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The remnants of a stonewall constructed by Late Woodland peoples at Rim Rocks. Historians believe the walls toppled during the New Madrid earthquake.

Les Winkeler, The Southern

RIM ROCK — To the uninformed, the rocks strewn about the top of Rim Rocks bluff appear to be a part of a typical Southern Illinois sandstone outcropping.

To Mark Motsinger’s trained eye, the stones are a window into the past, a glimpse into the pre-settlement history of the region.

The stones are the remnant of one of 11 confirmed walls built by Late Woodland Native Americans throughout Southern Illinois.

“According to the archeological investigation, and the way they do it is by looking at the pottery,” said Motsinger, a Carrier Mills resident and former history teacher. “The earliest forms of pottery they find in the site is usually what they go with. Almost all of them are what they call Late Woodland, which is from about roughly 300-400 A.D. to about 900 A.D.”

The stone walls, found from War Bluff near the Ohio River, to Cypress, near the Mississippi River, are found at the top of bluffs. The enclosures formed by the walls range from nearly 40 acres at Rim Rock, to about 1.5 acres at a site near Cobden.

Initially, it was believed the walls served as a fortification. Motsinger said evidence suggests otherwise.

“There is usually very little sign of habitation inside them,” he said. “Every once in a while, you may find some signs of habitation, but usually the signs of habitation come later. Like at Millstone Bluff, the wall predates the settlement by 800 to 1,000 years. It was obviously a known site, but the wall that was up there had little to do with the Mississippian community that was up there.

“Very seldom do you find any mortuary sites inside them. There are a couple places where there are some mortuary sites kind of nearby. War Bluff has some, but a lot of the places are swept kind of clean. Giant City, they found a few artifacts inside them, but that could have been left behind by Mississippian peoples camping there.”

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Mark Motsinger stands near the marker describing the stone walls built by Late Woodland Native Americans at Rim Rock in the Shawnee National Forest. There are 11 confirmed walls in the region.

In addition, with the exception of Indian Kitchen, located at Giant City, none of the walls were built near a water source.

“We really don’t have any idea why they were built,” Motsinger said. “I have some pretty strong theories. I think they were more ceremonial. Some people think they were more forts. However, the big problem with them being forts is all but one of them would basically be a last-stand kind of place because there is no water.”

Some of the walls are almost unrecognizable today because the rocks are strewn about, primarily as a result of the New Madrid earthquake that shook the Midwest in 1812.

“The best idea you can get on what these walls were like really only comes from one source, the reason this one source is so important is it’s the only one before the New Madrid earthquake,” Motsinger said. “You can imagine a bunch of stones without mortar can sit there for 1,000 years, and then you have something like the events of the two-month period of the New Madrid earthquake, which rang church bells in Philadelphia, what that’s going to do to the walls.

“There is one source, a pretty good one, it was the federal surveyor who came into Southern Illinois so they could open the land to settlement in 1807. He observed the stone fort at Stonefort Bluff. He did a drawing of it and described it as being about six feet tall and six feet wide.”

The walls have also been laden with sediment in the 1,500 years since they’ve been built.

“You also have to realize where you see the walls, if it was 1,500 years ago when they were built, how many falls there have been with leaves falling on them,” he said.” When they dig down, they can find two or three feet of stone wall under the soil. That’s the case in a lot of places. When the archeologists dig down, they can find it.”

Motsinger became interested in the walls as a child, but that interest was rekindled a couple decades ago.

“When I first started teaching at Carrier Mills-Stonefort, I wanted to do an introductory thing for my U.S. history classes on pre-Columbian America,” he said. “The kids kind of got interested in how the town of Stonefort got its name. I started doing a little studying and found out there wasn’t a whole lot of good information out there. The next thing you know, I’m obsessed with it.”

les.winkeler@thesouthern.com

618-351-5088

On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​

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Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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