McKenna Process Company
Plant formerly located in Joliet, Illinois - ca. 1920.
Autobiographical Data
Anthropology 1924-30 - Historic Sites in Illinois
An essay by George Langford, Sr.

Now that I have completed my explorations of the Fisher and Adler prehistoric Indian sites and have presented most of the material, together with field notes, maps, and photos, to the University of Chicago, I feel in a state of relapse.  There appears to be nothing more for me to do.  Now I can get all the help I want if I choose to delve into any good prospect.  The fact is that scientists do not want me to dig any more, now that they are warmed up and eager to do the digging themselves.  That suits me well enough.  The work is hard; and the mending, mapping, writing and getting together of the material and records has taken a great deal of my time.  My house and office were literally packed with human skeletons, clay pots, and implements of stone, bone, copper, and shell.  Now, nearly all of it is gone out of my possession, and I am experiencing a sense of loneliness and depression.  For four years, nearly all of my spare time was devoted to finding and caring for the stuff that is mine no more.  I can now reflect upon what I have done, and to what it all amounts.
Howard Calmer and I made a first small exploration of the Fisher site in 1898.  We did no digging.  In 1906 we did some slight digging, and a little more in 1912.  We did not find much, but I saw enough to make me feel that this was a site to interest scientists.  However, when I broached the subject to them, they declined to participate.  I could well understand that.  Mound-digging in Illinois had, as a rule, produced very meager results, and I had nothing to prove that Fisher's would be an exception.
Time went on.  Many times, Dan Fisher urged me to dig, but I refrained.  I had secured no relics to speak of in my 1912 digging, and the few skeletons I found dampened my ardor considerably.  Here was a cemetery of human burials.  It seemed to me fair enough to let the dead lie in peace.  I remember what a jolt it gave me when some of the farmers living near by cut into one of the small outlying mounds to gather gravel for road repairing.  They came upon human burials and scattered the bones around without compunction.  They wanted the gravel, and human skeletons didn't matter.
Then I got another jolt.  Dan Fisher leased the site to a tenant who brought in a tractor and started plowing up the site.  The soil was thin, but the two big mounds had considerable black soil in them, and the tenant wanted to spread it around so that he could grow corn.  That was what started me digging.  I found human skeletons, but they had clay pots and aboriginal artifacts with them.  That relieved me considerably.  These were Indians.  Neither the road-menders nor the tenant cared a rap about the graves.  They seemed bent on destroying the place, and so I hastened to beat them to it.  I began to dig and kept at it for one day a week at least for over four years.  Gradually I hardened to the work, although I never entirely lost the feeling that I was a grave-robber.  But nobody else seemed to care, and I found many things of unusual interest.  I kept quiet and staved off the newspapers as long as I could, but finally the reporters ran me down, and we had plenty of publicity and visitors.  Then scientists began to take notice, and my grave-robbing became more respectable.  I met many of the professionals who came to see what was going on, and there were some fine men among them.  I also met many amateurs and received many letters.  In general the scientific minds concentrated upon the archaeological and anthropological features of the work, while the amateur minds dwelt upon the things that contained elements of human interest.  I could readily understand both view points.  I had studied the subject I was engaged in, also related subjects, for over thirty years and was actually no novice.  On the other hand, I had never studied these subjects in a class-room, and in that respect I was a novice.
The Fisher site comprises two large, conical mounds, surrounded by smaller mounds and large, saucer-like depressions or "pits."  The latter were literally peppered with small food-holes.
From a scientific viewpoint, the Fisher site was featured by a stratigraphical arrangement of three or more human occupancies.  Three or more tribes of Indians had come and gone.  They had no contact with white men.  This was true everywhere except in one small mound and in several places among the pits.  Here the Indians had many things of the white man's manufacture buried with them.  The first occupants were mostly long-headed people, and those above them, short heads.  The former were buried with bodies flexed and had no relics.  The latter were buried in an extended position and had many relics, such as clay pots, copper ear discs and necklaces, shell spoons and brooches, and bone and stone artifacts.  The small mounds contained human skeletons but no relics.  There were many things to interest both the archaeologist and the anthropologist.
To the layman, the site represented an Indian village and cemetery containing no less than the 600 or more skeletons we found.  Such a large assemblage of dead might have suggested a battle of some sort, had not the evidence pointed to the contrary.  The people were small by white man's standards.  A great many of the skletons were those of women, some of them young with tiny infants.  Many more were boys and girls of various ages.  Broad-headed women and children had clay pots buried near their heads; fair-sized pots for women, little pots for children.  Each pot, as a rule, contained a spoon made from a clam-shell.  In quite a number of cases of child burials, one hand was placed very close to or in the small pot.  A great many children and infants lay buried in the mounds.  Some of them wore necklaces of copper plate beads.
