5. Roads & Trails

A) In General

Nothing is more typical of a civilization than its roads. (17)

Historic Highways of American (Volume 1): Paths of the Mound-Building Indians and Great Game Animals (1902)
Archer Butler Hulbert


The road is a place itself, or a border between places, a long narrow country without citizens whose only inhabitants are transients and strangers, a great suspended interval of privacy and peace between departure and arrival. And the road is a net dropped over the vastness of the continent, tying together all its distances into one navigable labyrinth of asphalt.... Roads are the architecture of our restlessness, of those who wish neither to stay in their built places nor wander in the untouched ones, but to keep moving between them. A road promises something else to us, though the promise is better fulfilled by traveling than by arriving.... A road is itself a kind of sentence, or story. A real place, it's also a metaphor for time, for future becoming present and then past, for passage. (365-366)

Savage Dreams (1994)
Rebecca Solnit


Nevertheless, there has always been and probably always will be a widespread distrust among average men and women of all roads which come from the outside world, bringing strangers and strange ideas. Reactions to such roads vary from age to age, from one region, one class, one stage of economic or social development to another; yet underlying all those variations, there seems to be a basic human response: the road is a very powerful space; and unless it is handled very carefully and constantly watched, it can undermine and destroy the existing order. (6)

A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994)
John Brinckerhoff Jackson


Settlers discovered too that Congress had forgotten to specify the location of public roads. The first trails wandered across the backlands just as colonial roads meandered, but settlers acquiring sections soon insisted that roads follow the section lines to forestall boundary quarrels and demarcate easily cultivated square and rectangular fields. But the dramatic popular decision condemned frontier families to laying out and maintaining seventy-two miles of perfectly straight roads per township and sacrificing privately owned land for rights of way. Diagonal travel, from section one to section thirty-six, for example, irritated settlers from the beginning because no roads directly linked township corners. (105)

Roads followed section lines and section lines followed the compass. (105)

The same fear of tyranny that forbade the keeping of a standing army retarded the building of "Federal Highways"; even the success of the National Road scarcely lessened citizen fears that a government powerful enough to build roads everywhere might use its power to erode local rights. Turnpikes, therefore, along with canals and later railroads, struck Americans as a useful compromise between the evils of all-powerful, centralized government and the irritation of poorly routed, locally controlled roads. (131)

"Whatever else we may think, or hope, or fear, it is quite certain that this is an age of Roads," asserted Horace Bushnell in The Day of Roads. His 1846 pamphlet marks the new awareness of high-speed travel made possible by the railroad invention. "The road is that physical sign, or symbol, by which you will best understand any age or people," he declared with enthusiasm. "If they have no roads, they are savages; for the road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society." (132)

Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (1982)
John Stilgoe


B) Trailblazers

It was for the great game animals to mark out what became known as the first thoroughfares of America. The plunging buffalo, keen of instinct, and nothing if not a utilitarian, broke great roads across the continent on the summits of the watersheds, beside which the first Indian trails were but traces through the forests. (19)

It is very wonderful that the buffalo's first instinct should have found the very best courses across a continent upon whose thousand rivers such great black forest were thickly strung. Yet it did, as the tripod of the white man has proved; and until the problem of aerial navigation is solved, human intercourse will move largely on paths first marked by the buffalo. (20)

But the greater marvel is that these early pathfinders chose routes, even in the roughest districts, which the tripod of the white man cannot improve upon. (21-22)

The buffalo, because of his sagacious selection of the most sure and most direct courses, has influenced the routes of trade and travel of the white race as much, possibly, as he influenced the course of the redmen in earlier days. There is great truth in Thomas Benton's figure when he said that the buffalo blazed the way for the railways to the Pacific. (137)

Historic Highways of American (Volume 1): Paths of the Mound-Building Indians and Great Game Animals (1902)
Archer Butler Hulbert


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


In no one thing have been more noteworthy the changes which mark the transition from the condition of savagery which covered the whole county eighty years since, than in the roads of the county. Far from being ideal passages from place to place, the roads which mark nearly every section line, and afford the means of easy transportation of persons and property, indicate the great advance. Human agencies have produced all of this advancement. Before the coming of the white man, and with him the ways of subduing and bringing to his use the elements which Nature had here planted, these useful avenues were not found, nor were they in demand. (660)

It must not be supposed, however, that no roads existed which directed the traveler to his place of destination. The earliest comers found paths and traces leading across the country which, in a measure, aided them in finding the shortest cuts from timber grove to timber grove, but were not of human origin. Before even the Indian came to hunt the wild animals, these animals, in search of water or pasturage, made their traces or paths, always choosing the best lines of travel and, so far as possible, the shortest lines of communication. While to these lines few, if any, of the existing roads owe their locations, this cannot be said of the first roads made us of by the white man at his coming. He found traces leading across the country which he chose then to call Indian paths, but we must look farther back than to the coming of the Indian for their origin. (660-661)

