This historic artifact, rediscovered in a box at the Smithsonian, holds within it an array of fascinating tales.
The Peoria Falcon is an ancient copper plate used as an ornament—and possibly armament—worn by a Native American dancer in the Illinois River Valley more than a thousand years ago. Like every historic artifact, it tells several stories. This copper falcon is the key to seven sacred stories involving plate tectonics and glaciation, the first inhabitants of the Illinois River Valley, ancient trade routes and the river itself. It is a glimpse into culture, the arts and astounding craftsmanship. It tells the story of Native Americans and European immigrants, America’s migration west, and early economic development. It holds within it the story of museum politics and the rebirth of a culture.
Two hundred million years ago, the earth’s continents were swimming in the swirling void of ocean-sky. They still are. Like an ancient turtle, North America swims in the ocean. Imagine a rock the size of the Americas crashing into Africa and Europe… the great curve of Africa fits nicely between North and South America. Not once, but twice, these continents swam together and pulled apart.
When continents collide, one slides under, and the other is pushed up. Geologists call this tectonic movement an anticline—a wrinkle in the crust of the earth. When the Appalachian Mountains were created, there was a smaller wrinkle here in the middle of the continent. There were earthquakes and volcanoes. In what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a volcano erupted, casting molten magma up from the fiery core of the earth. The copper that forms this falcon was produced more than 200 million years ago as Turtle Island crashed into Europa.
One hundred thousand years ago, there was a winter that only recently ended. Mountainous piles of snow accumulated, falling faster than it could melt, until huge walls of ice built up and slowly moved south. Each time this wall of ice migrated south, it flattened everything in its path like a giant bulldozer. This is why Illinois is so flat.
As the ice melted back, boulders and gravel carried from the far north were left behind. Pieces of copper picked up in northern Michigan were carried here by the glaciers. This is one theory of how the copper arrived, a glacial erratic. But there is another possibility…
III. Trade Routes
As the glaciers regressed, the first people moved into these fertile fields to hunt and fish, to till the rich, alluvial soil, and grow the food that still feeds the world. The rivers became trading routes. The mound-building cultures rose up and peaked about 1,000 years ago. One of the largest cities in the world was just south of here: Cahokia. Dixon Mounds, Chillicothe and Peoria’s mounds were outposts of the empire.
Today, we talk about the Tigris-Euphrates as the birthplace of civilization, but this is not the whole story. About the same time agriculture was developing in the Mid-East, it was also beginning here in the American Midwest. Where the Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers come together, the mound builders grew sunflower and burdock. They harvested milkweed silk and wove it into fine cloth.
Some scholars might argue with this assertion, but there is clear evidence that Peoria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People have lived here for more than 12,000 years! They came here because of the rich opportunities provided by the river.
They traded material goods and cultural ideas with tribes from the four corners of Turtle Island: sea shells were transported up the Mississippi from the Gulf; obsidian and flint were brought in from the Rockies and Ohio Valley; and copper was imported from the Keweenaw Peninsula and from the south.
If the tribes of the Illinois Valley were importing copper and flint, what were they exporting? The same things we export today: corn and beans. In exchange for our crops, the tribes along the river would purchase flint for arrowheads and copper for ornamentation.
IV. Cultural Craftsmen
Whether the copper was imported through trade routes or brought down by the glaciers is unclear. But one thing is certain: the artistry of this falcon is exquisite.
Imagine a lump of raw copper pounded between two stones. The embossed eye, wings, feathers and spotted breast give the falcon rich detail and three dimensions. Long before Picasso and modern art, this falcon encompassed abstract symbolism, exaggerated detail and bilateral asymmetry. The details of the eye stripe, speckled chest and talons clearly identify this bird as a peregrine falcon. It is aesthetically inspiring and scientifically accurate.
Falcons are the fastest bird and a fierce bird of prey—a fitting symbol for a warrior. The Peoria Falcon is believed to have been part of his dance regalia. It is thick enough to offer protection and may have been used as armament, but most archeologists think it was part of a headdress worn in ceremonial dances.
