The Stone Forts of Illinois.
One of the unique prehistoric phenomena of Southern Illinois is the ruins of stone walls which have traditionally been known as "stone forts." They appear in the rough east-west alignment across the hill country and appear to form a broken chain between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These ruins have similar geographic site characteristics. They are generally located on bluffs, which are often finger-like promontories of land with steep cliffs on three sides and a gradual incline on the fourth. It was across these inclines leading to the top of the bluff that these stone walls are most generally located, hence the theory of a pound or game trap, has been advanced.
Many of the walls have long been torn down and removed for building purposes. Early settlers, in most instances, removed the better slab-like stones for building foundations, leaving only the rubble. These early white pioneers saw the walls and thought of them in terms of their own experiences, particularly from the standpoint of defense against the Indians. Though they called them stone forts, these sites would be very poor places to carry on prolonged fights.
If a small band took refuge behind the wall, they might be pushed over the cliff by a larger attacking force. Or a larger force could lay siege to the place, and the band would be cut off from both food and water and soon starve to death. Although they called them "forts," many people did not accept such a theory, and speculation continued.
Archaeologists believe that particularly in Ohio, the Hopewellian Indians probably were responsible for some of the walls, but the identity is not known. These walls represent a major accomplishment for a people who had only primitive digging implements and methods of carrying or moving heavy stones. These unknown builders piled rock completely across summits, leaving inside enclosures sometimes as large as 50 acres, depending upon the size of the bluff.
The War Bluff Stone Fort site is in east-central Pope County, about six and one half miles due north of Golconda and about four and one half miles northwest of the Ohio River. It is about a mile and one-half east of the old village of Raum and about two miles southwest of the old village of Lusk. This fort site lies about one-half mile south of Farm Road 858, across a field, and up the bluff.
War Bluff is about the most interesting one of its kind. Its wall, though toppled somewhat, is the best-preserved, and its area is large enough to give the visitor's imagination room to dream. There are fragments of records and a stock of legends, lore, and tradition to add interest.
According to traditional accounts, this was a place to which the Indians retreated and were besieged by white men about 1800. According to the same story, the Indians escaped by way of a secret crevice that led downward through the rocks and out at the face of the bluff. The story relates that a white girl who lived with them led their escape.
War Bluff also has its "Lovers Leap" on the northwest wall, along with the traditional story. According to this bit of legend, an Indian chief forbade his daughter's marriage to the brave she loved. She and her lover sought to escape but were overtaken at the highest point of the wall. Here their final plea was rejected. Thereupon they turned clasped hands and leaped to their death a hundred feet below. True or untrue, as one stands and looks, it is a good story.
Then there is an account of buried treasure. According to a story told by an elderly man who grew up near the fort, a band of Indians led by a squaw came to dig for the treasured bars of gold shortly after 1900 and camped at his father's place. The map they carried showed a cave, the mouth of which had been filled. This entrance was found, cleaned out, and followed to a carving indicated on the map. Likewise, they dug through rubble-filled passages to a second marking. Here, squeezed and closed passages brought confusion. The gold bars were not found.
The Indians despaired and returned to Oklahoma, leaving any treasure still buried at War Bluff. Later visitors with divining rods have likewise failed to locate the gold. Even yet, some visitors knowing the story keep a sharp lookout for any clue that might reveal the location of the hidden bars.
A shelter cave on the west side also has its story. Once it was carefully walled and served as a home for the Sheridan family. Here their son, Thomas, was born. He later served as a county superintendent of schools and became a practicing attorney in Vienna, Johnson County.
Before leaving War Bluff the visitor should pause to look carefully at the stone ruins outside the wall. Perhaps he can decide the use to which they were put. Some have said they were granaries, others that they were sentry posts. One explains that they were advance posts for besiegers and lastly that they mark the burial place of white men killed while besieging the Indians. Perhaps the reader will come up with a better explanation than either of these.
The 1876 atlas shows an additional, old Indian fort on a line five miles northwest of War Bluff and Eight miles Southeast of Stone Fort.
War Bluff Stone Fort
Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.