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The train’s diesel engines roared as it pulled in next to the elevated platform along Green Bay Road in Evanston. The noise momentarily drowned out the voice of the tour guide as she described the ancient American Indian trail below, one of the busiest thoroughfares on the North Shore. Somehow, this brief loss of “audio” was just right for a bike tour intended to uncover Native American sites in Evanston and Wilmette long since obscured by centuries and modern civilization.
At this first stop on the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian’s Local Native History Bike Excursion, guide Lisa Bell, also a staff member of the museum’s visitors’ services and department, asked participants to forget the traffic whizzing by. Instead, she asked everyone to envision a well-worn trading route used by many native tribes since pre-historic times. Ms. Bell said the Green Bay Trail afforded a high and dry walking path through the area’s once marshy lowlands. Later, as the only major road in the region, the route was used by French fur traders, who exchanged guns, kettles, glass beads and the like for prized beaver pelts.
After that, American soldiers used the trail to push into the western reaches of “Indian Country” in the late 1700s. Eventually, the road became the route for the stage coaches that carried mail and passengers between Chicago and Green Bay.
Pedaling east on Lincoln Street, the group reached Ridge Road, aptly named, Ms. Bell said, because it was another slightly elevated footpath, in this case connecting Potawatomi villages that stretched along the western shores of Lake Michigan.
Ms. Bell’s proof was less than a half-mile away. Riding north on Ridge, and crossing carefully to the front lawn of Evanston Hospital, riders saw a bronze plaque that marked the site of a Potawatomi village and “chipping station.” Chipping stations were outdoor workshops where arrowheads and other implements were fabricated from flint.
As for the village, it turned out to be the last settlement occupied by the Potawatomi tribe in the area that was to become Evanston. Hunters, gatherers, fishermen and, to a lesser extent, farmers, the Potawatomi had populated the woodlands along the Illinois shores of Lake Michigan with settlements since migrating to the region in the mid-1660s. They had left their ancestral lands in Michigan under pressure from the Iroquois. Beginning in 1795, a series of treaties the tribe signed with the newly established federal government forced them to cede more territory, this time to land-hungry white settlers.
In 1829, four years before the final treaty was signed, the last Potawatomi settlement in Evanston was abandoned and its inhabitants took up residence on the Ouilmette Reserve, a short distance to the north.
Departing the long-abandoned village, the group continued east on Ingleside Place, then took a quick jog south on Sheridan Road to Lighthouse Landing Park, the site of the first known European to incursion on Evanston’s shores. In 1673, the French explorer and cartographer Louis Joliet and his companion, the Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, charted the promontory that is today the location of Evanston’s historic lighthouse, naming the land “Grosse Pointe.” Marquette returned the following year, noting in his diary that he camped on the point before paddling south to the Chicago River.
Native people had fished, trapped and hunted along these shores for centuries and used Lake Michigan’s expansive waters to travel long distances. The Jesuit priest considered the Grosse Pointe region “of no value.” The more worldly Joliet, however, grasped the military and trade advantages to the French crown of the network of waterways radiating from the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Less than a decade later, Frenchman Rene LaSalle navigated the Mississippi to its mouth at New Orleans. LaSalle claimed this vast inland empire for King Louis XIV, laying the groundwork for two centuries of political and economic conflict among the European powers and an emerging American nation that would have dramatic consequences for the development of the Chicago region.
Gillson Park in Wilmette was the last stop on the Indian sites bike tour. The park is part of an 1,820-acre tract extending south to Central Street in Evanston and west to 15th Street in Wilmette. It was granted by the federal government in 1829 under the Treaty of Prairie du Chien to Archange Chevalier, a Potawatomi woman of mixed French and Indian descent, and her husband Antoine Ouilmette, a French fur trader. The couple apparently prospered here. Near the site of the bronze plaque at the northwest corner of the park, they built a substantial log home surrounded by large vegetable gardens where the couple raised eight children.
In 1838, five years after the Treaty of Chicago dictated the removal of the remaining Potawatomi in Illinois to lands west of the Mississippi, the couple left for the newly established Potawatomi settlement in Iowa near present-day Council Bluffs. By the late 1840s, the land was sold by the Ouilmette family to people arriving in the region from the East, removing the only remaining Native settlement in the Evanston and Wilmette area. Ironically, on this October afternoon, Gillson Park’s playing field was filled with the sharp whoops and warring sticks of high school athletes playing lacrosse, the classic American Indian ball game.
After a quick group photo in front of the marker commemorating the Ouilmette Reserve, the tour group said goodbye to their affable and energetic guide from the Mitchell Museum and scattered to their homes in the surrounding suburbs.
Pedaling south back to Evanston on tree-shaded streets gave time to look “past” the front lawns and frame houses and ponder what it must have been like when Marquette and Joliet first came ashore on these ancient Native American lands.
Native American Sites in Evanston and WilmetteEvanston Hospital(across from the intersection of Ridge & Monticello) — A bronze plaque commemorates the site of the last Potawatomi settlement in Evanston.
Gillson Park — Part of an 1,820-acre tract that was granted by the U.S. government under the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien to Archange Chevalier, a Potawatomi woman of mixed French and Indian descent, and her husband Antoine Ouilmette, a French fur trader.
Grosse Pointe Lighthouse — French explorer Louis Joliet and his companion, the Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, came ashore here in 1673, the first known incursion by Europeans on the North Shore.
Lincoln and Green Bay — Green Bay Road was a historic trading route used by many native peoples since prehistoric times. The trail provided a high and dry passage through the area’s marshes.