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Mysterious Sauk Trail boulder’s message evolved

Long ago, a mound jutted up from the flood plain flatlands surrounding the Des Plaines River in what is now a mostly industrial area on the southwest side of Joliet.

It was a significant feature and guidepost for travelers plying the Illinois waterway in the earliest days of recorded history, and a mainstay on maps for decades. Some speculated it was a creation of the mound building civilization that had populated these lands for centuries, best known for its world class city at Cahokia.

Subsequent digging didn’t turn up valuable artifacts, but instead revealed valuable gravel and sand deposited during the ice age, and a short-lived company made quick work of Mount Joliet, dispersing its innards for use in roadways and other projects as the modern development of the region began in earnest in the second half of the 1800s.

In 1971, the Will County and Illinois State Historical Societies commemorated the leveled mound’s former significance with a historical marker.

Around the turn of this century, I wrote for Star Newspapers about an effort by Joliet librarians to locate the Mount Joliet marker, which like the mound itself, had gone missing. If it had been made of bronze, as many were, it was likely stolen and recycled. By 2006, it had been returned or replaced in a less recyclable plastic format.

It doesn’t tell the whole story, leaving markedly out the mound’s impact on people for thousands of years before those early European explorers put it on a map. But the marker remains a physical reminder of an element of the past that was quarried away offering a starting point for those who would like to learn more.

Another feature used by centuries of travelers in the area has survived to the present day. In fact, besides giving river navigators a guide point, Mount Joliet may have been one of the landmarks as well along the Great Sauk Trail, an ancient roadway connecting the Mississippi River to what is now the Detroit area.

It’s retained the Sauk Trail name from Frankfort to the Indiana state line, and lent its name to the town of Sauk Village along the way. But it looks nothing like it once did, now with sections alternately lined by homes and businesses and other portions that have become speedy highways.

Along a wooden stretch between Park Forest and South Chicago Heights, a large boulder sits in an infrequently mowed clearing. The speed limit along the section is 45 mph, although vehicles often travel significantly faster than there are no nearby cross streets. A high curb prevents vehicles from pulling off at the clearing for further investigation, and no sidewalks facilitate pedestrian access to the monument, which was placed there in 1933 by the Sauk Trail Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

“You can’t even go and visit it,” said Sharron Hanson, of Crete, the Sauk Trail Chapter’s registrar. “Where do we park? How do we get in there? The path doesn’t even go near it.”

The chapter, which was founded in 1926, partnered with the Chicago Heights Centennial Commission to place the monument there.

Chicago Heights had only been a city since industrialists in the 1890s transformed the sleepy community of bloom into a burgeoning steel town. Rather than the city’s centennial, a bronze plaque affixed to the large granite boulder commemorated the area’s “first permanent white settlers,” such as Adam Brown, who claimed land in 1833 near the intersection of Sauk Trail and Chicago Road in modern South Chicago Heights. The boulder itself was situated on the former farm of John McCoy, who settled there a year after Brown and whose land eventually became part of Sauk Trail Woods Forest Preserve.

The contemporary publicity surrounding the monument may have been to its detriment.

“The bronze marker was almost immediately stolen,” Hanson said, and the boulder reverted to being just a big rock for 30 years as the adjacent Native American trail grew into a busy thoroughfare with the development of Park Forest in the 1950s.

In 1965, the Chicago Heights Historical Society, along with the Sauk Trail DAR, decided to rectify the situation with the installation of a replica metal plaque. According to a 1966 report in the February edition of the national Daughters of the American Revolution magazine provided by Hanson, the new plaque was dedicated once again amid fanfare, with an American Legion color guard ceremony, invocation, and speechifying by Chicago Heights and Cook County Forest Preserve officials.

Soon after, the plaque, with its list of 15 settlers, was pried off again and was never recovered.

A granite boulder placed in the 1930s along Sauk Trail east of Park Forest has two sets of holes where bronze plaques were once embedded in it and subsequently stolen.  The current engraving commemorates

A decade later, as America was celebrating its bicentennial, it was time to try again as the Sauk Trail Chapter was also celebrating its 50th anniversary.

This time they took a wiser approach, before bronze and engraving the granite boulder itself. That last effort also showed a growing awareness that the 1830s settlers were only the latest people to work this land and travel this ancient path.

Rather than “white settlers,” the boulder now commemorates the “Site of Indian & Pioneer Campground” while noting the Sauk Trail Chapter’s 50th anniversary.

Historian and author Larry McClellan, of Crete, said the campground likely alludes to John and Sabra McCoy, whose homestead was just across the road. They established a campground along the trail to accommodate travelers a century before motels became commonplace.

The McCoys “had a good rapport with Indigenous peoples in the region,” he said, in an era when disturb and misgivings ruled most such relationships.

Later, the McCoy family extended shelter, at their campground as well as their home, to people fleeing enslavement traveling along “what became a crucial corridor for freedom seekers,” McClellan said.

The Sauk Trail Chapter of the DAR is preparing to celebrate its 100th year in 2026, though Hanson said the group has “had its ups and downs.” With an estimated 88 members, the group still meets for monthly program at St. Paul’s church in Monee, many of which deal with local history.

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But she said they’re trying to recover their own past.

“We don’t have lots of history preserved from over the years,” Hanson said. “People kept a lot of history in their homes, and it never got passed on. We’re trying to reassemble stuff.”

But they’ve attracted members from a wide region, from St. John, Indiana, to Mokena; from Harvey to Peotone.

There are no plans yet to make the Sauk Trail boulder part of the chapter’s centennial celebration. For one thing, it’s a very difficult place to visit.

And as historical markers go, there’s not much information on that boulder anymore. But like the sign at the former Mount Joliet, that big rock can be an entry point, a starting line for those curious about the long, bumpy history of the south suburbs. And the 1976 etching on the boulder is a better entry point than the original list of settler names.

Mirroring historic chronology, it puts Indigenous people there first.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at [email protected]

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