In at least four cases of women, a small stone tablet with cylindrical stubs of antler accompanied the human skeleton.  These artifacts have been formerly defined as arrowpoint-making tools.  Evidently this was a misconception.  Apparently they were some sort of feminine furnishing.  In no case was a skeleton accompanied by a profusion of relics.  In fact the relics were comparatively few in individual cases, although the sum total was considerable because of the great number of human skeletons.
In no cases were pots buried with men.  Such things were for women and children only.  Men had tools suited for war and chase.  But men, women, and children had articles of personal adornment in common.  However, they differed in their particular kinds of adornment.  The celt or ungrooved ax-head of polished stone was of common occurrence.  In only one case was there positive proof of its use as a tomahawk with a wooden handle.  The celts' frequent occurrence suggested diversified usage; for man, for hunting and for domestic purposes.
As a whole, the human burials with relics pointed unmistakably to reverence for the dead and beliefs in something more after death.  Some at least of the clay pots accompanying women and children had food in them when buried.  In the case of men, I found nothing suggesting food other than the means for securing it, such as small arrowpoints and stone celts.  Presumably, men had to go forth and find food, while women and children had to depend in the main upon food brought to them.
The Fisher site represents a village and cemetery, and the impression which it gives is one of peace and tranquility.  Deaths from violence were rare.  In a few cases men and women had been pierced by flint-tipped arrows.  Many had broken bones partially and poorly healed.
Diseases affecting various bones of the body were not uncommon.  There were not a few broken forearms and occasionally other bones, usually poorly knit after breakage.  There was much dental trouble.  Although young people had fine white teeth, much decay and abcessing appeared among the older persons.  Various other parts of skeletons were visibly affected by disease.  Being community tombs, the mounds naturally gave the impression of death and disease and the difficulties of maintaining existence.  No doubt the bitter cold of Winter bore heavily upon them.  Their degree of civilization was extremely low, and they had little with which to make do.  They were not big and robust.  Most of them were small; some so small that they seemed like pygmies.
Work in the pits was pleasanter than in the mounds, for they gave pictures of life, whereas the mounds represented death.  The fifty or more pits were saucer-like depressions, sometimes oval but usually circular, with raised earth rims surrounding them.  They were of various sizes, from over thirty feet down to ten feet in diameter.  They appeared to be old lodge sites.  Some of them had central ash beds suggesting fire places.  Some were like semi dug-outs, being six feet and more deep from the bottom center to the rim top.  These pits were featured by numerous food-holes, from two to three feet in diameter and from three to five feet deep.  We found many of these holes; in the pits, in the rims, and around the pits.  The latter contained no sign of of wooden beams, only occasionally very light branches of charred wood.
The food-holes appeared to be combined Kelvinators [refrigerators - GL III] and garbage cans.  Some of them contained caches of unopened river clams.  Several contained clay pots filled with charred corn and a few acorns.  A few had animal bones, suggesting a meat supply.  The Fisher site offered unusual opportunity for effective use of these holes.  It is pure, clean gravel for a depth of over twenty-five feet, only the top foot or so containing earth.  The drainage facilities here are unexcelled.  Rainfalls, no matter how profuse, disappear rapidly into the porous gravel.  The latter is generally damp and cool.  The holes would keep their contents fairly cool in Summer and prevent freezing in Winter.  However, they would eventually become sour and tainted, necessitating the frequent digging of new, fresh holes.  The old, discarded hole was then filled up with camp refuse.  As a method of garbage disposal, it was a very good scheme.
Our pit excavations had to do with these garbage containers very largely because the garbage contained many relics and potsherds, animal bones, and implements of stone, bone, and shell, often accompanied by profuse quantities of wood ashes.  Many of the implements were fragmentary or broken, but we found many whole ones.  Some of these were duplicated in the mounds, but the food-holes yielded a much wider variety and a considerable abundance, giving in particular a very clear picture of the fabrication of bone and antler into various implements and ornaments.  There were also spoons and ornaments made of shell, as well as tools of stone, such as polished celts, chipped arrowpoints, whetstones, and hammer stones.
The animal bones in the food-holes gave a good idea of what these people ate.  Remains of deer and elk were very abundant.  Dogs, racoons, skunks, minks, rabbits, otters, beavers, and some other small mammals were well represented.  Wolves, bears, and bison were conspicuously absent; but there were many species of birds.  Several kinds of fish were much in evidence, as well as turtles of at least four species.  Clams must have played a large part in the food supply, judging from their abundance.
