Located about four miles southeast of Peru, Indiana, sits one of the most majestic natural landmarks in the state. The Seven Pillars of the Mississinewa delight locals and tourists alike with its natural beauty. The site’s history as an important meeting place for Native Americans belonging to the Miami tribe makes it a significant cultural heritage resource as well. Descendants of the Miami tribe continue to value the site as a place of great spiritual inspiration.
The Seven Pillars, sometimes simply referred to as “The Cliffs,” were created by centuries of wind and water erosion to the limestone rock along the river’s edge. The results are breathtaking natural buttresses and alcoves carved into the river’s north bluff. The tall natural pillars rise about 60 feet above the river. Behind them, shallow caves, the deepest being about 10 feet, are carved out of the rock. The bluff above these natural elements is home to red cedar trees, juneberry, and shadbush.
The famed Frances Slocum Trail passes along the edge of the bluff. The trail links a number of important sites relating to the life of Slocum, who was famously captured by a band of Native Americans in Pennsylvania when she was just five years old. She was later raised by a kindly Miami couple and became wife to a Miami Chief in Indiana. The 25-mile trail begins a few miles north of Marion and ends in Peru. It passes sites including a monument to Slocum, the cemetery where she is buried, and the spot where her house once stood.
The Frances Slocum Trail crosses the heart of what was once Miami tribal lands. The Battle of the Mississinewa on December 18, 1812, between the United States Militia and Miami warriors, also took place along the trail. In fact, many Miami cultural heritage sites sit along the Mississinewa River. Another famed site is the Godfroy Cemetery, a Miami burial ground located along the river. The cemetery is named for Francis Godfroy, the last Miami war chief to inhabit the area.
Today, the Seven Pillars is a 148-acre nature preserve that runs along the south side of the river. The preserve is largely made up of beech and maple trees, along with large meadows. The pillars are best observed from the Mississinewa River’s south bank.
For the Miami tribe who once lived along the Mississinewa River, and in present-day Peru, the Seven Pillars were a sacred space. The tribe believed that the pillars were a “gateway to the other world,” a place symbolic of the awe and majesty of “The Great Father.” It was a commonly held tribal belief that the spirits abounded in this place – and could travel back and forth between the two worlds. Elders told children the story of the “little Indians” who lived in the grotto-like alcoves and nearby waters. These fairy-like spirits were said to help guide lost Miami boys back home to safety. Only those who had achieved the second sight were said to be able to see the mystical beings.
The stone ledge on the bluff above the pillar formation became a sacred gathering place for the tribe. Annual ceremonial dances and victory feasts also took place at the site. Council meetings took place in the alcoves where the spirits of ancestors supposedly could offer wisdom to the living. The site was also used as a gathering place to instruct the tribe’s young men on spiritual matters. Here, young men completed their passage from childhood to manhood.
The site also became a place to pass judgment on those who had committed crimes, and to execute the worst offenders by beheading. During the tribal wars between the Miami, Delaware, and Potawatomi tribes, the Miami were thought to have tortured enemy captives in front of the pillars, before they were killed on a funeral pyre.
The banks of the river near the Seven Pillars were also used occasionally as a camping ground for travelers, due to their proximity to a natural spring at the foot of the bluff. With the arrival of French traders to the area, the shallow caves behind the pillars became a commerce site, a place to trade furs for French goods. The highly superstitious French Catholic traders were said to be so spooked by the spirits present at the site that they carried religious icons into the caves to ward off the spirits of the dead.
It is no wonder, then, that the pillars have long held a reputation for being haunted. The site has been a longtime favorite among ghost hunters. Some more adventurous campers have even spent the night there, hoping for a glimpse of the eerie spirits. Many of these overnight visitors claim to have witnessed foggy figures haunting the alcoves and gliding along the waters of the Mississinewa. Most describe the experience as chilling.
Others find the place to be inspiring, ghostly apparitions notwithstanding. The Seven Pillars have been famously captured by Hoosier painters T. C. Steele (1847-1926) and Homer Davisson (1866-1957). Both artists were drawn to the site, not just for its natural beauty and scenic surroundings, but for the peace and tranquility found there.
Today, the Seven Pillars continue to be an important spiritual place for people with Miami ancestry. The Miami Nation of Indians holds an annual event at the forest across from the pillars to teach tourists about the history and culture of the Miami tribe. The program, known as “Miami Days at the Pillars,” includes crafts, children’s games, demonstrations, dancing, and drum performances.
The Seven Pillars continue to inspire visitors with their scenic beauty and fascinating history. To visit the natural landmark, take IN-124 east through Peru, then turn south on Frances Slocum Trail Rd. Travel about two miles to the site. To view the Seven Pillars from the river’s south bank, follow IN-124 to 300 E. Turn south, then east on Mississinewa Road. The viewing area is about 1.5 miles down the road.
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