundary of the swamp. Notably, the map also shows a stream or rivulet along the swamp’s western boundary, running in a generally northerly direction up to the Illinois River at a spot near the present mouth of the Mackinaw.

It appears that around the mid-1800s some local event or events of a geologic nature – say, a flood, perhaps with agricultural activities in or near the swamp being a contributing cause – led to the Mackinaw River shifting its course. Abandoning its former course, the river was diverted, or diverted itself, into the channel of the northerly stream. Henceforth the Mackinaw no longer would flow through Mason County. Thus, an 1864 plat map of Tazewell County shows the Mackinaw following its present course, and all subsequent atlases and maps show the same river course.

1866 map of Illinois

This 1866 map of Illinois shows the present course of the Mackinaw River, as is typical for Illinois and Tazewell County maps from 1864 onward.

While such changes are remarkable, it’s well known that rivers can and do change their courses, whether in slight or major ways. The change in the Mackinaw River’s course no doubt was noticed and recorded by contemporaries, but as yet Perkins and I have found no historical notices of the change. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” makes no mention of it, nor do the historical essays in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County” say anything about a change in the Mackinaw’s course. More recent reference works that we’ve consulted also are silent on this point.

The Mackinaw’s former course through Mason County still exists, and it even links up to the Mackinaw north of Townline Road in Tazewell County. At that point, one finds a drainage ditch that follows the line of Schuttler Road and then turns straight south along Dinky Ditch Road. Along the way south, it becomes Hickory Grove Ditch, flowing under Hickory Grove Road just east of Manito.

The ditch then makes an eastward curve before swinging diagonally southwest through Mason County – this stretch of the watercourse is known as North Quiver Ditch, but further on past Forest City, it’s the Mason Tazewell Ditch, until finally, past Topeka, it becomes Quiver Creek, which empties into the Illinois at Chautauqua Lake.

But once, way back when, it was the final western length of the Mackinaw River.

#mackinaw-river, #mackinaw-river-course, #michilmackinac, #old-maps, #tazewell-county-genealogical-historical-society, #tazewell-county-history, #tazewell-county-maps

The early days of Mackinaw

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in November 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

The early days of Mackinaw

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The village of Mackinaw in eastern Tazewell County occupies a special position in the county’s history. As this column has noted previously, Mackinaw was the first seat of government for Tazewell County, and the first county courthouse was erected in Mackinaw.

One of the most important sources for the history of those days is Charles C. Chapman’s “History of Tazewell County.”  Also among the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room sources that tell of Mackinaw’s history is “Mackinaw Remembers 1827-1977,” edited by Gladys Garst. The story of Mackinaw’s founding is told on the first two pages of that book, along with a glance back at the prehistory of the Mackinaw area.

“The proof and importance of marks in our Indian cultural heritage,” this volume says, “lies in the fact that Dr. W. H. Holmes, Curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, stated the following about the cache discovered in 1916 on the James Tyrrell farm northeast of Mackinaw: ‘Undoubtedly, they represent the most skillful work in stone flaking that has yet been found in this country.’ Thirty-five bifaces (a particular cut) from the Mackinaw cache are on exhibit at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Three are in McLean County Historical Society Museum in Bloomington, and one is owned by Mr. Stuart Ruch of Champaign. These are thought to be from the Hopewell culture (100 BC to AD 300). Irvin Wyss and Ivan Lindsey are two local men who were digging when they found the cache. Many artifacts have been found by others. Ernest Fuehring has a display in the Mackinaw Federal Savings and Loan Building.”

The most obvious marks of Mackinaw’s Indian cultural heritage are the village’s name and the name of the Mackinaw River. As a rule, the names of rivers and notable natural geographical features tend to be older than the names of towns or cities.  Naturally that is the case with the village of Mackinaw. It may be a surprise to learn, however, that the village did not derive its name from the river.

According to “Mackinaw Remembers,” “It is an accepted fact [the village of Mackinaw] bears the name of Chief Mackinaw or Mackinac of the Kickapoo tribe . . . Some say Mackinaw means ‘little chief.’ It is listed in Illinois State History, No. 4, p. 57, 1963, by Virgil K. Vogel, pamphlet series of Illinois State Historical Society, as meaning turtle. It is taken from the language of the Ojibways.”

