Illinois State Museum

People and the River

Human actions have caused dramatic changes in the Illinois River valley. In less than 200 years, the Illinois River has been straightened, deepened, dammed, contained by levees, drained, farmed, polluted, silted-in, dredged-out, and turned into one of the country’s busiest shipping lanes. Scientists recognized that abuse of the river could destroy its ability to function as an ecosystem. Conservation efforts and shifts in management and use have greatly improved river conditions.

Harvesting the River

The Illinois River was one of the most productive river systems in the world. As early as 9,500 years ago, Native Americans were harvesting fish, freshwater mussels, turtles, and waterfowl from the river. By 7,000 years ago, abandoned river channels in the floodplain filled with sediment and became shallow lakes. The lakes supported lush aquatic vegetation and attracted waterfowl and fish. Native Americans settled along these lakes and made use of the rich resources.

Visit and explore the Museum's Harvesting the River Online Exhibit.

Read the Illinois River Timeline (pdf)