McHenry County’s history ground zero is November 18, 1834 – that’s the date when the first permanent settler, Samuel Gillilan, came from Virginia and settled on the west side of the Fox River in Algonquin Township. The Gillilan party consisted of Samuel, his wife Margaret, their nine children, and several others. Gillilan himself didn’t participate too long in shaping our county’s history because he passed away a few years later on September 6, 1837. Soon after Gillilan’s arrival more settlers followed = first setting up their farms, then various institutions such as schools, churches, businesses, and communities. As is the habit of man to keep records; it was their written personal experiences and institutional records that formed the foundation of our history.
We know that the Potawatomie roamed these lands before the Gillilan’s arrival. Early settlers in Coral Township discovered what they thought to be an abandoned Indian village, and to their surprise in the spring of the following year the inhabitants returned. For a very short time the settlers and their Potawatomie neighbors coexisted. But, what about before the Potawatomie; before written history – who lived in McHenry County? The answer to that question can be found in a small pamphlet published by the McHenry County Conservation District in 1976 titled An Archaeological Survey of McHenry County. The pamphlet reports on the archaeological survey conducted in the county in 1973 and 1974. Archaeology of McHenry County, a more detailed work, was published in July of 2006, and for those interested it can be found on the internet.
The earliest evidence of human presence in McHenry County dates back approximately 12,000 years to the Paleoindian period. The Paleoindians were nomadic hunters and gatherers and roamed the area as the last glacier retreated into Wisconsin. According to the US National Park service the Paleoindian people hunted megafauna such mastodon, mammoth, great bison, giant beaver, and saber-toothed-tiger. Very little evidence of megafauna slaughter has been found east of the Mississippi River, but the large beasts did roam McHenry County. People of the Paleoindian period produced stone tools, such as knives, spear points, and scrapers. Artifacts believed to be from this era have been located at two sites in McHenry County.
The next classification of culture that had a presence in McHenry County is from the Archaic period (8,000 BC to 1,000 BC). It is not known from where these people came, and one source states that they possibly could be the descendants of Paleo Indian people. During this period the hunters and gatherers were less mobile, and it’s possible that they seasonally subsisted on deer and small game from the county’s oak forests, and fish from its waterways. Abundant artifacts from this period have been found in the county to include spear points, flint knives, and axe heads. Additionally, more interesting finds are a bannerstone and birdstone, and both are believed to symbolize rank.
The Woodland period spanned from 500 BC to AD 800, and the mid 1970’s survey revealed nine sites in McHenry County. The people of this period tended to settle near rivers and made first attempts at gardening – not farming. Additional food sources were deer, fish, small mammals, birds, nuts, and seeds. The Woodland people also produced pottery in addition to tools associated with the previous cultures. Another feature of the Woodland culture is the effigy mounds; examples of these mounds can be found in Rockford, Illinois, and southern Wisconsin.
In the Mississippian period which spanned from AD 800 to 1650 populations of people declined in the McHenry County area. One reason given is that in the 1400’s herds of bison migrated into western Illinois, and the people became dependent on this resource. The mid 1970’s survey found six sites of Mississippian cultures in McHenry County. An additional feature of the Mississippian culture was the cultivation of plant foods such as maize, squash and beans.
An area southeast of Marengo was home to people of the Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian cultures. The story of these cultures is much more complex than can be presented here in a few hundred words. I encourage interested readers to conduct more research on this fascinating topic.
While exploring this topic I uncovered a few tidbits about life in McHenry County before the arrival of the Paleoindian people. In 1989 mastodon teeth and bone fragments were uncovered west of Woodstock. A male mastodon could grow up to ten feet, and could weigh over ten tons. Another interesting discovery occurred in 2004. A McHenry County Conservation District worker uncovered a giant beaver tooth in a field near Marengo. This giant beast is officially known as Castoroides Ohioensis and it became extinct approximately 13,400 years ago. The giant beaver could grow to about eight feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Imagine running into this creature on a leisurely walk through Marengo Ridge or Coral Woods!