Newell Fort

Historical Site Categories: Native American & French and Native American History

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What's The Story

In 1867, Colonel Daniel Hitt surveyed an irregularly shaped earthwork at the head of French Canyon, near Starved Rock. He called it the “Old Fort.” John Newell and his son John Jr. returned to the “Old Fort” seventy years later to unearth its secrets. They spent several years excavating, eventually accumulating a substantial collection of 18th century artifacts.

In 1999, despite digging more than a dozen long trenches and carefully sifting excavated sediment, archaeologists found only a handful of historic artifacts. It appears that little evidence of Hitt’s Old Fort remains.

The Newell Collection, much of which is on view in this exhibit, has long interested archaeologists and historians pondering the question: Who built the “Old Fort”? Three alternatives have been advanced: 1) Prehistoric Native Americans, 2) The Shawnee shown in the area on Franquelin’s 1684 map of the area, or 3) The French? The shape of the embankment and artifacts typical of fur traders suggests the work of Frenchmen, but Native Americans also built such embankments, and they also had many fur-trade artifacts by 1730. This mystery demonstrates the shortcomings of history and the possibilities of archaeology. Unfortunately, where the Old Fort is concerned, we still have much to learn.

To learn more:

Hall, Robert L. 1991. The Archaeology of La Salle’s Fort St. Louis on Starved Rock and the Problem of the

Newell Fort. Pp. 14-28. In: French Colonial Archaeology, edited by John A. Walthall. University of Illinois Press. Urbana.

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