By: J. Lorenzo Werich
Indian Island in an early day was known as Mike’s Island from the fact that there was a white man by the name of Mike Haskins who hunted with the Indians and camped on this island and whom I mentioned before. It was better known as Indian Island and was for untold ages the hunting and camping grounds of the Pottowattomie Indians. It is one of the oldest inhabited islands on the Kankakee and there was no Indian camp between the headwaters and the mouth of this historical river that had a better fortification than Indian Island.
Haskins was with General Harrison on that famous march up the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers and it was this white hunter who fired the first shot at the Battle of Tippecanoe. On a misty, moonlight night in November, 1811, Haskins was on picket duty and as the Indians made their attack on the camp in the night by crawling upon the sleeping army.
In the early part of the night it had been raining but along about midnight it broke away and the clouds were thin and scattering. There was a full moon and as the clouds were light they moved very rapidly and at times the moon shown in its full brightness. As the Indians had just been supplied with new guns and hatchets they were still very bright.
The Indians made their attack about three o’clock in the morning and as they skulked and crawled upon the camp Haskins saw something glisten as the moon shone through the thin clouds and knew what it was. He pulled his gun to his shoulder, took aim at the glistening object, pulled the trigger, and an Indian bounded up out of the grass and yelled. This aroused the others and the battle began and the result of that shot is well known.
The reader remembers I told in a previous chapter what brought Haskins to the Kankakee Swamps. In 1854 Aaron Broady 5r., and his son, John, entered the land. The land of which the island was originally a part belonged to the State and contains one hundred and twenty acres. The island itself only contains about thirty-five or forty acres.
In the early days before the country was drained it was surrounded by water nearly the whole year round and the only way of getting to the island was with boat or by wading in from the north side. In the dry season when the water was low you could drive in with a team but in the winter season when the marshes were frozen up, getting in on the ice was the best time.
The Broadies each built a log cabin and cleared up about ten acres and put it under cultivation. The island at that time was heavily timbered. The Kankakee swamps were originally covered with a heavy timber, hard wood. On the dry land was found many varieties of oak and hickory, while on the bottom or swamps which were covered with water is the white and black ash, red and white beech sycamore, elm, soft maple, white cottonwood, white and yellow birch, and three or four varieties of swamp or water oak, whilst on the ridges is found the white and black walnut, three species of dry land oak, sassafras, paw-paws, wawhoe, prickley ash, red haws, iron wood and dogwood. Most of this timber was valuable saw timber and on this island was a good site for a saw mill. So in 1866 a company was organized and known as the Indian Island Sawmill Company. It was made up of prairie farmers who owned swamp lands. They bought the island from the Broadies. paying them five thousand dollars in cash for it and in the winter of ’66 when the marsh was frozen up they put the sawmill on the island and soon had it in operation, first they sawed the lumber to build the mill and to put up a house for the mill boss and his men to live in.
The house was built of white oak throughout except the floor and that was of white ash. The building is sixteen by thirty-four feet, one story, and is box sided with one by twelve inch white oak siding. The house has never bean painted and is in good condition and in use at this writing in1920. Several years ago there was a lean-to built on the east side of the house and in this building is where I spent ten years of my boyhood days.
The mill business was good. In the winter when the swamps were frozen up thousands of logs were brought to the mill and sawed into lumber. But getting the lumber off the island was somewhat of a task as there were only certain times of the year that it could be hauled out to the dry land.
In 1868 John Bissell and Ira Cornell, two of the heaviest stockholders in the I. I. S. M. Company, built and put on the river a steamer, The White Star, for the purpose of transporting lumber and cord wood down to Momence, Illinois, and other points along the river where there was sale for their product. The island is about one hundred rods from the river and in order to get the steamer and flat boats from the island to the river they had to dig a canal eighteen feet wide and four feet deep. Father was put on the job as superintendent and with a gang of men with shovels dug what was known then and is to this day as the Bissell-Cornell steamboat canal.
Adison E. Buck, of Hebron, Indiana, was the master boat builder. For several trips up and down the river Father was the pilot and John Bissel, captain. The freighting business on the Kankakee did not pan out just as expected and in the early seventies the steamer and flat boats or scowes, as they were called, were sold to a Momence party and fitted out for a pleasure boat.
In ’71 Father bought the Bissel stock in the I. I. S. A. Company which contained two-fifths of the shares in the company. The reader remembers that it was here where I left them in the opening chapter of this story and it is only right and proper that I take them with me to my island home on the Kankakee.
It was way back in the hazy and smokey old days of October, in 1871, those days that now seem to belong to another century and another manner of living, These were the days you could hardly see the sun on account of the dense clouds of smoke that would settle over the lowlands and thousands of acres of Kankakee marshes and swamps were on fire not only here but thousands of acres elsewhere were burning and not only the prairie, marshes and forests, but cities and towns were passing away in smoke. The year ’71 was known as the dry season. The river was very low, the lowest it had been for years. The swamps and marshes in many places had dried out and the filling of self-moved earth of past centuries that had washed in from the highlands, sediments and decayed vegetation. This took fire and burned everything down to the sub-soil. Thousands of acres of marsh land were burned out in this way, leaving deep holes covering an area of two to twenty acres in a place and from one to five feet in depth and when filled with water made many small lakes and ponds. The day we moved to the island, October 9, was the hot day in Chicago, the great Chicago fire.
It was on this island that many scenes of my boyhood experiences were painted on memory’s canvas, as it was here that I began my early experiences hunting with a shot gun. During the early seventies and eighties this island was a great camping ground for hunters coming from far and near. I have met with hunters from all parts of the country who came’ here to shoot wild geese and ducks.
In the Fall of ’75, H. J. McSheehy, of Logansport, Indiana, made his first hunting trip to this island and the acquaintance of this newspaper man grew into inseparable friendship. It was Mr. McSheehy and his party that brought the first breech-loaders to the island and the next year his hunting partner, the late John Condon, a millionaire race-track man of Chicago, brought to our place the first air pillows that I ever saw. It was in a hunting boat on the Kankakee marshes and near our place that I first met one of Indiana’s most famous writers, General Lew Wallace. He was with a party of Indianapolis hunters and was stopping at the Indianapolis, Terre Haute and Rockville club houses at Baum’s Bridge, I might mention scores of Indiana hunters who have at some time in the years past hunted on the Kankakee.
Getting logs out of the swamp was very uncertain owing to various conditions of the swamps. Sometimes the swamp would freeze up early in the winter with high water and before it froze solid the water would leave the ice making it shelly and when the ice was in this condition it was dangerous getting around with a team. Under these conditions logging was no good that winter. Finally, Father sold the sawmill to some parties in Valparaiso and they moved it to the big woods near Chesterton, Indiana.
About 25 years ago Father sold the island to Mr. Henry Kahler, of Chicago, who fitted up the place for a hunting and fishing resort.
In 1908 a party of Chicago sportsmen organized what was known as the Kankakee Valley Hunting Club with Frank Nahser, president, Dr. P. M. Hoffman, vice-president, and Henry Stevens, secretary and treasurer. The club leased the hunting rights on several thousand acres of swamp land and built their clubhouse on Indian Island, where some of the members of the club made hunting trips to this place every year until the swamps were drained and duck shooting became a thing of the past. Then they sold the club house and it was taken down and moved away.