One of Illinois’ “Seven Wonders” and more popular state parks—famous for its fascinating canyons and sandstone formations—is also best known for the legend that the park and one of those formations is named after.
Located outside of Utica, Illinois—approximately 75 miles southwest of Chicago—along the banks of the Illinois River, the park is best known for its fascinating rock formations, primarily St. Peter sandstone, laid down in a huge shallow inland sea more than 425 million years ago and later brought to the surface where many of the canyons have been carved out over the last 12,000 years.
Today the park, one of Illinois’ busiest (over one million visitors in attendance each year) covers 2,630 acres and includes 13 miles of hiking trails, numerous waterfalls (ice falls in winter) and other landforms. Without question, one of the park’s geological wonder—aside from the sandstone formations—are these waterfalls, especially in early spring, when the end of winter thaw is occurring and rains are frequent, sparkling waterfalls are found at the heads of all 18 canyons. Likewise, the vertical walls of moss-covered stone create a setting of natural geologic beauty uncommon in Illinois.
As for the park’s famous sandstone formations and canyons, its best known sandstone structure, actually a large eroded butte derived its name from a story about a tribe of Illiniwek who were trapped on the rock in the 1760s by a band of Potawatomi to avenge the death of Ottawa Chief Pontiac.
Originally, French explorers had built Fort St. Louis on top of the rock, but abandoned it in the early 1700s. In 1673, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette passed through here on their way up the Illinois from the Mississippi. When the French claimed the region (and, indeed, the entire Mississippi Valley), they built Fort St. Louis on top of the rock in the winter of 1682-83 because of its commanding strategic position above the last rapids on the Illinois River.
Pressured from small war parties of Iroquois in the French and Indian wars, the French abandoned the fort by the early 1700s and retreated to what is now Peoria, where they established Fort Pimitoui. Fort St. Louis became a haven for traders and trappers, but by 1720 all remains of the fort had disappeared.
In the 1760s, Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa Tribe, just upriver from today’s location of the park, had gone down to the southern part of Illinois to negotiate trade agreements with the French. During his stay he was murdered by a member of the Illiniwek tribe. Word got back to his tribe and they wanted to avenge Pontiac’s death. So the Potawatomi and Fox, a smaller tribe of the Ottawa tribe, paddled down river and attacked the Illiniwek.
The battle raged on for several days and by the end of the battle, the Illiniwek had suffered many casualties with more than half of their tribe killed. And here’s where the legend comes in: the Illiniwek knew that in order to survive they had to leave the area. As such, they decided to seek refuge on top of the 125-foot sandstone butte in the hope that the Potawatomi and Fox would by-pass them on their way south down the present day Illinois River.
Unfortunately, the plan backfired and the Potawatomi and Fox surrounded the base. As the Illiniwek tried to get water by lowering buckets with rope to the river below, the Potawatomi and Fox would cut the ropes or shatter the buckets with their arrows. They also climbed to the top of nearby Devil’s Nose—another sandstone formation and showered them with arrows. As the Illiniwek grew more desperate, some tried sneaking down, but they were murdered. The rest that were left on top eventually starved to death.
Although the veracity of this story has never been authenticated, (the legend was debunked by a historian in 1947) the legend has remained, not to mention the name of the park’s more famous sandstone formations.