Kickapoo State Recreation Area and the surrounding area have a long and rich cultural history. Archaeological excavations have provided evidence of a prehistoric village on the Middle Fork River near the park that was home to Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures between 500 and 1500 A.D.
A Kickapoo village was located at the confluence of the Middle Fork and Salt Fork rivers. It was in this village that Kennekuk, the "Kickapoo Prophet" lived.
Kennekuk became a religious leader espousing a modified form of Christianity that incorporated elements of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. A staunch advocate of temperance, Kennekuk became a mediator between local Native Americans and European settlers. He was a signer of several Indian treaties with the United States.
European settlers were drawn to the area by the presence of salt springs, called salines, which were discovered in 1819. Wells were dug to obtain salt brine, which was boiled to obtain salt. Salt works were operated by a variety of operators until 1848, producing, at the height of operation, about 120 bushels of salt per week. One of the original iron rendering kettles can be seen in a small memorial at Salt Kettle Rest Area on I-74.
Among the early settlers in the area were John Cox, Indian fighter and scout during the Black Hawk War, and his wife, Polly. Both are buried in a small pioneer cemetery overlooking the former site of their farmstead cabin near the entrance to Campground Fox. Additional settlers from the area are interred in the All Hands Cemetery, just east of the main park pavilion.
Between 1850 and about 1940, much of the Kickapoo State Park area was surface-mined for coal. In fact, Vermilion County is said to be the birthplace of commercial surface-mining practices and one of the first areas to use mechanization for surface mining. The spoil piles and mine pits left behind after nearly a century of mining were part of the legacy from which nature reclaimed the land to transform Kickapoo State Recreation Area into the outdoor playground it is today.