What its [Bloomington/Ft Clark Road] real origin was will never be known, but it is fair to believe, from its location and the points connected, that it was first a buffalo path, leading from river and grove in the east to the like objects in the west; afterwards an Indian trail, where the buffalo was hunted and trapped and finally adapted by the great tide of immigration which set in early in the last century from the States east of the Ohio to what is now known as the "Military Tract".... (661-662)

When the white man first came here, he also found other trails which served to guide the traveler from timber to timber.... The location of these trodden paths over high ridges, connecting important timber groves, suggest a like origin to that attributed above to other early trails - namely, to the buffalo herd. Over them, doubtless in remote ages these wild roamers of the prairie, in great masses thronged from water-course to timber belt, in search of water and food, leaving no other souvenirs of their presence than their bleaching bones beside their worn paths, or near by the their watering and resting places. Man, either as a savage with his ponies, or as a civilized denizen of the country with his wagon, gladly accepted and long made use of these trails, until the improvement and fencing into farms of the country forced the roads upon section lines, since which, except in the memory of the aged, neither has now an existence. The scarred and furrowed surface of many a knoll upon these routes, however, where from the erosion of travel, the soil was long since worn away, bear silent testimony of the use to which they were put generations ago. (663)

History of Champaign County (1905)
J.O. Cunningham


If Terry Lieb's dreams come true, part of his farm will be a type of living history museum, showing how the land looked before European settlement. A dominant feature of that landscape was the buffalo, and Terry already has the beginnings of a herd contentedly grazing on his Piatt County farm. He looks like a conventional farmer. His bread and butter comes from 2500 acres of corn and soybeans. He's on the Board of Directors for the Piatt County Farm Bureau and a member of the Conservation Board. But what about these large, hulking beasts grazing in the fields around the house? "People drive by here all the time, just to look at them," he says with a smile. "Believe it or not, I like it."

There was a neighbor in Monticello who had two buffalo. Growing up, Terry was always fascinated by them. To him, they were a living symbol of the historic old West in which Terry had a strong interest. Then two years ago, he went to a farm sale. Terry laughs. "I didn't know it was going to be there and I had no intension of buying it." That was the start of Terry Lieb's buffalo herd.... He plans to build a cow-calf herd over the next few years and develop the entire 80 acres of owned ground into native prairie for the buffalo herd. His purpose is to show others how the land used to look, while producing a healthy meat to market directly to consumers from off the farm.

The American Buffalo is a fascinating creature with a direct connection to our land and history. They are ideally suited for the region because they were such a vital part of the native ecosystem. Terry Lieb's idea for restoring that ecosystem while still using it for production is innovative farming that benefits everyone - the farmer, the land and the culture.

UIUC Extension


C) Native Legacy

The other Indian tribes which formerly possessed this country have left few memorials of their existence, except the names of places. Now and then, as at Indiantown, near Princeton, you are shown the holes in the ground where they stored their maize, and sometimes on the borders of the rivers you see the trunks of trees which they felled, evidently hacked by their tomahawks, but perhaps the most remarkable of their remains are the paths across the prairies or beside the large streams, called Indian trails--narrow and well-beaten ways, sometimes a foot in depth, and many of them doubtless trodden for hundreds of years.

Letters of a Traveller; Or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America (1850)
William Cullen Bryant


It is safe to travel the Indian trails today; the poll-tax once collected by red-skinned highwaymen is not collected in these days. Not a lone Indian will be found overlooking "the place where he used to be born." Those who once pushed their horses down the Warriors' Path or went whooping down the Scioto or Mahoning are now hunting the souls of the moose and the beaver in the Land of the Souls, "walking on the souls of their snowshoes on the soul of the snow." But they have left their trails behind them—and nothing else so interesting, so pregnant with varied memories, so rich in historical suggestion. (10)

Historic Highways of American (Volume 2): Indian Thoroughfares (1902)
Archer Butler Hulbert


Most evidence of Indian occupancy were perishable, and such durable artifacts as trinkets enclosed in the coffins, arrowheads, and tomahawk heads were picked up and carried from the area, so that within a few decades after white people has superceded the Indians evidence of Indian culture had disappeared.... The disappearance of visible effects of Indian culture was early commented on:

We eat the corn he taught us to grow and stupefy ourselves
with the tobacco he taught us to use.... These are their sole
contributions to the world's progress and comfort. Is it
wonderful that we forget them? (26)

"Historical Geography of Champaign County, Illinois" (1957)
Marjorie Corrine Smith


En Route to Washington

In the winter of 1852-53 came a company of braves from the West through Urbana, on their way to Washington to have a talk with the President. While stopping here one of their number died, and was buried in the old cemetery at Urbana. His comrades greatly mourned him, and planted at the head of his grave a board, upon which were divers cabalistic decorations. After committing his body to the grave, his comrades blazed a road with their tomahawks to the Bone Yard branch, to guide the dead man's thirsty spirit to the water. (94-95)

A Standard History of Champaign County Illinois (1918)
J.R. Stewart


The Busey home was often visited by the red men, who always came hungry, craving food from the settlers. At first the family were frightened by their presence; but when they became acquainted with them and the craven and cowardly spirit of the remnant of the race, they would not hesitate to order them out of the cabin and away from the neighborhood when their presence became distasteful. (714)

