The Gibraltar of the West

Photo from the Illinois Office of Tourism. 
Illinois’ second state park got its name from the tragic results of a clash between two of Illinois’ native tribes more than 250 years ago.

Looming over the Illinois River in LaSalle County, just a few miles from the spot where the river takes a dramatic turn to the east, is a gigantic sandstone cliff. The cliff was left behind by a flood, known as the Kankakee Torrent, which swept through the area around 16,000 years ago, scouring out the bedrock of the surrounding area.

The cliff which dominates the surrounding landscape caught the attention of travelers on the river as long as 10,000 years ago, not long after the melting of the last glaciers in Illinois.

Evidence suggests that humans first built settlements here around 8000 B.C. For thousands of years native tribes recognized the obvious advantages of the large bluff overlooking the river, and many tribes made it their home. It is believed that by the 16th or 17th century anywhere from 5000 to 7000 Kaskaskias had built a village along the riverbank on the opposite side from the sandstone bluff.

The first European explorers to make their way down the Illinois River were the French expedition led by Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette. They visited the settlement, which they named the Grand Village of the Illinois, and also took note of the imposing bluff on the opposite bank. When the French began to more aggressively assert their claim of this territory for King Louis in 1682 they constructed a fort on top of the rock.

But the French position in the region proved to be untenable by the turn of the century. Relations soured between the French and the dominant Iroquois (and their British allies), and the French soon left the bluff and retreated about 70 miles southwest to Fort Creve Coeur in the area around present-day Peoria.

Not long after that, probably around 1712, the Peoria tribe established camps on the bluff, a residence which historians believe lasted until the 1740s. A few years later English explorers began probing into the region, one of the actions that would help set off the conflict that came to be known as the French and Indian War. These explorers and traders found the bluff to be a good place for conducting commerce and they soon established it as a trading post. When the war ended in 1763 the British had wrested control of the entire region east of the Mississippi from the French.

But a few years later a clash more than 200 miles away from the bluff would set in motion a series of tragic events, and lead directly to the acquisition of the name by which the cliff is still known to this day.

In 1769 the Ottawa chief Pontiac had risen to prominence among the many tribes in the Illinois country through his leadership of resistance movements against the British. He had negotiated a peace agreement between the Shawnee and a group of tribes to the northeast. Pontiac traveled to the large village at Cahokia for a meeting of many of the region’s tribes. Much animosity awaited him, however, as members of other tribes rankled at the idea that Pontiac, who had been a chief ally of the French, might consider himself the leader of the entire region. Tensions rose at the meeting, a nephew of a Peoria chief stabbed Pontiac to death.

Retribution was swift. Ottawa-allied tribes, the Pottawatomi, Miami and Kickapoo attacked the Peoria and the Illinois in the area near the Grand Village. Seeking shelter and a more defensible position after a days-long battle, the remaining Illinois retreated up onto the bluff overlooking the river and prepared to repel an attack. Instead of an attack, however, they found themselves the victims of a siege. The Pottawatomi surrounded the bluff and waited, smashing buckets which the besieged defenders attempted to lower to the river for water, and cutting off and killing a party which tried to escape in the night. Meanwhile the remaining defenders on top of the rock ran out of food and starved.

Days later traders discovered the grisly scene. As the story spread, the site of their demise earned the name Starved Rock.

Panoramic of Starved Rock in 1914. 

A decade after the battle, colonial soldiers under George Rogers Clark stormed into Illinois and drove out the British troops holding the region. Starved Rock and the entire Illinois country now passed into the hands of the fledgling United States of America.

The legend of the battle and siege on the rock overlooking the river persisted, handed down through generations of storytellers, and before long the rock began to draw visitors and curiosity-seekers. They brought back the story of the battle, but also told of the area’s natural beauty with its glacier-carved canyons and scenic vistas over the river and the surrounding prairie.

In 1835 LaSalle County’s first surveyor, Daniel Hitt, purchased the land and held onto it until 1890 when he sold it to a Chicago developer named Ferdinand Walthers for $15,000. Walthers and his business partners saw commercial potential in the land around the bluff. Inspired by the bluff, Walthers sought to connect Starved Rock with another, more famous, rock on the other side of the Atlantic and marketed the area as “The Gibraltar of the West.”

In 1891 he opened the Starved Rock Hotel on the site, just below the bluff itself, along with a dance hall, concession area and a swimming pool which was fed by a spring. Rooms were $3 a night. The opening of a railroad line along the north bank of the river, complete with a train depot and a ferry for bringing visitors across the river, helped boost the number of visitors who came to the site from the Chicago area.

But in the era of Theodore Roosevelt and the burgeoning land conservation movement, the public worried about commercialization of the site and called for public ownership. In 1911 the state of Illinois purchased the land for $146,000 and created Starved Rock State Park, Illinois’ second state park. It initially served as the headquarters of the Illinois State Parks Commission, one of the forerunners of today’s Department of Natural Resources.

Over the century since its establishment as a state park, archaeological excavations have been conducted right alongside the growing number of tourist visits. One of the largest of these occurred in the late 1940s under the auspices of the Illinois State Museum and the University of Chicago. Other such digs took place throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Through the excavations much has been learned about the bluff’s namesake battle, and also about the culture and history stemming from thousands of years of human habitation of the area. The site has become as much an educational venue for understanding the many people who have called Illinois home over the millennia as it has a tourist attraction.

Today around two million people visit Starved Rock, some for the lodge on the park’s grounds, many for the history, the hiking, canyons, wildlife, waterfalls, and the breathtaking scenic vistas not commonly found in Illinois.

Find more information about Starved Rock State Park.