Down a slender gravel path – little more than a farm service road – in rural west central Illinois, twenty miles or so from the Mississippi River, in the township of Sumner, in the county of Warren, lies the Sugar Tree Grove Cemetery, established in 1830 as the original site of the first church in that county. Though the church was relocated approximately a half mile away some years later, eventually being replaced by a more substantial structure in 1874, its original burial ground remains preserved alone amongst the surrounding cornfields, a curiosity which has endured nearly 200 years.
Snugly encircled by its 1920s cast iron fence, it bewitches any visitor tenacious enough to seek it out – for it is not a place upon which one stumbles – and ruminate upon the lives of William Martin and the “Illinois Indian” whose name, if it was ever known, has been long forgotten. Like so many other places in the United States, this diminutive country cemetery stands as a testament to a clash between cultures and peoples; to the power of competing, unresolvable narratives; to the ways a place may evince both shame and defiance in equal measure as it attempts passively to convey its narrative to any visitor keen enough to drink it in, despite its unsettling flavor.
In this beautiful, if vaguely eerie, place, less than twenty words split between two stones narrate colonization, murder, and inhumanity. Though they are perhaps twenty steps apart, these stones ceaselessly converse:
The first commemorates William Martin, born in 1809, who had relocated to Sumner Township around 1830 with a group of Presbyterians wishing to colonize the land which had been seized from the Sac and Fox tribes living in the area in the spurious 1804 St. Louis Treaty. Of course they conceived their migration more auspiciously, but it proves difficult for a contemporary visitor – at least in my case – not to be taken aback by a gravestone which announces with animus that a colonizer was murdered by the people whose home he, his kin, and church brethren, had stolen for themselves. Clearly announcing their position as the people wronged when one of their own was “killed by the Indians,” the engraving affords as much space for its accusation against so-called murderers as it does the murdered man’s name, and the phrasing itself implies a collective of people, not a few individuals, responsible. It also suggests, I would argue, that its sympathetic white audience will easily grasp that this was a treacherous act of barbarism against a brave pioneer fighting to establish his community as he worked in the fields to harvest crops, a trope we Americans are taught early in school.
Buried as they are, the facts of the case prove difficult to establish; various narratives of assorted divergent details assert that Martin was working in the field alone when he was ambushed by a group of Native Americans who first shot him at close range and then scalped him, as described in The Past and Present of Warren County, Illinois. The Illinois State’s Attorney, Thomas Ford, provides the oft-cited central details of the case in his indictment; other accounts alter the number of assailants and question the scalping. The murder came at the end of The Black Hawk War when natives endeavored to recapture their lands from ever-increasing waves of white settlers and caused considerable panic among the interlopers who were surviving in a fort stronghold hoping to survive the Native Americans whom they were so intent upon driving out, either by displacement or destruction.
Some sources claim Martin’s to be the first death in Sumner Township, granting it near-saintly status as it is presented as a kind of martyrdom to the cause of colonization and driving the native peoples west of the Mississippi. Unsurprisingly, at no point do these narratives summon sympathy for anyone other than Martin nor do they suggest an understanding of the murderer’s or murderers’ motivation without condoning the action itself. As would be expected, the Native Americans are presented as savages not conversant with the values and morals implied and/or stated in the white settlers’ narratives.
More surprisingly, though, is that these narratives continue to appear nearly two centuries later whenever the story resurfaces; a 2011 newspaper column advertising a fundraising picnic at the site notes that his murderers were never caught. In addition, it includes a likely apocryphal quotation from Martin: “My scalp was never intended for an Indian’s belt,” which makes it difficult to discern whether the article’s author intended him to appear brave and fearless or foolhardy and a likely victim, though I suspect the former. Either way, he continues to stand as a kind of folk hero by embodying the archetypal ideal of settlers and pioneers in the U.S., willing to sacrifice his life in service of the creation of the American nation, never considering the perspectives of those already inhabiting the lands they wished to confiscate.
What is more provocative about this historical site and its deceased inhabitants, though, is the monument to the so-called “Illinois Indian,” which was put in place late in the Twentieth Century. The aforementioned “country picnic” article also mentions this grave as that Native American’s likely site of burial after being “slain” by a group of white men, an assertion offered without qualification or interrogation by its author.
Folk narratives in the region claim the “Illinois Indian” as Martin’s murderer, who was then killed by white vigilantes seeking retribution, though official accounts of the Martin trial suggest otherwise; this website of questionable repute echoes that particular sentiment as well. As a tourist, the idea that these two stones have been placed in conversation with one another proves quite seductive; even if these events were not directly related they clearly connect in profound ways, not the least of which is that the latter’s burial was not marked for nearly a century and a half despite knowledge of its presence.
When the Sugar Tree Grove Cemetery Association decided to mark this grave from motives that would appear to stem from some variety of shame or guilt, they opted to employ Christian verse to memorialize this individual, ignoring the fact that he would not have shared their faith. The particular choice of verse “He, too, is a son of Abraham” from Luke 9:19, also carries a certain implication that though he had once been considered unlike the other people buried in the cemetery, they had somehow reached a different conclusion of his character in the final analysis.
Most provocatively, perhaps, are the coins strewn on and around the “Illinois Indian” marker; no other stone in that cemetery or any I’ve ever visited in the region is decorated with these tokens of visitation and respect, suggesting a kind of loyal following for his memory and cause. To see them there – dotting a stone with an inscription that effaces the individual’s identity and original tribe – in that tiny memorial space in the middle of nowhere suggests that what happened to the native peoples and to Martin are events not yet concluded and of a nature which clearly draws many people into its sadness, destruction, and loss even still, perhaps seeking some more satisfactory resolution.