I came upon many things in the mounds and pits and around them which impressed me because of their personal nature.  I had found several hollowed bone sections about 1-1/2 inches in diameter that looked like small napkin rings.  I wondered what they were used for until finally I came upon the skeleton of a young woman with two of these things at the back of the neck, one on each side.  Obviously, each ring encircled a braid of hair.  In several case of female burial, there was a round copper disc on wood or leather close to each ear.  Evidently, these were hair or ear adornments.  We found a number of cases of small batches of burned stone and bone implements.  In one pit, such a batch lay upon a child's skeleton whose bones were charred black where the burned implements touched them.  A male skull in one of the big mounds had a small triangular chert arrowpoint projecting from one of its temples.  The skull was minus lower jaws.  I looked for them very carefully without success.
I could ramble on without end about this and that at Fisher's without telling anything that could be considered extraordinary.  I would find much of the same thing if I excavated one of our modern cemeteries, where I would find human skeletons with various man-made objects.  The personal touch would be the same, the difference between the two being a matter of degree in the state of civilization.
The discussion thus far has been confined to human burials with relics or to the finding of relics.  All that I have described is pre-European; that is, free from the White Man's influence.  It pertains particularly to what I have arbitrarily termed the Middle Level.
The Fisher site is admirably adapted for stratigraphical observation.  One only has to keep his eyes open to see when and where the various graves were dug.  The top soil is very black and thin; the gravel below very light-colored and thick.  This combination of dark and light color makes the fill-in of a grave brown.  Wood ashes inject white; charred matter, black.  The mounds and pits are filled with these color contrasts.  They are most unusual.  I have not seen their like anywhere else.  I used these contrasts continually to find the originating surface of a grave and to determine the chronological relationship of one grave to another.  There were pronounced differences, and from it all came my arbitrary arrangement of Pre-European, Lower, Middle, and Upper Levels, with a Post-European civilization at the top.  This does not mean any great extent of time necessarily.  It does point, however, to the probability that at least four bands or tribes of Indians dwelt upon the site at different times.  There is nothing surprising in this.  It was a desirable site near the DesPlaines River and high enough to be safe from floods.  It had a spring of pure and always cool water.  And, finally, it was well adapted for the Kelvinator and garbage-disposal scheme previously described.
Certain peculiarities in the stratigraphical arrangement were responsible for my persistent digging at Fisher's.  In the Lower Levels were human burials whose planes of origin were below the present ground level.  The skeletons lay flexed upon their sides.  They had no clay pots nor relics of any kind, except in the case of a woman with two small sea-shells.  These burials were of Long-Heads or dolichocephals as far as I have been able to determine.  A Long-Head is one whose skull, viewed from the top, is relatively long in relation to its width.  The apparent persistence of Long-Heads in the Lower Level has aroused much scientific curiosity.
The Middle Level as determined by plane of grave origin appeared to be given over almost exclusively to Short-Heads.  These were the people with clay pots and many artifacts of stone, bone, copper, and shell.  They lay upon their backs, usually extended or nearly so.  All features of the Lower and Middle Levels were in strong contrast with each other.
The Upper Level was not as easily placed as the two levels below it, due mostly to the fact that this more exposed level had been previously disturbed by animal inroads and by diggers.  The skeletons lay in all sorts of postures and had few relics with them.  These few, however, showed no evidence of contact with the White Man.  Such evidence was restricted to two burials among the pits and to one of the small mounds.
This small mound contained many burials, all of Short-Heads.  The adults lay upon their backs more or less extended.  They had some aboriginal implements of stone, bone, and shells, also things of metal and glass made by white men.  In this instance the so-called Mound Builder seemed to have resolved himself into a modern Indian equipped with things made by white men.   This seems to be something in the nature of a scientific curiosity.
The final period of our work at Fisher's was devoted largely to the observation of intrusive elements; that is, where food-holes, pits, and human burials intruded upon one another.
Our work on the Adler mounds was of relatively short duration.  We found three levels there, featured in the most part by the lowermost one.  This was very different from anything observed at Fisher's.  There were eight mounds; one, fairly large; the others, more or less small and inconspicuous.  But we found a goodly number of human burials and also burials of bundled human bones.  Many of the skulls were flattened in front by artificial deformation.  The bodies were often painted.  Some of them had snake skeletons near the waist.  One clay pot was different from anything observed at Fisher's.  There were a few bone and chipped stone artifacts.  We did pretty well at Adler's; much better than expected.
