Humans first arrived in the Loess Hills area soon after most of the loess sediment was deposited, around 11,000 B.C. to 8,500 BC.  These so-called Paleoindians were nomadic hunters of bison and other large game.  The Archaic peoples that followed from 8,500 BC to 800 BC were nomadic hunter-gathers but made greater use of semi-permanent base camps and smaller seasonal camps. The Woodland Indians (800 BC to 1300 AD) were more sedentary, living in small hamlets of structures that were earth-covered or wattle-and-daub (woven lattice of wooden strips—wattle– that was daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw).  These people made pottery, hunted deer and small game, cultivated corn and squash, and gathered wild berries and seeds. They prospered for approximately 300 years, disappearing from the archaeological record around 1300 AD due to extended drought, according to some experts, or because the threats of Oneota Indian raiders (predecessors of the Ioway and Otoe tribes), according to others.

The Oneota were about the only Indians roaming the hills from 1300 AD to until the 1700s.  Then the Ioway Indians (called Ayauway by Lewis and Clark) and ancestors of the Pawnee began to appear.  Hunting parties from the Otoe and Omaha tribes that lived on the east side of the Missouri River also started venturing to the Iowa side and into the Hills. The nomadic Dakota Sioux traveled the river, roving the territory on both sides.  In 1837, the Potawatomi[1] Indians were relocated from Indiana and Illinois to Missouri and ultimately to this part of Iowa.  They remained there with their great war chief, Waubonsie[2], until 1846-48, when, in response to pressures from growing pioneer settlements, they were moved to Northeast Kansas. Bill’s father, William G. Blackburn grew up not far from the center property, and during his youth often found arrowheads and other Native American artifacts in the ravines and creek beds that bound the property.

On July 16, 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed this part of the hills.  Clark recorded in his journal: “This prairie I call the Ball pated (sic) prairie from a range of ball hills parrell (sic) to the river from 3 to 6 miles distant & extends as far up the down as I can see.” At that time the Loess Hills had remained generally treeless except for a few oak savannahs due to the drier climate and repeated prairie fires.   Artist George Catlin traveling by steamboat up the Missouri River in 1832 went ashore to climb the Loess Hills and described the place as one where a “thousand velvet-covered hills go tossing and leaping down with steep or graceful declivities.”

The area around the center property and the village of Thurman, Iowa, nearby was settled in 1845-46 by five Mormon families who had come down from Kanesville, IA (now Council Bluffs), a way-stop for Brigham Young’s mass exodus from Nauvoo (Hancock County), IL to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah.  The Mormons had been driven out of Illinois following the assassination of their leader, Joseph Smith, in 1844.  One of those Mormon emigrants, George Forney, William R. Blackburn’s paternal grandmother’s great-grandfather (whom the Potawatomi affectionately called “Graybeard”), was the first person to legally acquire the western portion of the sustainability center grounds from the US Government in 1858 at age 38. When the Potawatomis were moved to Kansas in the late 1840s, George was asked by them to care for their platform burial grounds that stood atop the hill just to the east of the center entrance.  The center property still shows evidence of a bricked hand-dug well, the limestone foundation of an old home, and several “dug-outs”— a blacksmith shop, barn and storage building built into the banks of the loess by the pioneers.

[1] Sometimes spelled “Pottawattamie” or “Pottawatomie.” The name is a traditional word meaning “Fire Keepers” or “Keepers of the Council Fires”.

[2] Sometimes spelled “Waubonsee” or “Wabaunsee”.