The natural instinct of the savages as path finders was beyond all question, and those main trails which in an early day intersected the Illinois country, so far as they can be traced by modern research, exhibit few mistakes in judgment. The large rivers were avoided so far as possible, but, when they must be met, were crossed at convenient and shallow fords; the high and rocky hills stretching along the southern portion of the State were penetrated by means of their natural passes, while, wherever the trail led, the best of camping-grounds were always found convenient to the end of a day's travel. Several different points within the limits of the present State appear to have been favorite Indian meeting-places, and were seemingly used as such by more than one tribe, judging from the number and widely diverging trails leading thereto. The most clearly marked spot in this respect is Danville. From here, as a centre, narrow Indian paths branched off like the spokes of a wheel to every point of the compass.

Nor, with all these years which have passed since wandering, moccasined feet thus wore away the soft prairie sod, have evidences of these early aboriginal trails totally vanished. The lines were cut, not only across the dreary wilderness, but equally deep have they been impressed upon history.

In the very earliest of those old days of struggle and advance they became the prized inheritance of the pioneers. When venturesome settlers first began to stray cautiously forth from beside those streams, along whose inviting banks they had first made homes, the Indian trails became their natural guides into the unknown interior. They pointed the easier path through the Ozarks, and to spots of fertility and beauty far beyond. Following them, daring adventurers were led far out beyond the uttermost frontier, and thus is accounted for many an isolated settlement, seemingly a mere pin-prick amid the surrounding wilderness. Many of these trails were utilized for years by the earlier settlers as convenient means of communication; not a few afterwards became mail routes, and later still, stage routes, and finally, by the law of long usage, were transformed into permanent roads, which, ignoring all the rigidity of section lines and the authority of government surveys, swept independently straight across the country as the crow flies, as unerring in direction as when first traced thereon by some long dead and forgotten savage. So today, in many portions of this State, one can journey for miles along some old-time Indian trail, which would be alive with thrilling memories of that dead past could it only be induced to tell its long-forgotten story. Even railroads speed through the Ozarks, and across the open prairie, under such savage guidance, and passengers are whirled past scenes of barbaric and historic interest, could the rocks only speak, or the old forest trees give voice.

And what strange scenes of war and peace, what oddly attired passing travelers, what peculiar mingling of past and present, some of these old-time trails have witnessed in the speechless years gone by! It would be indeed a motley gathering could the ghosts of the trail again walk, and revisit those populous prairies. The story of them today, even in those little glimpses which have descended through the obscuring years, is most fascinating; yet the colors are sadly faded, the trooping men and women but so many specters, unnamed and unknown.

What suffering and hardship, what yearning and heartsickness, what speechless agony and brave hopes these silent miles have witnessed! And amid it all, bold and undaunted hearts were thus steadily shaping the destinies of a nation, laying the foundations of a mighty State, while through the wilderness, and along these blotted traces, they bore their messages of hope and despair, of peaceful greeting or warlike defiance.

Historic Illinois (1907)
Randall Parrish