Mapping Native American Trails
Gazette Article by: Chris Fullerton
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1998
Winnetka (“beautiful land”), Indian Hill, the Skokie Lagoons—throughout the village one can find reminders of the area’s earliest inhabitants in the names of places once settled by Native Americans. One resident of Winnetka, Albert Frederick Scharf, looked for more than just names to mark the early presence of Native Americans. He spent most of his life searching for their trails and artifacts.
Born in Germany in 1847, Scharf’s family immigrated to America in 1855 and settled in Peru, Illinois. His formal education ended at the age of 12. When his father died three years later, he became the sole provider for his mother and four siblings. Scharf moved the family to Chicago the following year to earn better wages.
Despite a limited education and a life spent working at various jobs, Scharf’s primary avocation was researching and documenting Native American villages in the Chicago area and the trails that connected them. His first lesson in archeology came from a Dr. Seebach in Peru, for whom Scharf worked when he was 15 years old. Dr. Seebach, who spent his spare time visiting former sites of Kaskasia tribe villages in the Starved Rock area, had assembled one of the largest relic collections in Illinois. From that early exposure, Scharf developed the skills that enabled him to draw more than 80 maps illustrating the archeology of each locale that contained Native American settlements.
Scharf drew his meticulous maps while he traveled the area by bicycle in 1898. They were so accurately rendered that researchers from Loyola University used them 90 years later to help conduct a survey of Native American settlements in Cook County.
David Keene, archeology instructor at Loyola and president of Archeological Associates, Inc., carefully studied Scharf’s maps in 1988. He noticed that when one of Scharf’s maps was superimposed over a modern geological survey map, Scharf’s map was 95 percent accurate. In 1925 Scharf donated his maps and notes to the Chicago Historical Society.
Scharf reportedly owned thousands of tribal artifacts—mostly stone arrowheads, axes, and knives. Today, very few are accounted for. Keene explains that many years ago the artifacts were found in the basement of the Chicago Historical Society. However, they were not considered significant and were given to the Field Museum. There the relics were placed in the educational department where they were handled by thousands of children. When Keene learned of their existence, he was able to obtain approximately 25 items attributed to Scharf’s collection. He has carefully preserved them.
By turning a childhood hobby into a lifelong avocation, Scharf produced a wealth of information about the early inhabitants of this area. Of his hobby he wrote, “My map of Indian trails was begun in the year 1898, as an oil painting upon canvas. The collection of relics followed that up. Then came the demand for a written description of my work, which is given in brief language and geographical illustration.”
Albert Scharf lived the last 17 of his 82 years in Winnetka at 558 Willow Road and 509 Cherry Street.