A line of big shelter bluffs extends east to west across the southern part of Illinois where hard sandstone, the Upper Shawnee Hills, lies over softer limestone, the Lower Shawnee Hills. The limestone erodes away, leaving a hundred-foot-thick layer of sandstone standing as a line of bluffs—Kerr’s Bluff, Draper’s Bluff, Fountain Bluff, for example. Several deep overhanging cliffs along this front are called caves. Hawk’s Cave in Ferne Clyffe State Park is one of those.
I’m returning to Hawk’s Cave after about four decades. A foggy Sunday afternoon in February has turned mild and damp. Fog muffles sound and color, creating a dreamy atmosphere. I’ve had a quick hike on another Ferne Clyffe trail that left me with energy and about an hour to spare, an hour before my obligations set in again. I know that I want to see Hawk’s Cave in a way that will take more than an hour, but for now, I promise myself, just a preview, a quick look. I’ll come back one day and see it in a leisurely way.
As kids on school picnics at Ferne Clyffe, we dared each other to go into Hawk’s Cave, knowing all caves had bats and though we would be attacked by rabid vampire bats, somehow we’d miraculously escape the sure death they promised. In fact, we never found any bats, but once a rattlesnake had definitely been there. Some boys claimed to have chased it away by throwing rocks at it. I don’t clearly remember Hawk’s Cave except that it had no bats and no rattlesnakes and was, therefore, a disappointment.
The trail begins up some plank and gravel steps dug into a shallow slope. Erosion could be a problem here, not because of the steepness, but because it obviously is an old clearing. Cedars are abundant, and a big, old, open‑grown maple that makes me wonder if this is an old house site. There have been houses in the park—Emma Rebman, the woman who bought Ferne Clyffe and donated it to the State, making sure it received park status, lived here. While she owned this land, she let an old man live here and keep a garden. Maybe this was his garden I’ve been crossing to get into the woods, mixed mesophytic hardwoods, oaks, and maples mostly, on a steeper grade.
Something I’ve pondered lately is how childhood landscape might mark a person for life. I got the idea from a friend in Indiana. His family was from the plains and he tried to go back there to live. He also tried to move to Taos, which he loves. But he is inexplicably drawn back to the forests of his childhood. He thinks we are like the little ducks which imprint on whatever larger animal they first see and will follow it as though it is a mother hen, whether it is or not. I grew up nearby and I feel at home here, though I can’t say why. But recently I learned that my older daughter, who spent her formative years in the cornfields of former prairie, says she can breathe easier in central Illinois. She likes her horizon at a distance. And, as I recall, Emma Rebman, a southern Illinoisan, moved to the Southwest, found career success, then came back to live in Ferne Clyffe.
Soon, through the woods, I see the bluff. I had forgotten it was so high, so impressive, viewed even at a distance, even through trees. The path crosses a little stream on a rustic bridge that fits the fantasy world the fog creates. All is damp and hushed, maybe even eerie. There is no sign of anyone else. I slowly cross the bridge, just looking at the display of varicolored sandstone. I could let myself feel presences, but I am resisting that. I don’t want to hang out with ghosts today. I just want to do a preview run‑through and come back when I have more time to contemplate and observe.
I don’t stop walking, just follow the trail as it goes up to the big overhang, where drips fall from its edge. I stride through the first shelter and into an even larger one, dripping even more. I keep walking, scrambling over some boulders, and follow the trail on back into the woods. Then I pause and look back. I don’t want to believe in ghosts, spirits, that sort of thing, but there have been times in my life that my internal antennae picked up signals of that sort. I know they are available here. But I’m not making myself available to them.
Hawk’s Cave is reputed to be a camping place of the Cherokee as they were crossing southern Illinois on the Trail of Tears. Many froze or starved that winter of 1838–1839. If the legend is true, it is likely that there were deaths here and burials or bodies simply abandoned.
If it is true that my great‑great‑grandmother, Elizabeth Gurley, was adopted from the Trail of Tears by the Anson Gurley family near Lick Creek, she might have stayed here. I imagine that little girl, perhaps an orphan, with people dying around her. Painfully, I think of Sarah, my Sarah Elizabeth, just five. I don’t know how old Elizabeth was—“a child” when she was adopted. Maybe she was about three or four—there is an Elizabeth Gurley in the 1850 Census of Union County, Lick Creek Township, who was fifteen, born in North Carolina. Maybe this is even near enough to Lick Creek that the Gurleys acquired her here.
Elizabeth is fairly new knowledge to me. I’ve known since adolescence about Joshua Tyner, on my mother’s side of the family. A “half‑breed,” or at least some mix of Native, he was one of the first settlers in Eight Mile Prairie in Williamson County, immediately north of the Shawnee Hills. His story is almost unbelievable. Supposedly, two Tyner sisters were captured by the Cherokee in North Carolina about the end of the eighteenth century. One sister was killed. The other was married to the chief. (I’ve never been able to find a name.) Later she escaped with her infant son, or she was recaptured with her infant son, or she was bought back with him. Accounts vary. The son was raised by her father, Joshua Tyner, and given that name.
