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  5. The Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia

The Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia

Exercise 1: Place in the Past

In the Classroom

Use “The Power of the Ecotone” to discuss the role of place in early American history, and answer the following questions:

  1. What is a borderland?
  2. Why are borderlands important?
  3. What is an “ecotone”?

Use the map sources to describe how the middle of the continent was a transition zone in several respects, and answer the following questions:

  1. Why was this part of the continent important as a transition zone in the seventeenth century?
  2. What special kinds of opportunities for inhabitants existed in this region?
  3. What special perils might have existed?
  4. How would a newcomer to the region benefit, and how might living in this region shape its inhabitants’ intergroup or “international” strategies?
  5. Can you think of other places where similar divisions have shaped American history in important ways?


  • “Biomes in North America,” March 2016, map by D. B. H. Lehman. Adapted from information at Center for the International Earth Science Information Network. Projection: North American equidistant conic. Permission and usage information available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/

This map shows North American biomes, regions with similar climates and ecosystems. It reveals a generalized picture of dominant vegetation in different areas, and how the temperate grasslands of the plains reach eastward all the way to the southern tip of Lake Michigan in what is called the “prairie peninsula.”

Temperate Biomes Map
Temperate Biomes Map
  • “Soil Orders in the United States,” March 2016, map by D. B. H. Lehman. Adapted from information available at United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. Projection: Albers equal area. Copyright U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012.

This map shows soil orders, land areas classified by soil types, in the United States according to the Department of Agriculture. Soils are categorized by their moisture levels and layers of mineral and/or organic content called “horizons.” The soil types mapped here are general categories called soil associations:

  • Vertisols: clay that swells/cracks, developed under mixed land cover
  • Molisols: dark-surfaced soils, developed under grasslands Alfisols: light-surfaced soils, developed under forest or mixed land cover
  • Ultisols: light-surfaced soils, developed under mixed evergreen and deciduous forests
  • Histosols: dark-surfaced mostly organic soil, developed under wetlands
  • Inceptisols: varied color and high mineral content, developed under forest
  • Entisols: no developed horizons, often sandy
Soil Orders map
Soil Orders map
  • “Illinois Land Cover,” March 2016, map by D. B. H. Lehman. Spatial data from Prairie Research Institute, Illinois Natural History Survey. Projection: Albers equal area. Copyright 2005, Illinois Natural History Survey.

This map shows general categories of land cover in part of the modern state of Illinois. It reveals the level of prairie-forest ecotone combination on a local scale. The map is based on Illinois state surveyors’ notes from the early decades of the 1800s, about 150 years after the heyday of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, so the exact borders between forest and prairie areas shown are not likely identical to their locations in the 1670s. Even so, the general character of prairies dotted with groves of trees was similar. The space marked on the map as the site of the grand village is bottomland on the north bank of the Illinois River, across from Starved Rock.

Landscapes Map
Landscapes Map

This map shows ethnic groups named in colonial sources around 1700 and categorizes them according to language families. It reveals the general position of the Illinois compared to other Algonquin groups, away from Iroquois nations and near to Siouan communities.

Language Families c. 1700 Map
Language Families c. 1700 Map