Museum highlights Wilmette's American Indian past
June 20, 2011 | 04:01 AM
In 2011, it's pretty much conventional wisdom that any high-profile land transaction involving government can take years, if not decades to complete. And an army of lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats is only too happy to gum up the works indefinitely.
Turns out, absolutely nothing has changed.
Archange Ouilmette, born to a French fur trader and Potawatomi Indian mother, was granted by U.S. Treaty in 1829 the 1,280 acres of land bounded by present-day 15th Street in Wilmette, Elmwood Street, Lake Michigan and Central Street in Evanston.
Shortly after her death in 1840, some of her children wanted to sell the land, but that required presidential approval. Fifty years later, according to official documents at the National Archives, the lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats were still going at it.
Copies of 40 of those documents are among the small but fascinating collection of artifacts and papers housed at the Wilmette Historical Museum that offers a historical glimpse of an American Indian presence in Wilmette stretching back thousands of years.
Archaeological history is limited, said Museum Director Kathy Hussey-Arntson, "because no one has wanted to dig up someone's front lawn."
Some items have been unearthed, however, and are part of the museum's permanent exhibit entitled Native Americans on the North Shore.
For example, a clay figurine of a human face was excavated in 1922 at 738 11th Street during a construction project. The head is believed to be part of a larger object, probably a bowl from the Mississippian era, 1100-1500 AD.
A frog pipe bowl, a Middle Woodland-Hopewellian form dating from 1,400-2,100 years ago, was found south of Old Glenview Road.
And a Harrison Turkey-tail flint spear point made of Hornstone thought to be 2,500-4,000 years old was found at the corner of Lake Avenue and Green Bay Road during excavation for Shimonek's Service Station in the 1960s.
The focal point in the museum's main exhibition room is a large painting done by M.E. Akeley in 1909 that depicts Potawatomi life at the lake's edge. The painting was once housed in the third floor auditorium of the Brown Building at 1159 Wilmette Avenue.
The painting most likely contains numerous factual inaccuracies, said Hussey-Arntson, but is illustrative of the desire by painters a century ago to romanticize American Indians.
"What we have is just a kind of teaser," Hussey-Arntson said. "You can see that there is a Native American presence here just by these few artifacts, but there is nothing systematic.'
While that may be true, it doesn't paint the entire picture.
On a regular basis, students and curious adults inquire about the subject, and Hussey-Arntson and museum curator Patrick Leary are easily drawn into banter on any number of topics.
There's the marker on the lakefront that signifies where the Ouilmette family log cabin was. And the streets in Wilmette – including Ridge Road, Old Glenview Road and Illinois Road – that were once Indian trails. And the Old Green Bay Trail that stretched along the lakefront and connected Fort Dearborn with Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisc.
The museum is also an occasional source for scholarly research. Recently, for example, a historian at North Central College used the museum's materials and expertise for a book on the Fort Dearborn massacre.
Every once in a while, a descendant of the original Ouilmette family walks through the door, too.
"But unfortunately," Leary laughed, "usually they don't know too much."
For more information on the exhibit, "Native Americans on the North Shore," or on the museum, go to www.wilmettehistory.org.
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