In addition to the material, I have sent my books of notes, maps, and photos to the University of Chicago.  I understand that they will use these as a yard-stick to work out a system for determining the relationship of one Indian culture to another.  This may have some value, although our human history seems to be all Indian and moving about of bands and tribes differing, more or less from one another culturally.  Just what there is in this to interest the public, I cannot see at present, although it may command scientific attention.  I judge that the curtain is now rung down on Fisher's and Adler's, as far as the public is concerned, for the material which I have so long gathered is no longer available to the public.  In this I confess to feelings of regret.  The public has shared in my adventure, but I see that my presentation of the whole thing to science has ended that.
Illinois seems to have set a time limit on its history to match with written history.  Most of it starts with Abraham Lincoln, although the D.A.R. goes back to Revolutionary War days, and occasionally LaSalle, Tonti, Marquette, Joliet, and a few other early explorers come in for bits of publicity.  Cahokia has been made a state park, but Ilinois seems to be rather timid about its prehistory, that is, history of Illinois before the coming of white man.  In Ohio, all or nearly all of the Indian mounds and earthworks have become state property.  They represent the history of Ohio before white men came there.  The early history of these white men is being carefully preserved.  The much earlier history of Ohio represented by mounds, earthworks, village sites, and cemeteries is also being preserved by the state for the people who appear to be proud of them.
It is difficult to accomplish things of this kind without something outstanding with which to begin.  Ohio has long been famous for its prehistoric anthropology and archaeology.  The mounds, etc., might in themselves fail to hold popular interest, were it not for the fact that what the mounds contained is well known and placed where anyone can go and see it.  Ohio's wealth of Indian material has received generous state recognition.  It leaves little to be imagined when one looks upon the mounds and other prehistoric works that were erected over it.  The same thing is true of prehistoric works in Great Britain and Europe.  The ancient cave drawings, sculptures and paintings of France are being cared for by the state and are always available to the public.  This would not have happened, had not public interest been aroused.  It cannot happen in Illinois if there is no popular interest.
But the mass of people in Illinois are not going to feel any particular interest in their prehistory unless they see some of it; enough to make them appreciative of it.  The fact is that there has been very little to show them.  For a long time Illinois had not been explored anthropologically.  Mounds in various parts of the state had been dug into, but very little worthwhile had been found.  I know that this was true up until 1924 when I began excavating the Fisher site.  I found a great deal to interest the public as well as scientists.  It was not that the various relics were so fine and beautiful; far from it.  What these Indians had was quite simple and crude; extremely plain compared with the fine things of the Hopewell culture found in Ohio.  But I got a very complete picture of what the lives of the people had been.  The mounds showed their mortuary customs, and the pits gave a picture of how they lived.  The material evidence of all this was present in great abundance.  Furthermore, there were four or more tribes or communities represented; not merely one.  The public took a great interest in reading about it and would have been more interested if they could have seen it.  But the way we worked [had to work, given the salvage nature of the project and Fisher's requirement that the holes they dug had to be re-filled every day to protect cattle from injury - GL III] was not much to look at, and the many human skeletons, clay pots, and artifacts were not put on exhibition.  When I presented it to the University of Chicago, it disappeared from view, as far as the public was concerned.  In 1926 I considered buying the site for preservation as a state historic monument and made overtures to Dan Fisher, the owner.  But others were negotiating with him, and title soon passed to the Congress Construction Company, and although I did not know it, the place was marked for destruction.  The gravel was to be removed for construction of the Dresden Dam several miles further down the river.  I was never fully hardened to the idea of despoiling the graves on a large scale and was willing to cease after getting a fair picture of what the place contained.  It would have suited me to stop further digging, restore the mounds and pits to their original sizes and shapes, and to preserve all as an historic monument.  But I could not obtain ownership nor prevent others from digging.  And nobody seemed to care what became of the place and everything in it.  So I continued to dig for over four years until finally the owners made me stop. 
Then I found out that something had been going on about 175 miles to the southwest near Lewistown.  It appeared that a young man named Don Dickson had been excavating and finding Indian remains.  I have been recently down to have a look.  What I saw will take me a long time to forget.
