Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. Over the next couple months, she’ll be publishing a series of articles on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.
Our view of Evanston before history was recorded is limited by the layers of human civilization that have altered the natural world and removed many of the signs of human habitation over the centuries. But if we look hard enough, and tap into the right research resources, we can find details of the ancient landscape and trace the footsteps of the people that passed through it or called it home. This is the first in a four part series, in honor of the 150th Anniversary of Evanston’s incorporation, on the history of Evanston long before the community as we know it was even imagined.
The best place to begin is with the geography of the land around us. For millions of years, a large inland sea covered our area. With the advent of the first Ice Age, 3 million years ago, this inland lake was replaced by glaciers that reached far into North America. Glaciers remained in our area until about 12,000 years ago and when they began to melt the subsequent movement of soil, rock and water shaped the land. Most prominently, the melting glaciers left us Lake Michigan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.
In Evanston, the effects of the melting glaciers can also be clearly seen in the ridges of land that are now Gross Point Road, and Ridge and Chicago Avenues. As the glacier receded it did so in stages, leaving glacial remains at each high point or ridge. If you stand on Ridge Avenue almost anywhere along its length and look east toward the lake and then west, you can see that you are standing on ridge of high ground, running roughly north and south through the entire town.
The glaciers also left us our terrain and our soil. The land that makes up Evanston is commonly described as grassland or wet prairie with remnants of a natural forest, primarily oak, elm and hickory trees, in some areas. Much of the land near the lake is made up of sandy soil, the remainders of the dune landscape that used to exist along our lakefront. To the west, in between and to the west of the ridges, the land is thick with clay deposits and has drainage problems common to prairies. The remains of old growth forests are along the ridges and especially in northwest Evanston, with some 300 year and older trees still there.
Once the glaciers were gone and the climate had sufficiently stabilized to support plant and animal life, human beings began to populate our landscape. Scientists estimate that human life came to our area beginning about 12,000 years ago. The lives of these ancient peoples were ones of nomadic, subsistence-based living, gathering just what was needed at the time. The climate stabilized about 3,000 years ago, probably marking the beginning of continuous settlement in Illinois. Slowly the nomadic hunter/gatherer civilization gave way to a more settled, agrarian culture, culminating in one of the world’s most remarkable cultures in the mound builders of Cahokia in southern Illinois in approximately 1000 AD.
Keep an eye out for the next installment in Lori’s series, Indian Life and the Arrival of French Explorers, coming soon!