Before Euro-American Settlement

 

Prairie restorationists frequently talk about restoring the prairie ecosystem to pre-settlement conditions, a phrase referring to the conditions which were in existence when Euro-American immigrants began arriving in the early 19th century.

 

The phrase is misleading, however, implying that the prairies were uninhabited and unaffected by human activity prior to this time. In fact, several Native American cultures had lived or were living in the tallgrass prairie region a long time before Euro-American settlers arrived.

 

During the Paleo-Indian Period (12,000 to 8,000 years BP), the region's inhabitants depended on hunting and gathering for subsistence. People lived in small, highly mobile groups, following the game on which they were so dependent. As the climate warmed and agriculture became more feasible, plants became an increasingly important part of their diet. Perhaps because of the tremendous labor involved in tilling the dense, prairie sod for agriculture, large semi-permanent summer agricultural villages were established. In the winter, the inhabitants of these villages would break up to form smaller hunting groups, with some women or elderly unable to make the journey to the hunting camps staying behind in the village.

 

The region's population was multinational. Members of the twelve nations of the Illinewek (the Illinois Confederacy) traveled through the area as well as members of other nations, including the Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and refugees from warring factions of eastern regions.

 

Though the first known accounts of Europeans coming to Illinois are of the passage of Louis Joliet and Father Marquette through the area on the Des Plaines River in 1673, European influence was already present through trading going on in the Great Lakes region. By the 18th century, rivalry between the French and the British for control of the Native American trade had come to a head. Conflict was rife between the Europeans, the Europeans and the Native Americans, and among the Native Americans. The French and Indian War (1754-1760) resulted in British control of western trade. According to the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763), the French gave up almost all of their holdings east of the Mississippi River.

 

The Legacy of the Pre-Settlement Period

 

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the pre-settlement period is the model it presents of a more sustainable balance between human activity and natural resources than what exists today. During the pre-settlement period, the demands on the ecosystem weren't as great as they became subsequently. The population was relatively small, and there was an intimate relationship with the environment. In general, the pre-settlement cultures weren't as destructive of the prairie ecosystem as the cultures which followed. In fact, many cultural practices, such as periodic burning of the prairie grasses, were extensions of natural processes that are beneficial to the prairie ecosystem.

 





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