The park is best known for its fascinating rock formations, primarily St. Peter sandstone, laid down in a huge shallow inland sea more than 425 million years ago and later brought to the surface.
Park Historical Legend
Starved Rock State Park is situated on along the south bank of the Illinois River, less than 100 miles from Chicago. This beautiful park attracted over 2 million visitors last year to explore its scenic trails and canyons, dine in its historic Lodge and enjoy the panoramic views from tall bluffs which offer a unique contrast to the flatlands of Illinois. A hike to the top of a sandstone butte or a peaceful stroll to explore any of the 18 canyons gives each visitor a memorable experience. The backdrop for hiking is 18 canyons formed by glacial meltwater and stream erosion. They slice dramatically through tree-covered, sandstone bluffs for four miles at Starved Rock State Park.
As early as 8000 BC, Native American cultures lived and thrived here. From 1500 to 1700 BC, members of the Illiniwek tribe lived here. One of its sub-tribes, the Kaskaskias, populated the area, with as many as 7,000 along the bank of the river across from the current park. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette (a French Jesuit Missionary) canoed up the river below what they called the great rock. The first Native Americans they encountered were the Illini, who were very friendly to the expedition and presented them with a peace pipe to use for the remainder of the journey. Marquette returned to the area in 1675 to establish Illinois’ first Christian Mission of the Immaculate Conception at the Indian village. In the winter of 1682-1683, the French constructed Fort St. Louis atop what is now known as Starved Rock.
But how did Starved Rock get its name? The park derives its name from a Native American legend. In the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe was attending a tribal council meeting. At this council of the Illinois and the Pottawatomi, Kinebo, the head chief of the Illinois tribe stabbed Chief Pontiac. Vengeance arose in Pontiac’s followers – the Pottawatomi, the Miami and the Kickapoo. They vowed that no blood should course through the veins of the assassins or of their families. Meanwhile, at the end of a warm day in the early part of Indian summer in 1769, the Indians collected in an open square on the banks of the river to celebrate the marriage of the head chief’s daughter. They were surprised to see the great meadow in the back of the village covered with the enemy, the dreaded Pottawatomies. On came the enemy and so rapidly that almost instantly a large number of them had entered the town. The invaders were met by the defenders. Many of the Pottawatomies were killed before they retreated to Buffalo Rock, where they called a council of war. In this council it was agreed to renew the assault in the morning and never cease fighting until the Illini were no more. Meanwhile, the Illinois were celebrating their victory of the day’s battle. Having spent the night rejoicing, they were found asleep in the morning and were again attacked, sparing none. The assailants were met by the brace Illinois warriors and large numbers met their end before falling back for reinforcements.
For twelve long hours the battle raged on, a large portion of the Illinois warriors were slain along with the remaining villagers. The fighting continued into the night and well into a heavy rainstorm. The rain was so heavy it was hard to distinguish between enemy and foe. So, the fighting stopped until morning. But during the heavy storm and in the darkness of the night, the Illinois launched their canoes, crossed the river and ascended the 125 sandstone butte. Here, on this rock, were all that remained of the Illinois Indians, consisting of about twelve hundred, three hundred of them were warriors. On this rock they considered themselves safe from their enemy, singing songs of praise. Morning came and the Pottawatomies soon discovered that their victims had fled. They burned the town, crossed the river and surrounded the great rock. The plan was to storm the great rock and defeat the Illinois, but all that tried were met by the brave Illini. When the Illini took refuge on the rock, they carried with them a large quantity of provisions, but after many days, this supply was not running thin and starvation was a great possibility. At first this rock was a haven of safety and now it was likely to be their tomb. Day after day passed and still the Illini continued to be guarded by their enemy, leaving them no escape. They tried to collect water from the river below, but as soon as the vessel was reached, the cord was cut. After many days, the remaining Illiniwek died of starvation giving this historic park its name – Starved Rock.
In the 1890′s, a man named Daniel Hitt purchased the site and developed the land for vacationers. He built a hotel, dance pavilion and swimming area. In 1911, the State of Illinois purchased the site from Mr. Hitt, making it the state’s first recreational park. In the 1930′s the Civilian Conservation Corps placed three camps at Starved Rock State Park and began building the Lodge and trail systems that you can now witness here at the Park.
The charm of Starved Rock lies largely in the fact that everything is in a state of nature, just as it was when Joliet, Marquette and Tonti and all the other explorers, missionaries, and traders that were here so many years ago. Some of the trails and buttes had stairs and platforms built upon them to help protect the delicate sandstone from washing away inch by inch.
In 1966, Starved Rock State Park was named a National Historic Landmark. Starved Rock State Park’s Lodge and Cabins were listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on May 8, 1985 as part of the Illinois State Park Lodges and Cabins Thematic Resources Multiple Property Submission. By the National Register’s criteria the Lodge and Cabins are considered significant in the areas of architecture, entertainment and recreation. The lodge offers 69 hotel rooms and 21 comfortable cabin rooms. The Great Hall is centered around a massive, 2-sided stone fireplace. The Main Dining Room is open seven days a week and offers many house specialties. The Lodge’s conference area can accommodate up to 200, with four smaller meeting rooms for weddings or corporate retreats. For lodge reservations, call (81) 667-4211 or go to www.starvedrocklodge.com
Next time you are here – take a moment to think about the history of this special place. Here is the same soil upon which the Indians trod the same rocks and some of the same trees now standing saw the stirring events of those earlier times. Here people have lived and prayed and fought and died more than two hundred years ago. Thousands of them resolved to dust upon this rock and within range of our vision.
There is and ever will be a charm about this park, both from its beauty and its melancholy story of the battles it has looked down upon. While here, let your imagination ponder what you have been told and see if you can sense what it was like ages ago, when they were here!