Native Americans at the Great Salt Springs

The Great Salt Springs site on the Saline River near Shawneetown, Illinois, exists because local geological faults allow ground water to reach buried salt deposits. As a source of salt and a place to hunt game coming to lick the salt, people used the Great Salt Springs site for thousands of years. However, the main periods of use were from the 10th to the 16th century, and again during historic times. 

The Great Salt Springs was reported as an archaeological site in the early 19th century. When George Escol Sellers examined the site in the 1870s, prehistoric artifacts were found in what were then plowed fields. Archaeologists studied the site again in the 1950s and 1960s. From these efforts, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Southern Illinois University Carbondale archaeologists have worked at the site since 1981 as part of a longterm project studying Mississippian (1000-1500 AD) lifeways and economy. The research seeks to determine the role of salt production in Mississippian culture using field techniques, which protect the site. Through this careful research, archaeologists are able to reconstruct the past, while preserving this significant
site for future generations.

Prehistoric Salt Production in Illinois 

A.D. 900-1500

The Site
The Great Salt Springs site on the Saline River near Shawneetown, Illinois, exists because local geological faults allow ground water to reach buried salt deposits. As a source of salt-and a place to hunt game coming to lick the salt. The Great Salt Springs site was used by people for thousands of years. However, the main periods of use were from the 10th to the 16th century, and again during historic times. The Great Salt Springs was reported as an archaeological site in the early 19th century. When the site was examined by George Escol sellers in the 1870s, prehistoric artifacts were found in what were then plowed fields. Archaeologists studied the site again in the 1950’s and 1960s. From these efforts, the site was listed on the national Register of Historic Places in 1973. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale archaeologists has worked at the site since 1981 as a part of a long-term project studying Mississippian life ways and economy. Financial support has come from Southern Illinois University, the National science Foundation, and the United States Forest Service. The research seeks to determine the role of salt production in Mississippian culture using field techniques, which protect the site. Through this careful research, archaeologists are able to reconstruct the past, while preserving this significant site for future generations. 

Mississippian Culture
From A.D. 900 to A.D. 1500, people whom archaeologists call the Mississippian culture inhabited Southern Illinois. These Native Americans lived on and farmed the rich soil of major river floodplains.

Maize, squash, and beans were their primary foods, supplemented by gathering and hunting. Mississippian people lived in organized settlements of which the basic unit was a farmstead. The farmsteads consisted of one to three homes, surrounded by storage and cooking areas and garden plots. Clusters of farmsteads are called hamlets. Towns were regional centers for community activities. Towns such as Kincaid near Metropolis, Illinois, and Angel Mounds near Evansville, Indiana, contained residential areas, public plazas, fortifications, and large mounds that supported the homes elite members of these societies. The elite coordinated the economic and political affairs for local communities as well as trade with other regional centers. Relatively scarce resources, such as salt, were important trade items, particularly to those who had limited access to these resources. Most Mississippian settlements in the lower Ohio River Valley were virtually abandoned by the end of the 14th century. Some late Mississippian peoples continued to live near the Wabash Ohio River junction until the earliest European times, but no historic records identify these peoples. By the time that historic records exist for Illinois, the Mississippians were no longer present, although some of their descendants may have joined historical groups such as the Quapaw or the Chickasaw.

Native American Salt Production

Research conducted by Southern Illinois University has answered important questions about Mississippian salt production.

WHY SALT?Salt is an attractive flavor to humans, especially for people whose diet depended primarily on plant foods such as corn, beans, and squash. Salt is a necessary nutrient, but enough is usually present in natural foods to meet minimum biological requirements. However, replacement of salt lost through perspiration and low percentages of animal foods in the diet may increase the need for salt. There is no evidence for the use for preserving foods by Native Americans, who normally dried meats and vegetables for storage.

HOW WAS SALT PRODUCED? Saltpans were filled with brine collected from the springs. The brine was reduced to crystalline salt in several ways: (1) heating large vessels, “salt pans,” over fire pits, (2) placing heated stones in the brine, and (3) by solar evaporation.

WHAT DID THE SALT PRODUTION AREA LOOK LIKE? The trees and vegetation would have been smaller than today. The need for firewood (even at low levels of salt production) would have left the production are looking more like and abandoned field than the dense woods now found there. Fire pits-hearts-used in salt evaporation covered the surface around the springs. The hearths were egg-shaped and clay-lined, measuring 1 to 3 feet in diameter with an extending channel for draft, usually toward the northwest. The fires within the pits were intense that their clay walls were baked hard, and the surrounding surfaces were burnt reddish-orange.

HOW WERE SALT PANS MADE? The salt producers gathered freshwater mussels form the Saline River and local clay. The shell was burnt, crushed, and mixed with the wet clay and formed in a basin in the ground to shape the pottery pan. The basin was sometimes lined with cloth to make it easier to separate the pan form the mold. This left the impressions of the cloth on the exterior of the pottery vessel. The pan. After drying, was baked in an open kiln constructed of brush and branches.

WAS SALT PRODUCED YEAR-ROUND? Archaeological evidence indicated that individuals or families usually visited the springs in the fall of the year. The Great Salt Springs area was not used for long-term residence as typical of other Mississippian settlements in the region. Indications of daily farm life, such as permanent homes, cooking vessels, and farming tools are very rare or absent.

WHO WERE THE SALT PRODUCERS? The most important result of SIU’s recent work at the site is discovery that salt production was normally carried out by individuals and families on part-time basis. No evidence supports the idea that full-time specialists made their living by producing salt here. No single groups of people seem to have controlled the salt springs.

For more information contact:
Shawnee National Forest
U.S. Forest Service
901 South Commercial
Harrisburg, Il 62946 Tel: 618-253-7114

Black, Glenn A.
1967 The Angel Site. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

Cole, Fay-Cooper
1951 Kincaid: A Prehistoric Illinois Metropolis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Muller, Jon
1986 Archaeology of the Lower Ohio River Valley. Academic Press, NY.

 





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