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Burning of Saukenuk

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the summer of 1831, a year before the Black Hawk War of 1832 which ended with the defeat of Black Hawk and his followers, there was a prelude to the main event, a practice session, if you will.The family of Rinnah Wells and several other settlers in Rock Island County had encroached on Sauk Indian lands by 1831. When they discovered that Black Hawk, leading 800 warriors and 500 horses had crossed the Mississippi from Iowa and was headed for Saukenuk, they petitioned Illinois Governor Reynolds for help. Soon, 1,400 volunteers were on their way to Rock Island. At the same time, General Gaines left St. Louis with 500 Federal troops to reinforce the two companies garrisoned at Fort Armstrong.

The main body of troops reached Vandruff's Island near Saukenuk in a disorganized mass. They were so jammed up and mixed together, officers and men," said the official report, "That no man knew his own company or regiment, or scarcely himself." A cold driving rain did not help.

Meanwhile, Black Hawk's band had quietly slipped back across the Mississippi, creating even more frustration. As the official report put it, "the enemy having escaped, the volunteers were determined to be revenged on something." So, they burned Saukenuk to the ground, even though the homes would have provided a comfortable shelter against a night outside in the miserable rain.

It was not their last mistake. The army then moved to where downtown Rock Island is today. Here, a passing steamboat stampeded all 1,600 horses. Rounding up the horses took another three days, during which they used local citizen's fence rails as firewood.

The cold, soggy, soaked army kept its spirits up, however, and the whole affair ended with a grand victory parade past the embers of Saukenuk, during which they marched, twenty abreast, across Rinnah Wells’ fields, destroying his entire wheat crop.

But what were they celebrating? It was not a battle—there was no enemy. It was not even a skirmish. And even though it served as a prelude to the Black Hawk War the following year, it was very certainly not a dry run.

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.