The river’s name, however, is an abbreviated form of “Michilimackinac,” a name which some people continued to use even as late as 1846. “In 1681 Father Marquette mentions the Michilimackinac River in his log. It is so-spelled on some maps published in 1822 in the Atlas of Indian Villages of Illinois, compiled by Tucker and Temple,” says “Mackinaw Remembers.”

“Mackinaw Remembers” also has this to say about the Native American peoples living in the area in the early 1800s: “The Indians left a definite mark in our area. War clouds just prior to the War of 1812 made feisty Kickapoos even more restless. They burned settlements on their move toward Lake Peoria. One band of them took up quarters with some Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa on the Mackinaw River. The peaceful Potawatomi far outnumbered the other tribes. Their chief was named Shimshack. Chief Mackina of the Kickapoos eventually became friendly; however, he and the tribes left with the mass evacuation of Indians in Illinois in 1832.”

Chapman’s Tazewell County history also includes some anecdotes of Chief Mackinaw, or “Old Machina” as Chapman calls him, and notes that his people, the Kickapoo, “dwell in the western and southwestern part of the county” (page 195).

“For some years after the first settlers came wigwams were scattered here and there over the county . . . Another extensive camping ground was on the Mackinaw river, near the present town of Mackinaw. Old Machina was the chief of this band. The Kickapoos had made a treaty shortly previous to the coming of the first settler, by which the whites acquired all their land. When the whites came, however, to settle and occupy the land the Kickapoos were angry, and some of them felt disposed to insult and annoy the settlers. When John Hendrix came to Blooming Grove the Indians ordered him to leave. Not long afterwards they frightened away a family which settled on the Mackinaw. Old Machina ordered one family away by throwing leaves in the air. This was to let the bootanas (white men) know that they must  not be found in the country when the leaves of autumn should fall. In 1823, when the Orendorffs came, Old Machina had learned to speak a little English. He came to Thomas Orendorff and with a majestic wave of his hand said: ‘Too much come back, white man: t’other side Sangamon’” (page 195-196).

Fanny Herndon, one of the “Snowbirds” (the survivors of “the Deep Snow” during the extremely harsh winter of 1830-31), “related stories of earlier settlers mentioning the many tepees here. She told of an Indian trail which came in the village [of Mackinaw] from the northeast, went past the west side of the Bryan Zehr place, and led to the present home of Clifford Rowell. It continued southwest along the bluffs.

The formal founding of the village of Mackinaw is almost coeval with the establishment of Tazewell County in 1827. Originally when Illinois legislators made plans to form a new county out of Peoria County, the proposed name was Mackinaw County, not Tazewell County. In fact, the bill that was approved by the Illinois House of Representative in January 1827 was named, “An Act Creating Mackinaw County.” The Illinois Senate, however, amended the title to read, “An Act Creating Tazewell County,” and it was in that form that the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 31, 1827. Gideon Rupert of Pekin is credited with the choice to name the county after Rupert’s fellow Virginian Littleton Waller Tazewell, U.S. Senator from Virginia.

The legislation erecting Tazewell County also fixed the county seat at Mackinaw, which then was near the center of the county. William H. Hodges, County Surveyor, was hired to lay off the town of Mackinaw, and the sale of town lots was then advertised for three weeks in the Sangamon Spectator. It was decided that the county court house – a relatively simply log structure –was to be built “at or near the spot where the commissioners drove down a stake, standing nine paces in a northeastern direction from a white oak blazed on the northeastern side.” That was Lot 1, Block 11, where the Eddy Smith family lived in 1977. The Mackinaw courthouse served the county for only three years, from 1828 to 1831. Then followed the rivalry between Pekin and Tremont for the honor of county seat which this column has previous described.


Shown is an artist’s rendering of the log house that served as Tazewell County’s courthouse when Mackinaw was the county seat from 1828 to 1831.

#chief-mackinaw, #gideon-rupert, #littleton-waller-tazewell, #mackinaw, #mackinaw-courthouse, #mackinaw-river, #michilmackinac, #preblog-columns, #snowbirds, #tazewell-county-history, #tazewell-county-native-tribes