A BOTTLE OF GHOSTS: Chief Blinking Eye and the Indian Cemetery
If you travel west on Lawrence Avenue beyond the Harlem Avenue outskirts of the city, the houses and strip malls soon give way to sprawling forest preserves on the south side of the road. These preserves stretch far to the south and are some of the most beautiful among the 700,000 acres of the Forest Preserve District holdings, as the stately Des Plaines River runs through them, and the preserves here draw tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Though most come to enjoy hiking, canoeing, sports on the wide fields and picnics with families and organizations, others have come to these woods, sometimes famously, on grim errands. These are the woods, after all, where John Wayne Gacy dumped at least four of his thirty-three victims, having lived just a few blocks away on Summerdale Avenue before his arrest in December 1978. These woods, too, are where the naked bodies of young teens John and Anton Schuessler and Robert Peterson were found in 1955. Their murderer, a stable hand named Kenneth Hansen, was not convicted until forty years after the deed.
Chicago newspapers through the years have been dotted, too, with stories of suicides in these woods—businessmen and family men who left the neighboring houses on evening walks, never to return.
Despite the lingering pall from these tragedies, there is an ethereal shine to these woods, too. Anyone driving west on nearby Irving Park Road will see—in every season—a line of people with plastic jugs at a nondescript well pump just past Cumberland Avenue, for many believe this pump taps a magical spring of healing water. Some also believe these preserves are home to wild men or bigfoot-like creatures, the reports of them sporadic but reaching well back into the nineteenth century. Others believe the flowing waters of the Des Plaines River create a conduit for spiritual and paranormal activity, much of which has been reported throughout the preserves.
No part of these woods, however, is more magical than the lands—and burial ground—once claimed by the family of Chicago’s most influential Native American leader, Chief Alexander Robinson.
The burial ground of the Robinson family is today part of the Forest Preserve District’s northwest side holdings and is easily accessed by pulling into the site’s own wayside at Lawrence Avenue and East River Road. At one time, travelers on a nearby highway were drawn here by a sign inviting sightseers to “a real Indian cemetery,” but today only a Forest Preserve District sign at the wayside and a battered showcase full of worn and faded documents hint at the wealth of history at this storied site.
Alexander Robinson is also known as Chief Che-Che-Pin-Qua (“Blinking Eye”) and was one of the most active and important players in pre-founding Chicago. A leader of the Potawatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, Robinson profoundly enhanced relations between the native and early white residents of the city in a time when stresses between them threatened new wars at every turn. Best known for ferrying Anglos to Michigan—and safety—during the time of the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, Robinson was awarded by the Treaty of Prairie du Chien a large segment of land and an annuity for his role in the negotiations and the support given to settlers during the early years of Chicago. According to Chicago-area archaeologist and Robinson family historian Dan Melone, however, Robinson was also given this land because he helped the government secure the lead mines in Galena, Illinois, thus giving the government control over the mines and the procurement of lead for the production of ammunition.
But the land awarded by the treaty, a bountiful expanse of prairie and woodlands along the Des Plaines River, became the family farmsteads and burial ground. The farmsteads remained into the mid-twentieth century, when the last of the family homes burned in a 1955 fire that led, eventually, to the bulldozing and torching of the remaining farm structures. And while the burials of Robinson, his second wife, Catherine Chevalier, his son, David, and a number of descendants remain, the original Victorian marble and concrete markers have disappeared, replaced by a single stone boulder bearing the story of Alexander Robinson and his ties to this land and to Chicago and American history.
But very little of Robinson’s real story is recorded here. And neither is the legend of the family’s troubled tenure on this land.
Hailing from the Perth area of Scotland, Robinson’s ancestors were Highlanders who traced their genealogy back to a Viking called Ivan the Black, who at one time aspired to invade England. The king caught wind of it and sent his people with money and gifts to try to hold Ivan off. Ivan greeted the king’s men, confiscated the booty and cut off the heads of messengers, sending back a message to their king that read, “Do not ever send a second in command to do the job of a King. The next head rolling will be yours.” The king packed up and fled the country, leaving Ivan to walk in without a fight.[i]
Unlike his ancestor, Chicago’s Robinson became known for his peacemaking. According to Melone, Robinson created and fostered alliances between the native peoples of the prairie and the encroaching white settlers throughout the turbulent nineteenth century. In addition to his work in Chicago, Robinson was called on occasion to Springfield, Illinois, by up-and-coming attorney Abraham Lincoln to consult on various land trials, as Robinson was highly informed about Chicago property and knew all the key players of the day.
Robinson moved among local, state and national circles with ease. At one point, he was hired by the federal government to take thirty-five men in pursuit of Chief Blackhawk. The team left on the trail of the ferocious leader, trailing him into Wisconsin, where he was brought to his demise along the Mississippi River bluffs.
Though Robinson lived in town (in a home near present-day Schiller Park), his descendants lived a robust life on the land now popularly known as “Robinson Woods.” But as they farmed and canned and raised their children, as the rest of their neighbors did, unsavory legends of the Robinson family abounded throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Locals often talked of rowdy parties, drunken brawls and carousing on the enigmatic “Indian land.” Stories even circulated that “debaucherous” Indians had burned down the last house during a particularly devilish escapade, or that the City of Chicago had staged a fire to force the ne’er-do-well Robinsons off the site. All of this, it turns out, is untrue.