Dickson's father had a farm with a hill on it.  In the course of removing soil from the hill, he found many clay pots and various things of Indian make.  In about 1927 his son Don systematically excavated the site and found it to be an old Indian cemetery literally packed with skeletons, together with many fine clay pots and various kinds of ornaments and implements made of stone, bone, and shell.  He removed the dirt very carefully from over and around each burial, leaving the skeleton and artifacts buried with it exposed.  He uncovered two hundred or so graves and then put on an exhibition of them which people came to see.  As they walked around and looked, Dickson told them about the Indians represented there.  It was a good show.  I had never seen anything like it, even after all my own Indian grave digging.  At first glance I was apalled by the harvest of death.  No doubt others felt the same.  But soon, as with others, curiosity and interest overcame my first squeamishness, and I examined as much as I could in the time permitted before I had to drive back home.
It is a remarkable exhibit.  Dickson has done his work well, and he tells it well to visitors.  There is so much of it that I could make only a general examination.  The human skeletons are crowded together at various depths.  Most of them were lying extended, and they appeared to be Short-Heads.  Many had fine-looking clay pots and other objects, and much resembled my Fisher burials of the Middle Level.  I saw no pits or food-holes and judge that there were none.  It was a cemetery only, but its contents were so well displayed and lavish, that with Dickson's prompting, the visitor could absorb much archaeology and anthropology in a comparatively short time.  Those who came there to see were evidently much interested.  But the roads to the Dickson farm are not good and there is an admission fee.  It is a modest and reasonable fee, but no doubt more visitors would come if they could see it all for nothing.
Why not let them see it for nothing ?  It has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln or the American Revolutionary War, and yet it is truly a historical spot and a valuable and interesting one.  It holds Don Dickson's interest now, but in time he may be induced to part with it.  It is a fine historic site and the State of Illinois would do well to buy it unless Dickson demands too exhorbitant a price.  What a place for the people of Illinois to have as their own; free to them and to tourists from other states.
Don Dickson is now putting on a great show for the people, but it is a big show, and from my own recent experiences at Fisher's and at Adler's, it seems too big a show for Dickson to hang onto indefinitely.  I did not spend the money at Fisher's that Dickson has spent at his site, and I was making a decent living in other business.  So I could afford to give all of the results of my digging away.  I judge that he does not feel able to do a thing like this.  In time he may find it too expensive to keep up.  It would be difficult to find a buyer, other than the State of Illinois.  The State might refuse to buy, with the expectation that taxes and expenses may wear Dickson down and force him to sell for little or to give much of what he has away.  But it appears to me that the State of Illinois should buy that hill and be fair about it so that the people of Illinois may see and own an historic site which they can see and know is historic without drawing upon their imaginations.  I don't really know, but I am guessing that Don Dickson would be pleased to have things that way.  He might be greatly displeased if the State of Illinois refused to have anything to do with it.
Briefly, Dickson's hill is now an historic, rather a prehistoric spot, one of the finest in Illinois.  The State should buy it in the near future, and Dickson should be willing to sell.  Who knows what may happen if nothing is done ?  The cemetery with all of its valuable archaeological and anthropological material belongs to Dickson.  If he feels that he is not being fairly treated, he can and maybe will destroy all that he has created; smash all the skeletons and relics to bits and cover them up again.  That would be a tragic end for a prize historical site.  I have witnessed the destruction of one, and I hope that Dickson's will not share the same fate.  I am now harking back to Fisher's. 
I stopped the ploughing up of the two big mounds and other earthworks at Fisher's in the Spring of 1925 when my digging got under way, and I took measurements of everything so that they could be restored to what they were when my work was done.  I also stopped the complete destruction of the whole site by the new owners, although this resulted in my ejection.  The removal of gravel did not encroach farther than upon a few of the outlying pits, but all the other pits and small mounds were obliterated by the huge Caterpillar tractors churning over them.  The tractors obliterated nearly everything except the two bigs mounds, and any ideas I have had of restoring the place seems to have no chance for accomplishment.  A fine historic monument has been lost to the people of Illinois.  The area it covered was not large - only a few acres - and the early civiliztion it represented was a very humble one.  But in its day it was a relatively large and important community, as much so then as our large cities are now.  Others than myself might have appreciated this and might have done somthing to preserve it before the interest aroused by the discoveries had cooled.  But now the site is about rubbed out, and the material taken from it has disappeared, as far as the public is concerned.
As one of our historic land-marks, the destruction of Fisher's seems to be now complete.  A similar important landmark still survives.  I am wondering how it will end.  The public is not indifferent to such things, as I well know.  With a little more understanding and guidance, I do not think the public will not take kindly to the destruction of our prehistoric monuments.
(This article is a composite of several of my previous writings; soon after my visit to Dickson's in 1928; after my ejection from the Fisher site in the Summer of 1929; and after I had presented almost everything of my Fisher and Adler findings to the University of Chicago in January, 1930).
George Langford
Joliet, Illinois