Because its excavation was not done professionally, the falcon was stumbled upon while building a pottery factory. We are not sure if it was buried with its owner—a gift for the dead to take to the afterworld. What we do know is that the falcon slept in the earth near the banks of the Illinois River for a thousand years.
V. Clay Pots and Whiskey Barons
In the early 1800s, as America was wandering west, a New England pottery followed the settlers over the Alleghenies. A geologist was hired to scour the Midwest, looking for the best sources of clay. Due to its glacial deposits of fine silt, they found good clay in Illinois.
About the same time the American Pottery Company was built, folks began distilling alcohol from corn. Peoria became the Whiskey Capital of the World. At one time, the city held more than 20 distilleries and 20 breweries.
Peoria was blessed with fertile soil to grow corn, oak forests for making barrels, vast glacial aquifers for clear, clean spring water, and Irish and German immigrants who knew how to brew beer and make whiskey. Clay whiskey jugs from Peoria have been found on recent excavations along the Oregon Trail. Just as the mound builders exported corn in clay pots, the whiskey barons exported corn whiskey in clay jugs.
When they built the pottery factory along the Illinois River, they stumbled upon this amazing artifact, the Peoria Falcon. The ancient relic quickly became the symbol of our modern city, but it is here that the story gets cloudy.
VI. Provenance and Museum Politics
One of the men who helped build the pottery, Sidney Pulsifer, was from Hennepin, Illinois, just upstream from Peoria. His friend was a schoolteacher who later proved himself as a soldier in the Civil War, Major John Wesley Powell. Legend has it that Pulsifer gave this artifact to Powell as a gift. About this time, Powell began to teach at Illinois Wesleyan University in Normal, Illinois.
When the Smithsonian Institution offered Powell a position, he took his collection with him, and the Peoria Falcon traveled to Washington DC. There are two documents that track the movement and ownership of the Peoria Falcon—but they do not tell the same story. One alludes to the idea that the falcon was a gift; the other says Powell found the artifact.
The research of Kelvin Sampson, an archeologist with the Illinois State Museum, provides clear evidence that the falcon was indeed a gift from Sidney Pulsifer. Though Sampson looked for documentation, it is still not clear exactly where the Peoria Falcon was found. Most evidence points to the area of Mary and Caroline streets, where the American Pottery Company was built in 1858.
When Peoria began to prepare for its 300th anniversary as a European outpost, a consortium of educators, historians and Native Americans began to research Peoria’s history and organize a year of special events. The Peoria Falcon was rediscovered in a box in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
As part of the Tricentennial, a group of American Indians began organizing one of the first powwows to be held in Peoria since the forced removal of the Illiniwek Indians in the early 1800s. Like many eastern tribes, the Peoria were forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Modern tribal elders were contacted and invited to the powwow. Native people of the many tribes who call Peoria home were instrumental in organizing what became an annual event: the Return to Pimiteoui Powwow.
As an outgrowth of this cultural revival, local historian Dr. Peter Couri sparked a campaign to arrange for the Peoria Falcon’s return. The Peoria Riverfront Museum, formerly Lakeview Museum, has been a partner of the Smithsonian Institution since 2000. The contracts were signed and a special display was built so the Peoria Falcon could come home. It was then proudly displayed just a few miles from where it was crafted, worn in tribal dances, buried, and later rediscovered.
If the Peoria Falcon could speak, the stories it might tell would include those of plate tectonics and volcanoes, great sheets of ice creeping down from the north, the great rivers of America as highways for commerce, the artistry of skilled craftsmen, the elaborate ceremonies of a rich culture, the modern development of Peoria and the relationships between institutions for cultural understanding. The story that is still being written is the story of a culture rising up and reclaiming its heritage—a celebration of a past that bodes well for our shared futures. iBi
Brian “Fox” Ellis is a professional storyteller, author and riverlorian for the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. He and his wife run The Twinflower Inn, a bed and breakfast in Bishop Hill, Illinois. He dedicates this story to Elida Lakota, who gifted him with a replica she made, and the Return to Pimiteoui Powwow, which inspired this story. He is also indebted to archeologist Kelvin Sampson for his research and review of this article.