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.