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The Noble Savage

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

American writers were faced with a real problem in the early 19th century. Literary taste dictated that Indian characters had to be "noble savages," idealized children of the forest. At the same time, readers were coveting those very forests, and expected plots in which whites were victorious.

James Fenimore Cooper solved the problem by inventing good Indians—the last of the Mohicans, whose passing we could mourn—and bad Indians, the Iroquois, whose defeat we could cheer. William Gilmore Simms began his novels with good Indians, who then proceeded to discover liquor, turning them into drunken savages who deserved extermination.

Our own Rock Island example of this is Black Hawk, whose name appears today on streets, banks, colleges and businesses, but whose land we needed back in 1833.

Following his defeat in the Black Hawk War in 1832, Black Hawk was taken as a captive on a tour of the east to show him the might of the United States. The thousands of people who flocked to see him did not quite know how to respond. He was a defeated enemy, but, at age 65, he was every bit the noble savage.

President Jackson, who had refused George Davenport's plea to let Black Hawk remain at his village of Saukenuk, gave Black Hawk a sword. Henry Clay gave him a fancy cane. When Black Hawk arrived in Boston, John Quincy Adams presented him with several medals.

Writers, however, were used to handling the dilemma. A reporter for a Baltimore newspaper composed a poem to Black Hawk showed what could be done. Here's stanza one, the noble savage:

He fought for independence, too.

He struck for freedom with a few

Unconquered souls whose battle cry

Was "Red men, save your land, or die."

Having taken care of the noble savage, the poet reminds us to be kind to the captive chief as we send him packing. "He fought in vain," the poet says, "for 'tis decreed, His race must fall, and yours succeed." A useful rationalization, especially for those eastern readers who had been thinking about heading for Rock Island to seek their fortunes.

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.