Fort Higinbotham, Will County, Illinois
From: History of Will County, Illinois
By: August Maue
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1928

Old Fort. - The first settlers encountered the Indians of whom they were always suspicious. Usually the Red Man was friendly until he was aroused by the treachery of the White Man or by the White Man's whiskey. Thus it came about that forts were numerous. The scare which came with the Black Hawk war produced forts in and about Joliet even though the war never came this far. The Pottawattamie tribe remained friendly throughout and aided the White Man. Fort Nonsense was built just west of Bluff Street on the site of 306 North Broadway of today (1928). It was called Fort Nonsense because it contained no provision for water or food. It might have been called Fort Nonsense because it was so foolish a thing to build it when it was not needed. Another fortification was in Reed's woods. No record is found that it was ever used. There was a fort at Kankakee to which many of our people went in the panic which overtook them. Another was at Fort Dearborn, Chicago, to which a few from the Yankee settlement went.

An ancient fort is found in the east part of the city park which was formerly the Higinbotham woods. The exact location is, 500 feet west and 75 feet south of northeast corner of the west one half of the southeast fourth of section 8 in Joliet Township (T. 35 N. R. 11 E.) The Higinbotham woods was an 80 acre tract which was untouched by the axe until 1918 when it was stripped. This 80 acre tract was deeded to the city for a park two or three years after that. At this writing second growth timber is coming along very nicely. The old fort is in the northeast corner of this 80 acre tract.

No one knows the builders of this fort and no one knows what use was made of it. It might be named Fort Mystery. Usually it is spoken of as Fort Higinbotham. It was surveyed many years ago and was found to be 120 feet by 146 feet of an irregular outline. Within the fort were found White Oak trees, 300 years old. The question naturally arises, did they grow after the fort was built? One is inclined to think that they did. Banks of earth banked one and two feet high still remain with ditches on each side indicating how the embankment was made. Within the walls are three cavities indicating that the garrison had a well, a magazine or storehouse, and a shelter cave.

South of this fort along the high land adjacent to Hickory Creek was a favorite residence section for the Indians. When the Whites first came, an Indian village was found extending along Hickory Creek from what is now the east edge of the village of New Lenox. This tribe was always friendly with the Whites. One may assume that the old fort was built by French traders who traveled this way and who sought the trade which came to the Indian village. They may have been distrustful of the Red Man and may have established the fort as a residence and retreat in case of danger. Another guess is that it was built by the people who preceeded the Indians known to the Whites. If this were true it goes back a number of centuries. One guess is as good as another. In this connection we present an account of the ancient fort which was written by James H. Ferriss and published in the Herald-News, February 28, 1926. Mr. Ferriss' article rambles a great deal but it is given in its entirety because it contains many points of interest.

In Mr Ferriss' article he speaks of the mound in Oakwood cemetery. He says that it was a town hall site for the tribe. That he was wrong is proved by the excavations which were made in the summer of 1928. These explorers decided that the large number of bodies in the mound indicated that some sort of a pestilence carried off large numbers of the people. It is estimated that this mound contains between 350 and 400 bodies. However, this is spoken of in another chapter and need not be repeated here.

The following is the article by Mr. Ferriss:

"In the Higinbotham Woods, near the northeast corner, is found an ancient fort, of which very little is known. It was staked out by people with a compass, or at least an accurate knowledge of direction; perhaps by accident. As will be seen by its mapping it stands true with the north star.

"It was not a large fort, or stockade, as it contains less than an acre of ground. The walls are now only three or four feet above the forest level, and the ditches not more than two or three feet below.

"Fifty years, more, or less, a survey was made by our ancient surveyor, Mathieson, if I have spelled the name correctly, and I think at a later date by his successor, Adam Comstock. The first survey located excavations of supposed magazines, wells and underground shelters. The one here presented, loaned to me by William H. Zarley, heir of an ancient Joliet tribe and of all the county surveyors, designates white oak stumps which are about 300 years old.

"Note the sally port at the southwest corner, closed by the artist, but in reality closed only by the falling walls. Here was the point where the deseiged could dart out for a moment or two and scatter their assailants if there were not too many of the latter.

"The eastward arrowpoints on this southern boundary probably designates a tower for sharpshooters who could thus protect both sally port and the gate at the southeast corner.

"Who built this fort? The park fans would like to know. In the early days of LaSalle, historians tell us of the forts built by the French government and the fur traders.

"As it runs in my mind there were 75 government forts between Montreal and the lowest on the Mississippi river. The French and English fur traders later were not always friendly, and the Frenchmen built more forts, as that type of construction seemed to run in that nationality.

"One of these historical things was built at the mouth of the St. Joe river in Michigan. Crossings were made from the Joliet Lake, down here by the electric light plant to St. Joe, another at Chicago, another at the Sag. There are two at Starved Rock, one on the rock, another very large one half mile or so back in the flat woods, also another at Peoria. These were known to be military ports, occupied or assaulted by some of our own ancestors - St. Joe, Chicago, Starved Rock and Peoria.

"It runs in my mind that there were more in between. Trappers and packers going up or down stream had to have well protected sleeping places at the end of a day's journey. Probably the Sag fort is also of this class.

"Just a few months ago the late Louis Gougar told me that when his father, Daniel, settled upon government land on Hickory creek, near the long bridge, Gougar's crossing of the Rock Island, that they were in the midst of a large Indian village, three miles long, reaching from the present Michigan Central tracks to Spring creek. The barns of the Gougar estate occupy the site of the old Indian burying ground. Thus, my own thought is that one park fort was a traders' or trappers' fort, located not in, but near by to this Indian village, a custom with later Indian traders.

"On the south side of the Frances road in the Higinbotham woods, was another so called fort, occupied during the lifetime of New Lenox families. Only a few pieces of limestone used for a surface foundation to the building remains.

"Fort Nonsense, now occupied as a homestead by Frank Marsh, on Broadway, a high point, north of Western avenue, was built during the Black Hawk scare. The nonsense part of it was that it contained no water supply or preparations for getting a drink.

"The fort at Plainfield, I think has a later history than the LaSalle system. Somebody has asked me to look up and hunt out these forts. This is where I commenced hunting.

"The hills along the streams of this vicinity were attractive to the Indians, who also had an admiration for beautiful scenery, particularly where drinking water seemed convenient. They too, had something of a taste socially. That is, had an aristocracy. The best arrow points are found near the scenic springs, and the inferior ones near the stagnant sloughs and damp camping sites. Large settlements were near the electric light spring, and on the north side of the river between the old mound and the highland.

"West Park is covered with flint chips, the ground is still red near the spring from their camp fires, and there was an Indian garden below the south line.

"The old mound contained Indian graves, and here Pontiac, the great chief of the Iroquois, was killed by Kinmaboo, chief of the Illini, causing the war which led to the extermination of the Lallie tribe. The mound in Oakwood cemetery was where something like a town hall, or tribe hall for the Illini was located, and the hills along Hickory Creek were factories for their flint works.

"To see for yourself the Higinbotham fort, take the Francis road, leaving from the Gougar road at the school house, and proceed on the gravel eastward to the first bridge. A short distance after crossing the bridge are two rough wood roads on the left. The first one is the best. It's not far to walk. A little brush has been cut away and probably next season a better road will be provided. Westward down a side ravine, a spring of excellent drinking water by the brookside may be found."

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