After fighting in the Revolutionary War with Sir Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, Joshua Tyner, the younger, came west and lived first at Eight Mile, a settlement in a prairie eight miles from Bainbridge, an earlier settlement. Later, he was one of the first citizens, or the first citizen, of Marion, Illinois. Later yet, he lived alone by the Big Muddy River. He enters the history of Union County in midwinter 1838–1839 when he reportedly met with some of “The People” in Jonesboro and visited with relatives who were on that forced migration. I wonder if it was after that he lived in solitude. He must have wondered about the government he had defended.
I had heard that there was Cherokee on my father’s side of the family, also, but I assumed it was distant. It is the Scots ancestry we talk about. One day there was discussion of Aunt Charity Penrod and how she was half Indian. My dad said that her grandson, Hop Penrod, had bragged about how Indian he was, and my dad had said, Hell, he was as Indian as Hop.
I knew enough to ask the right questions and find out that, yes, he was. They had the same Greatgrandma Ballard, formerly Elizabeth Gurley, who was Cherokee. My great‑great-grandma! That was why my grandmother was worried about my cousins’ dark children, why my uncle said it was German boys they married, and some of the old Germans weredark people.
Later I found that this Elizabeth, who married Franklin Ballard, a Civil War Soldier, was adopted by the Gurleys near Lick Creek when the Cherokee were marched through southern Illinois. My uncle thinks the Gurleys, and Ballards, too, were part Cherokee and thus sympathetic to The People. I suppose Elizabeth could have been a relative of the Gurleys. I’ve never found a name for her except Gurley.
John W. Allen, historian and author of It Happened in Southern Illinois, identifies Dug Hollow in Union County as a place the Cherokee camped during their forced migration. But that may be true and it may be partly true. Different groups must have camped in different areas. A history of Union County identifies both Campground Church and the site where Route 146 crosses Clear Creek as camping places along the Trail of Tears.
Illinois Route 146 roughly follows the old trail, and from that connection I first heard of the Trail of Tears. I grew up near Route 146. Why I thought to question my parents about the Trail of Tears at about age seven or eight, I don’t recall, but I asked more questions than they could answer or wanted to. And it upset me. From the time I first heard of the Trail of Tears, that knowledge made me ache.
In high school, I read about Sequoia and his printing press, and I was electrified when I heard a speech by John W. Allen, who said that Sequoia’s press was abandoned on the Trail. Allen thought it was left somewhere between Vienna and Anna, along Route 146. That could be very near my parents’ farm! For years I dreamed of finding that press. Later, I realized that by now it would be rusted into crumbles, probably unidentifiable. Now, I realize that it could be here at Ferne Clyffe. But who knows? We are several miles north of Route 146 at this point, and the Trail of Tears was more than a century and a half ago. I don’t know where legend and fact intersect.
I do know this place spooks me in the way that an overhang along Indian Creek in Jackson County did. Indian Creek! I never realized the weight of the name before. What significance does Indian have? I lived near it in the 1960s and would hike along it to a big shelter bluff where I would feel I was being watched. That bluff was probably a site for prehistoric people as many of the shelter bluffs in this area were. But now I realize that it, too, could have been used by The People along the Trail. There was accumulated smoke on the ceiling. Was it ancient, old, or recent?
By my friend’s theory, Joshua Tyner and Elizabeth Gurley would have felt at home here, since this Shawnee Hills section of Illinois is similar to their homelands. I suppose that is the reason for the migration of other of my ancestors from Scotland and Ireland to the Carolinas and on across into this hilly area. The landscapes are similar. The Cherokee who found themselves fenced in Oklahoma would be worse than my friend in Taos. At least he could move back to Indiana.
I’m chilled, either by the low sun and damp air or by thoughts of history. Many people are emotionally affected of the Holocaust, and I don’t ever want to diminish its impact, but the Trail of Tears is more painful to me. I wonder sometimes about ancestral memory, about reincarnation. Maybe it is just proximity. Other human atrocities—and there are plenty—affect me mentally, but this particular forced march hurts me viscerally.
I turn to go down the hill and there is a bright pink bead on the trail. It is only one of the plastic “pony” beads you can buy in packets in discount stores. I look at it awhile, look around, to be sure I’m alone, pick it up, and put it in the pocket of my shirt. What can I make of this? A little girl lost it off one of her braids? A ghost offering? Am I overreacting, making an omen out of a coincidence? Surely it came off one of those sweatshirts decorated with beads and torn bandannas. I only picked it up for Sarah, I tell myself.
Sandstone over limestone. Besides these “caves” the formations have created outlying bluffs in some places, big isolated hills of limestone with flat sandstone caps. One is Kerr’s Bluff, which amused a friend who knew me well. He was fond of joking about my name, saying, oh, yes, he had seen Kerr’s bluff. Maybe I amformed by this landscape. I’m bluffing myself about picking up that pink bead for Sarah. I’m capped with sandstone, but softer, more easily eroded, underneath.
© Kathryn Kerr