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John C. Fremont

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States ordered explorations into this new territory under numerous guises. There were military expeditions disguised as civil explorations and scientific expeditions disguised as military. About one such exploration, however, all parties were crystal clear: The motive for Lt. John C. Fremont’s exploration of the Des Moines River in July of 1841 was love.

Dashing and handsome John Fremont was just beginning his career as an Engineer Officer in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1841 when he met and fell in love with Jessie Benton, sixteen-year-old daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, the fiery senator from Missouri. The Senator was not pleased. He decided that the Lieutenant and his daughter needed a year or so to cool off.

Which may explain why Fremont inexplicably received prompt new orders from the Chief of Engineers: "Sir, you will repair without delay to the mouth of the Raccoon Fork of the Des Moines River...and make a survey of the river to its mouth."

Lieutenant Fremont carried out his orders, and was soon a thousand miles from Washington, traipsing down the Des Moines river, mapping, measuring, noting, listing, and collecting, much to the satisfaction of Senator Benton and his wife.

Too busy to think about love, you say? Not if you read the report on the Des Moines River Fremont submitted on his return. There are some maps, and some estimates of the possibilities of steamboat traffic, but the heart of the report rhapsodizes about the prairies and meadows and woods of fragrant wildflowers Fremont encountered. There was blazing star, coneflower, wild quinine, among the elm, ironwood, hackberry and wild plum. No engineer officer ever wrote a more lush, romantic report. Iowa sounded like Eden.

When Fremont returned from his expedition, he and Jessie eloped from under the nose of the Senator and were secretly married. The good Senator might have been suspicious had he read Fremont’s account—the entire report, except for the maps, is in Jessie's handwriting.

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.