By Steve Hoffman
MONTICELLO — The path toward the development of the Allerton Park & Retreat Center began when Samuel Allerton began purchasing acreage in Piatt County more than 150 years ago, but the land has a much longer history — and prehistory — than that.
As a matter of fact, human use of the land that now makes up Allerton goes back at least 10,500 years, according to University of Illinois archaeologist Brian Adams, an associate scientist at the university’s Illinois State Archaeological Survey.
“Really, the whole range of documented pre-history for the State of Illinois is represented at the park. We had people coming here as hunters and gatherers; up through farming communities,” Adams said at a Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society talk on Sept. 6. “People have been coming to the park a really long time.”
Over the past five decades, researchers have found not only arrowheads dating to approximately 8,500 B.C. but a group of mounds that are still located within the 1,500 acres of woods that make up the now University of Illinois-owned park. In the past 50-plus years, researchers have found 43 archaeological sites at Allerton, 30 that came before European contact, along with at least nine Euro-American sites.
Even more amazing, said Adams, is that, unlike many sites, the ones at Allerton have not been plowed and were relatively undisturbed, giving archaeologists at least a small picture of habitation through the millennia.
Although three of the mounds at the park have been looted, Adams, an associate scientist with the U of I’s Illinois State Archaeological Survey, said it was “incredible that most have not been disturbed.”
Another factor helping in their preservation is that they are low mounds and difficult to see from the Allerton trail that runs by them, especially when there are leaves on surrounding trees and the groundcover is thick.
Experts are unsure which Native American group constructed the mounds. Adams terms them as “precontact” — prior to interaction with Euro-Americans from the east — and estimates they were likely constructed during Late Woodland period, which spanned from 350 to 1200 A.D.
He added that, although there are historical accounts of Potawatomi and Kickapoo peoples residing in the area when Euro-American settlers arrived, there have been no sites identified with those tribes at this point.
Surveys since the 1990s have found several other sites at the park, but “most of them are just small scatters of stone chipping debris and fire cracked rock,” Adams added, noting that “most of those are difficult to date.”
Other finds — including arrowheads — have been dated between 8,500 B.C. and 1200 A.D.
Research started in the 1960s
The proposed Oakley Dam/Reservoir project prompted one of the first official archaeological surveys at Allerton in 1965. Along the route the project would have flooded, Charlton Holland found evidence of 81 prehistoric sites, two within the Allerton Park borders.
Research at the park resumed in the late 1990s, and now 43 archaeological sites have been recorded. The mound site, named “Samuel’s Mounds” after the Allerton patriarch, was found during the 1965 search, but in 2015 the number expanded from three to 10 after aerial LiDAR images were obtained.
It is not a major surprise people have used the land for so many centuries, said Adams.
“Allerton Park would have fallen into the (Illini group’s) area. They would have come out to hunt buffalo or collect nuts in the fall, but to date we have not found evidence of them (Illini groups) in the park,” Adams said.
The final in a string of treaties led to forced removal of Native Americans in Illinois by about 1832, including a forced march of those from the Potawatomi nation traveling through Piatt County on what was later dubbed the “Trail of Death.”
Adams also discussed two pioneer cemeteries found on Allerton land. The oldest came from early settler John West, who moved to Piatt County around 1835. The so-called “West Family Pioneer Cemetery,” located on the south side of the river, was surveyed in both 1962 and 1985 with 20 grave markers found.
Parkland College followed that up with a project in 2019 that cleaned stones, took photos, and created a map of the cemetery.
“This was a way for them to properly document a pioneer cemetery correctly,” Adams said.
The Sheppard Family Pioneer Cemetery, located close to the Sun Singer statue, contains seven stones, already three less than earlier records. Restoration work has been done, and a 3-D scan of one marker helped identify the grave of early settler William Hutchison, the husband of Rebecca Peck. Hutchison died of pneumonia in 1947.
Plenty of work to do
Adams said there is more work to be done by researchers as time and dollars allow at Allerton. His wish list includes:
— Identifying some “contact period Native American sites that could include Potawatomi and Kickapoo through systematic surveys down both sides of the river.”
— Locate early farmsteads, possibly the one settled by John West in the 1830s.
“We know from (historian) Emma Piatt’s account where John West settled, and we can go to the government records to find out where he bought property. So we have a pretty good idea where his farmstead was; it was not far from the West Family Cemetery.”
— Continue work at the Sheppard Family Pioneer Cemetery: Finding missing stones, clean grave markers, and other restoration measures.
Adams’ talk can be viewed on the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society’s YouTube site.