Mostly forgotten today, the Great Salt Springs (or Illinois Salines) deep in the woods of Gallatin County were once the center of a thriving industry. Looking at the large, wood-lined wells, it’s hard to imagine American Indians once fought and slavery was justified over these murky pools.
Indigenous people first settled this area in the Woodland Period (1000 BC – 1000 AD). They used salt from the springs to preserve and flavor food and trade with other settlements. To extract the salt, they wove reed baskets, lined them with clay, and allowed them to dry before burning. Then they filled the jugs with saline water and allowed it to evaporate, leaving behind a layer of salt. The intricate weaving also left behind a crosshatch pattern on the jugs. Today, thousands of broken pieces of this pottery are scattered around the site.
The French, arriving in 1735, were the first Europeans to claim the site, but lost it in the French and Indian War. In 1802, the Shawnee fought the Kaskaskia tribe in the Great Salt War, soundly defeating them and gaining control of the springs. A year later, Gov. William Henry Harrison signed a treaty with several American Indian tribes, promising to give them 150 bushels of salt a year. In return, the Indians virtually abandoned Southern Illinois.
That proved to be a bum deal, because by 1819, the Gallatin County salines produced nearly 300,000 bushels of salt. Approximately 1,000 African slaves worked the mines and processed the salt. Yes, you read that correctly. Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in Illinois, as did the Illinois Constitution of 1818. But an exception was made for the salt mines.
John Hart Crenshaw (1797-1871) built a large plantation home on Hickory Hill, not far from the ironically named Equality, Illinois. His salt operation at one time contributed one third of the state’s annual tax income. It’s also alleged he was part of the Reverse Underground Railroad, sending captured slaves south back to bondage. Salt production continued until the early 1870s, when Crenshaw died and more efficient production methods were invented.
The Great Salt Springs are an obscure but important chapter in Illinois history. George Escol Sellers wrote an extensive article on the pottery and other artifacts found at this site called “Aboriginal Pottery of the Salt-Springs, Illinois”, originally published in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 11 (1877) and reprinted in Springhouse, Vol. 31 No. 4 (2015). It’s a fascinating read if you can find a copy.