Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about the Grand Kankakee Marsh. The other parts will appear during the remaining weekends in February.
It began near South Bend, Ind., sprawling for miles on either side of the meandering Kankakee River, before finally petering out at the eastern edge of Momence. Tangled skeins of shallow waterways threaded their way through sandy islands covered with vegetation. Thousands of muskrat mounds and beaver lodges rose out of bogs and ponds. At times, huge flocks of birds rose into the sky, blotting out the light of the sun. It was a paradise for trappers and hunters ... and a hideout for those hunted by the law.
“It” was the Grand Kankakee Marsh, one of the largest wetlands in North America, covering an area of more than 1,500 square miles. One of the earliest Europeans to describe the Kankakee River and the Grand Marsh was the Rev. Louis Hennepin, a missionary accompanying the French explorer LaSalle. In December 1679, the 30 men of LaSalle’s exploration party carried their eight canoes across a 5-mile portage from the St. Joseph River to the headwaters of the Kankakee (near what now is South Bend). Hennepin wrote:
“The river Seignelay (the Kankakee) is navigable for canoes to within a hundred paces of its source. ... It takes its course through vast marshes where it winds about so, though its current is strong, that after sailing on it for a whole day we sometimes found that we had not advanced more than two leagues (a “league” is equal to about 3 miles) in a straight line. As far as the eye could reach, nothing was to be seen but marshes full of flags and alders. For more than forty leagues of the way, we could not have found a camping ground, except for some hummocks of frozen earth upon which we slept and lit our fires.”
The exploring party eventually reached the Mississippi River and followed it to its mouth, where LaSalle claimed all the land drained by that river for the king of France.
Hennepin did not exaggerate the twisting course of the Kankakee River. Although a straight-line measurement from South Bend to Momence is 81 miles, the natural course of the river, through an estimated 2,000 bends, was many times that length.
Forty-two years later, in 1721, the Jesuit priest Pierre Charlevoix, surveying missions in “New France,” wrote a description of the source of the Kankakee: “This morning I went a league farther into the prairie; my feet almost constantly in water. There I found a sort of pond, which communicates with several others … the largest of which is only a hundred paces in circuit. These are the sources of a river called Theakiki, which by corruption, our Canadians name Kiakiki.”
While the Kankakee Marsh teemed with wildlife of every description, its human population was sparse. In 1831, a party of Vermont men traveling the river, en route to a settlement in central Illinois, sighted only one other group of humans during a weeklong journey from the headwaters of the Kankakee to its junction with the Des Plaines River near present-day Wilmington.
After four days on the river, “We discovered some Indians on the bank about fifty yards back from the stream,” the group’s leader recorded in his diary. The Native Americans — four teenage boys with a horse and several dogs — traveled along the bank parallel to the Vermont group for a short distance, then disappeared into the woods.
Throughout the next several decades, however, the Native American population in the marsh was gradually replaced by white men. These new inhabitants were attracted by the vast numbers of fur-bearing animals whose pelts could be sold profitably for making coats, hats and other fashionable garments.
Many of the scattered small islands rising out of the shallow waters and thick beds of reeds became residences for these men. One marsh historian noted that on almost every island, “a trapper at some time lived in a shanty or cabin, claiming the area by virtue of some locally devised ‘trapper’s rights.’”
Some of the islands served a darker purpose, however: serving as hideouts for criminals, such as counterfeiters and gangs of horse thieves, who preyed upon settlers across northern Indiana and Illinois.
After the Civil War, a new breed of marsh dwellers emerged: market hunters who harvested huge numbers of birds and four-legged game (especially deer) for restaurants in Chicago and other cities. At railroad stations in towns bordering the Marsh, wagonloads of deer carcasses awaiting shipment were a common sight.
The reputation of the Grand Kankakee Marsh as a “hunters’ paradise” drew parties of wealthy shooters from not only the Midwest, but other parts of the country and even from Europe. In the last quarter of the 1800s, extensive and often lavish “clubhouses” were erected along the river by groups of affluent sportsmen. By the final years of the century, declining populations of birds (especially ducks) drew fewer and fewer hunters.
In the early 1900s, the Grand Kankakee Marsh had become only a shadow of its former self. After more than a half-century of dredging and drainage-ditch-digging, most of the 2,000 bends between the river’s headwaters and the Illinois state line had been eliminated. The former 250-mile twisting course of the Kankakee had been turned into a straight-line ditch one-third that length.