Ironically, according to Verlyn “Buzz” Spreeman, authorized historian of the Robinson family (and himself a Robinson descendent), most of the family followed Alexander’s lead and did not drink. Robinson himself was a teetotaler and never touched liquor, though he ran the quite prosperous first tavern in Chicago, the inn at Wolf’s Point at the mouth of the Chicago River. The only one of the descendants who did drink was one of Robinson’s great-grandsons, a colorful character who was often found sleeping in the basement sof local homes and businesses, including Schiller Park’s Great Escape Restaurant, still in operation today. As for the mysterious conflagration, it was a kitchen fire, started accidentally by an aging Catherine Boettcher, one of Robinson’s granddaughters and the last descendant to live on the land.
Along with his abstinence, another surprising fact about Alexander Robinson was that he was a Roman Catholic. During the drafting of the Treaty of Prairie Du Chien in 1829, Robinson tried, without success, to have six sections of North Side Chicago land deeded to the church.
Today, the Robinsons have mysteriously vanished from the land deeded “forever” to the descendants of one of the most influential personalities in Chicago’s history. All that remains are a few farm furrows, visible after controlled burns, a rusted section of farm fence here and there and a boulder to mark the remains of the old family cemetery. Where the tombstones went no one knows. Where the property title went was anyone’s guess—until recently, when archaeologist Dan Melone recovered the stone fragments from a warehouse at the Illinois State Archives in Springfield, bringing them back to the chief’s hometown of Schiller Park and returning them to his descendants.
Today, after more than a century as the centerpiece of tribal ceremony, impromptu celebration and everyday life, the remains of the Robinson family farms lie mixed with the soil of what is today Robinson, or Che-che-pin-qua Woods. There, a dozen yards from Lawrence Avenue and its manicured homes, the Robinson family marker stands, though the actual burial site is unknown by the public. Two benches invite visitors to rest here and reflect on the chief’s influence, told in the stone’s inscription:
In 1973, one of Robinson’s great-grandsons died, and sanitation officials worked to block his burial at the Robinson gravesite. Thereafter, peculiar events began to be reported by visitors to Robinson Woods, and rumors of paranormal phenomena spread quickly.
These firsthand accounts ranged from the sighting of “Indian” faces and strange lights among the trees to the unmistakable sound of tom-tom drums and the chopping of wood, to a sudden and pungent scent of lilacs at the Robinson gravesite, even in winter.
Among various investigations conducted at the site over the years, one of the most compelling was conducted by students from Northeastern Illinois University, which at the time offered a course of study in parapsychology. That investigation yielded some interesting evidence in favor of witnesses’ allegations, including audio tape recordings of the beating of drums. In addition, numerous investigations have produced some especially compelling photographic images of the site, a site which is known for producing visual evidence. In further testimony, Uri Geller’s Unexplained magazine in recent years printed several photographs of Robinson Woods taken by Clarendon Hills resident James Hunter that seem to include human-like forms nestled among the trees.
Psychics claim to experience vivid visions at Che-che-pin-qua Woods. Lucy Solis, a southwest suburban student of Native American descent, reported having at least two “vision dreams” of the site. One happened while visiting the physical location, and a second occurred during sleep. During the first, Solis beheld a medicine man about five feet, eight inches tall wearing a round brimstone hat with a gray feather on the side and a worn jacket over dark trousers. He spoke silent and foreign words to her. She wrote them down and took them to the professor of her Native American Studies course at Moraine Valley Community College. She said, “My words weren’t gibberish but had meaning. The words were similar to ‘Washnita Taka Hielo.’ The medicine man pointed to me and his chest repeating these words to me. My instructor said he was speaking Lakota.”
Working from her instructor’s translation, Solis interpreted the words, “Go on thy sacred path,” as having a personal meaning for her—which made perfect sense to a student who at the time was engrossed in tracing her Native American ancestry. A later dream brought a supporting, similar message: “Kashniwa Taka Hey Washnita,” “Go sacred younger one. Go sacred on thy path.” Why there should be a Lakota presence at this Potawatomi memorial ground is an unanswerable question, one that—at least for Solis—in no way undermines the vitality of the message.
What lies in store for the “Indian lands” of Robinson Woods in anyone’s guess. As the chief’s descendants work to recover the land from the Forest Preserve District, one only hopes that Robinson and his departed loved ones are guiding them to success.
Chief Alexander Robinson and his beautiful land, now called Robinson Woods, was the inspiration for our Che Che Pin Qua fragrance, which aspires to honor the peacemaker Robinson and to celebrate the stunning expanse which bears his name. We incorporated, among other notes, the fresh ferns that cover the forest floor in the summer and the smell of lilac, said to haunt the gravesite of the great chief and his family.
Despite the glaring absence of Robinsons here, the preserve and the burial ground are considered extremely sacred ground by the Robinson family descendants and Native Americans as a whole. Both groups ask your profound respect if you visit. They ask that you do not litter, remove historic artifacts or feed the deer, whose digestive systems cannot handle human food.