STORY 7: Wampum Lake/Lago Wampum

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Wampum Lake forest preserve is located in south suburban Cook County near Thornton, Illinois. At 412-acres it includes the Wampum Lake Nature Preserve, a mosaic of sand seep, freshwater marsh, dry-mesic upland forest, wet floodplain forest and an eroding bluff community located along Thorn Creek which runs through the west side of the preserve and flows to the northwest side of the lake. The lake itself has nearly one mile of shoreline. The site includes a mix of creekside habitat, savannah, woodlands and floodplain forest and also has natural springs that create wet, marshy areas in the woods, particularly in spring.

Thorn Creek is a 20.8-mile-long tributary of the Little Calumet River that travels through Will and Cook Counties just south of Chicago. Thorn Creek flows northward about 20 miles from its origin in eastern Will County to its confluence with the Little Calumet River in southern Cook County, running along the way through the municipalities of University Park, Park Forest, South Chicago Heights, Chicago Heights, Glenwood, Thornton, and South Holland. Thorn Creek and its tributaries—Deer Creek, Butterfield Creek, and North Creek—form a 107 square mile watershed, according to a report by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). The Thorn Creek subwatershed encompasses approximately 32 miles (22.86 in Cook County and 8.92 in Will County) within the Little Calumet River watershed.

Wampum Lake Nature Preserve

In 2019, 380 acres of Wampum Lake was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, which provides the highest level of protection for land in the state. The nature preserve is home to four plant species currently listed as state-endangered, according to the IDNR. Common plant species found the nature preserve include sweet cicely, false nettle, black-clustered snakeroot and cinnamon fern; as well as several species of oak trees such as black oak, white oak and pin oak. While winding through Wampum Lake via footpaths, visitors may also spot a variety of birds such as white-breasted nuthatches, great-horned owls and downy woodpeckers; as well as different mammals including deer, racoons, eastern moles and beavers. The site also includes an osprey nesting platform. Since the 1990s, the Forest Preserves of Cook County has installed about 20 constructed osprey nesting platforms, and Friends of the Chicago River joined them starting in 2015, installing five more at the river-edge preserves.


According to the Village of Thornton Historical Society (VTHS), Wampum Lake was created in the 1950s when soil was removed to fill portions of the nearby Interstate-80 (I-80) Tollway. 

Excavations have revealed that this land was the home for indigenous people since at least 1100 A.D. Native American Tribes built a large village here in the early 14th century that supported nearly 2,000 people, according to the VTHS which co-sponsored an Illinois State Historical Society historical marker honoring the Indigenous Peoples and the Hoxie Farm in 2019. The historical marker states that “Archaeologists have found houses, cooking areas, and burial sites, as well as outer ditches or trenches that formed part of the village’s fortifications. By the 17th century, this area was part of the traditional homelands of the Council of Three Fires – the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi Tribes. Members of other tribes also traveled through and lived in the area as well, part of the migration of peoples through the crossroads that is the Chicago region that continues to this day.” 

The historical marker also notes that the property was acquired by John Hoxie acquired in the 1880s. Hoxie was an entrepreneur and cattleman working the Michigan Southern Railroad, which held controlling interest in the Chicago Stockyards. With plans for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Hoxie was certain the stockyards would relocate and he purchased 750 acres of land at this location. He ultimately built his country home and farm here, raising prize-winning cattle. When Hoxie died in 1896, his son Gilbert rented out the land to various farmers. 

What is Wampum?

Wampum are beads made from various white and purple mollusk shells which were and are still used by various Native nations throughout northeastern North America for ornamental or ceremonial use, according to the Ganondagan State Historic Site in New York. Wampum clearly had value as a trade item between the various Native peoples before European contact. But it was later on after European settlement of America that wampum began to be used like currency.

One of the most prized and often used mollusks for wampum beads is the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). This clam, which lives in the coastal waters of the northeastern United States, has a distinctive shell that yields the purple beads. Various whelk species have been used to create the white wampum including the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatus), Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica), Lightening Whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and Snow Whelk (Busycon Laeostomum). 

Mollusks (mussels) are also in the Chicago River system.  Mussels are an indicator species of water quality and filter water as they feed and breathe. An important component of the food web, mussels may be prey to mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, crayfish, and fish.

In the Palos region of southwest Cook County, fingernail clams from the Sphaeriidae family and a juvenile giant floater (Pyganodon grandis) were found in Mill Creek by aquatic biologists and researchers from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) in 2020. Mill Creek runs over two miles to the Cal-Sag Channel which connects the Little Calumet River to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, part of the Chicago River system. This type of survey is valuable in demonstrating the improvements in the Chicago River system.

The Chicago Tribune reports that “Of about 300 species of freshwater mussels in North America, about 10% are already extinct….The majority of what’s left are either threatened or endangered — and state or federally protected. Of the native species found in Illinois, the majority fall into a range from threatened to extinct, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The smallest mussel can be less than an inch, the larger ones topping 4½ inches. Some, like a hefty plain pocketbook mussel, could weigh as much as a small melon. Their age can be roughly determined by rings on their shells, like trees.”

In the Great Lakes invaise Zebra and quagga mussels arrived from Eastern European seas 30 years ago. To combat invasive mussels “….scientists are studying methods of genetic control — an approach that could spare other organisms from becoming collateral damage and potentially solve the scale problem,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Turtle restoration habitat restoration project

Since 2015, Friends has been working with the Forest Preserves of Cook County on turtle nesting habitat restoration projects at Wampum Lake as well as at Watersmeet Woods in Winnetka, Chipilly Woods in Northbrook, Skokie Lagoons in Glencoe, and Sag Quarries in Lemont. At Wampum and Chilpilly tracking studies of the turtles revealed that they moved to the restored areas the first season they were cleared of invasive species; at Wampum Lake these species were primarily honeysuckle. Not only does clearing the acres of invasive species help turtle reproduction but such cleared land also absorbs more water, helping with flooding and relieving pressure on the sewage system.