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The Man with the Iron Hand

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Fates have always enjoyed their little practical jokes as much as the next man. That may be why they allowed Henri de Tonti, the son of an Italian banker, physically frail and minus a left hand, to end up defending the whole Mississippi Valley for King Louis the 14th.

Tonti was a member of LaSalle's expedition down the Mississippi River in 1681, during which LaSalle claimed the territory for France, and named it Louisiana to honor the king. On the Illinois River near present-day Peoria LaSalle built Fort Crevecoeur to protect the new lands, put Tonti in charge of a garrison of soldiers, and left for new explorations.

When LaSalle eventually returned, he found only ruins, and a strange message in French: "We are all savages." The soldiers had mutinied. LaSalle, assuming Tonti was dead, left once more.

But Tonti had escaped and gone to live among the Illini Indians, who were being hard pressed by the encroaching Iroquois from the east. True to his orders, Tonti banded together the remnants of the Illinois tribes and resisted the invaders. His left arm sported an iron hand which the Iroquois feared. When a party of Iroquois offered to make peace with Tonti if only they could eat a few Illinis, Tonti kicked their gifts away and led his followers to a tall rock along the Illinois River. On this rock he built Fort St. Louis, and kept the Iroquois at bay, steadfast and true, awaiting further orders. 

LaSalle, however, never returned. In 1685 he was murdered near the Gulf of Mexico by his own men. In 1704, King Louis, tired of the fighting between French and Indians, ordered Frenchmen to have no more dealings with them. Only then did Henri de Tonti leave his post and disappear.

In delaying the westward advance of the Iroquois for so long, this little known "man with the iron hand" and a steel sense of duty did more to shape the history of this valley than all the rest.

Yet the other explorers, Marquette and Joliet, LaSalle and Hennepin, all have cities or parks named after them, but Tonti's name exists only on a small canyon in Starved Rock State Park near his Fort St. Louis.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.