It’s rare to find a place in Illinois that seems untouched by time. Practically everywhere we turn, there’s a house, a road, a power line, a fence, a freshly planted field. Standing on the hill prairie overlooking the Mississippi River at Sinsinawa Bluffs, it’s easy to imagine you’re the first Caucasian person to ever lay eyes on the scenic river valley unfolding below you.
A train horn blowing in the distance reminds me that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad lies 100 feet down at the base of the bluff just out of sight, and a closer inspection of the distant horizon reveals several farms across the Mississippi River in Iowa. But the illusion is easy to maintain when I turn my attention back to the land on which I’m currently standing.
The site now known as Sinsinawa Bluffs lies west of Galena at the confluence of the Mississippi and Sinsinawa Rivers at the end of a one-lane dead-end road. A 100-foot high limestone bluff leaps up from the floor of the Mississippi River to support an impressive array of natural and cultural features, including mature oak woods, remnant hill prairies, rare wild-flowers, endangered plant species, and ancient Native American burial mounds. And now, thanks to a conservation easement donated to JDCF by the Boyd Family, 116 acres of this incredible place are protected forever.
“How could we not protect the property?” asks Bruce Boyd, who co-owns the property with his sister, Ann, and his brother, Keit, and their spouses. “The spectac-ular natural communities and archaeological sites have to be preserved. Stand on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi and Sinsinawa Rivers, the prairie grasses bending in the wind and the burial mound stretching behind you… you cannot help but be moved.”
The Boyd Family’s history with the property began in the 1980s when the three siblings’ parents bought a 50% interest in Sinsinawa Bluffs property and an adjoining farm. Over time, the Boyds acquired 100% interest in a total of 200 acres. “When we acquired the half interest in the property, we had no idea the property had such significant natural and archaeologi-cal features,” explains Bruce. “We asked former JDCF Director of Land Protection, Chris Kirkpatrick, to do an inventory of the land and he shared with us the existence of burial mounds, remnant hill prairies, and high-quality woodland communities. We felt so fortunate to be stewards of such a treasure.”
The human story of Sinsinawa Bluffs goes back much further than the Boyd Family’s arrival in Jo Daviess County in the 1980s, or even Euro-American settlers’ arrival in the region in the early 1800s. Nine ancient Native American mounds can still be found on the bluff tops overlooking the Mississippi River dating back to the Middle Woodland Period (200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.). The first Euro-American to describe “Sinsinawa Mound Group A” was W.B. Nickerson in 1896, a surveyor working for the railroad that also described the mound groups at JDCF’s Casper Bluff, Portage, and Keough preserves.
Several modern-day Native American tribes trace their ancestries back to the Woodland Cultures that built and maintained these mounds over a thousand years ago. Under this conservation easement, descendants of the ancient mound-builders are permitted to access the property for ceremonial and preservation purposes. It’s likely that Sinsinawa Bluffs contains other ancient burial sites in addition to these mounds.
The Boyds’ vision for the property is simple: “We want our family, in partnership with JDCF, to be great stewards of the land. That means not just protecting it (with a conservation easement) but improving and restoring it.” Beginning this fall, the Invasive Species Strike Team will begin clearing non-native multiflora rose and Japanese barberry from the property. Regular land stewardship practices like invasive species control and prescribed fire is critical to ensuring Sinsinawa Bluffs and the resources it contains endure it perpetuity. “We appreciate the passion and energy that JDCF brings to this work,” says Bruce.