History of Champaign County (1905)
J.O. Cunningham


D) Champaign County > Settling Down & Moving About

Across the northeast corner of the county one well-worn Indian trail, a part of the Sac-Kickapoo Trail which connected a village on the Wabash River with a village on the Illinois River, followed the smoother lands of the southwest slope of Gifford Ridge. (25)

Another Indian Trail, which became the Terre Haute-Bloomington Road and still later U.S. Highway 150, followed the divide between the Salt Fork and the Embarass River basins along the Champaign moraine, thus avoiding the swampy areas. (25)

The early white settlement of Champaign County was not an isolated episode in the history of the state, but rather a small part of a great movement of people from the densely populated eastern parts of the nation towards the more sparsely populated western areas. There were many factors that contributed to the population of Champaign County during the decade preceding 1833. Much of the rest of the state already had enough population to take up the most favored tracts of land; travel increased along the routes that crossed Champaign County; the 1819 treaty with the Indians assured people that the area was safe; the General Land Office has completed the survey of the area and was offering land for sale; the Military Bounty Lands to the west brought immigrants to the state; and salt was discovered at Danville. (27)

Although the rivers were the major highways, there were cross-country trails. These were particularly important in the settlement of Champaign County. The Grand Prairie was then considered inhospitable, but it was an area which people crossed as offering the shortest route between important population centers on the Wabash and Illinois rivers. The Sac-Kickapoo Trail was an important road connecting the Indian village on the Wabash River with the village on the Illinois River (present Ottawa). It was used long after the Indians left the country. (28-29)

The old Wabash-Fort Clark trail crossed the county diagonally from southeast to northwest. Later the Terre Haute-Fort Clark Trail followed a similar course but farther north. As settlements were established farther and farther up the Wabash and as salt was located near Danville, the Danville-Bloomington-Peoria trail was developed. All of these trails gave the county a southeast to northwest orientation and all were in use before 1830. (28-29)

People traveling the Detroit-Kaskaskia Trail, and then the Wabash-Fort Clark, crossed Champaign County and became aware of the possibilities of its lands. Biographical records of early settlers of Champaign County show that many went through the county on their way farther west and later returned, attracted by a favorable situation, a friend, a relative, a sight of a pretty girl, or for other personal reasons. The flow of people across the Grand Prairie broke its isolation. (34-35)

For the most part the roads were still diagonals across the county from southeast to northwest and not located on the section lines. However, the partial orientation of the county toward the west rather than northwest was begun as Springfield superceded Peoria (Fort Clark) as a focus for travel within the state. (55)

The entire system of road changes during the 1840-1850 decade altered the commercial orientation of Champaign County. Before that time the major orientation was from southeast to northwest. With the improvement of the Springfield-Indianapolis road and the roads north from Danville and south from Urbana, the north-south, east-west trade routes were initiated. Peoria to the northwest and Vincennes and Terre Haute to the southeast had lost most of their importance to Champaign County. (63)

Accompanying the radical changes in Champaign County was a change in road location. For the most part the roads shifted from their more or less diagonal routes across sections to routes following section lines, as provided for in the U.S. Survey. (105)

Probably during late winter and early spring there were weeks when neither farmer nor his family left the farmstead. Although the road network of Champaign County was dense by 1910, the roads could not be classified as of first order. The road from Danville to Mahomet, part of the old Danville-Bloomington-Peoria Trail, had a nine-foot brick pavement, but this was probably the only paved road in the county. The other roads in the county, classified as 'Automobile Roads' were probably gravel roads. For the rest of the township roads were dirt roads, a dense network so that no square mile in the county was without a road on one of its section lines, but unimproved dirt roads are often impassable. (134)

As swamp land was drained the road system of the county changed. It was no longer necessary for the roads to follow higher ground but the rectangular pattern could be imposed on the county. The people had modified a part of the physical landscape to meet their needs and ideas. (160-61)

The development of Champaign County has been an integral part of the growth of the state and in part dependent on the growth of the rest of the state. There is nothing in the early history of the peopling of the county to indicate that people came here as a result of the attractiveness of the area to people at that time. They seem rather to have passed this way because of major trails passing through the county and have stopped here. The county was a bridge area between more attractive places, and only as other places filled up did people settle here. Later, at the time of building of railroads, the county was still a bridge area. The railroad connected more populous areas to the north and south and only incidentally served Champaign County. When transportation was established the wave of immigration followed. (161)

"Historical Geography of Champaign County, Illinois" (1957)
Marjorie Corrine Smith


E) Coming of the Railroad

The historic trails which ran diagonally across the county were replaced by a network of north-south and east-west roads along section lines, the exception being the Danville-Bloomington-Peoria trail. Chicago became the market town for the county, supplanting Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Saint Louis. From the day of the opening of the railroad from West Urbana to Chicago, in July, 1855, Champaign County looked to the north. (79)

"Historical Geography of Champaign County, Illinois" (1957)
Marjorie Corrine Smith

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