While Illinois state law requires the study of U.S. history, and also requires that students pass tests on the state and U.S. constitutions in eighth grade and again before graduating from high school, local history is given short shrift among social studies at all levels, from grade school right through college.
As a result, most people don’t even realize their hometowns or their counties even have a unique and rich history outside of what their grandparents told them about, say, World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
Most of us grow up watching television shows and movies that depict history in simplistic, if not downright inaccurate, terms. In popular entertainment, the West is always populated by the Sioux or Cheyenne, who are generally intent on attacking one wagon train or another as the U.S. Cavalry tries to cope. The message too many are left with is that Indians lived way out there on the plains where the buffalo roamed and the antelope played.
But the plain fact is that for most of our history, that simply wasn’t true. From the first permanent European settlements in North America beginning in the 1500s through the end of the 1800s, the frontier was where “The West” was – and where Indians lived. And for about 300 years, “The West” was the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River – right where we live today. During most of that period, the Algonquian, Iroquoian and Siouian peoples of the northern woodlands more than held their own against the great European nations. In comparison, from the time Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase until the tribes west of the Mississippi were conquered, less than a century elapsed.
That’s why it’s so odd that when people living here along the Fox River think “Indian,” the image that pops into their mind is that of a Cheyenne or Arapaho chief with full headdress sitting bareback on some lonely butte staring into the distance. The Iroquois, Huron, Potowatomi, Ottawa and Shawnee chiefs who bitterly contested European expansion east of the Mississippi were more militarily effective, and were usually the diplomatic equals – and sometimes the superiors – of the white invaders. But the eastern conflicts for some reason don’t seem to catch the popular interest the western wars do. “Dances With Wolves” was a hit years ago about the beginning of the end of the relatively brief plains culture, while 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans” told the story of just one of the several bloody violent conflicts that punctuated North America’s history in the east until the War of 1812 saw the beginning of the end of warfare with Native Americans.
Was anything going on here in Kendall County before settlement took place in the 1820s? Actually, Kendall County enjoyed a culturally rich history for thousands of years before whites finally showed up. Primitive hunter-gatherer bands stalked mastodons and other giant Ice Age mammals on the county’s prairies as the last of the great glaciers melted, retreating north. Those folks were replaced by more sedentary people who began cultivating and genetically enhancing native foods, learned to make pottery, and began trading with their distant cousins all over North America and even into South America.
Those cultures, too, were eventually replaced and the member groups of the Illinois Confederacy moved in to live and hunt here before they, too, were swept aside in the mid-1700s by confederated and related bands of Potowatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa who called themselves “The Three Fires.”
After living here for less than 100 years, The Three Fires, too, were swept aside, this time by white instead of Indian invaders and after several thousand years the Native Peoples’ occupation of Kendall County finally came to an end.
For some reason, our own past is either ignored or drastically downplayed by those who decide what we need to learn in school, and, in fact, decisions have been made that actually degrade our own rich local history in favor of the history of other regions.
The “Trail of Tears” forced on the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeast was indeed a great tragedy, but so was the forced removal of The Three Fires Confederacy from the Fox Valley in 1836 or the massacre of Black Hawk’s people in 1832. Custer’s defeat was dramatic, but the 258 officers and men killed at the Little Big Horn was a mere fraction of the nearly 1,000 soldiers killed in Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s November 1791 debacle on the Wabash River in Ohio when Shawnee leaders Blue Jacket and Little Turtle destroyed not just part of a regiment but an entire U.S. Army.
Given there’s a lot worth knowing about local history, why don’t we stress it in our schools and universities? The fact, and the problem, is that national standardized tests can’t measure local historical knowledge, nor can whatever standardized exams Illinois is using this year (or this week) to supposedly measure student achievement. If any teacher is bold enough to take time away from studying the versions of history that will appear on standardized tests to offer a little local history, they are penalized because standardized tests don’t cover those areas. No local history in school means no knowledge of the subject – sometimes even that the subject exists at all – is passed on, which eventually results in all of us knowing only “approved” versions of history. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, yes; Chief Waubonsee or Main Poche, no.
Until they are encouraged and not penalized for teaching local history, schools will understandably opt for self-preservation and toe the approved academic line. That’s the whole idea behind the school “accountability” movement. And generations will continue to grow up so ignorant of their own heritage that the stone projectile points found throughout the Fox Valley may as well have originated on Mars as have been produced by local residents whose lives and cultures were living parts of where we live for thousands of years.
• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.