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War Drums

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Elizabeth Rumple was only seven years old the night the Indian drums began.

Elizabeth's family was living on the farm her German grandparents had homesteaded back in 1850, not far from Dubuque. The land had once belonged to the Meskwaki, Sauk, and Iowa Indians, but they had mostly been relocated. There were only a handful of other settlers in the surrounding valley in 1865. Life was peaceful if isolated. There was little contact with the outside world.

Still, when the drums began that spring night, worried settlers gathered to recount stories of Indian attacks on similar Iowa and Minnesota communities. The 1862 Sioux uprising in Western Minnesota was still fresh in memory.

For two nights, the drums played. The settlers stayed inside those nights. When the drums began a third night, the men decided to act. Women and children were sent to a big rock house near the Mississippi where they would be safe from attack. The men would keep watch, and at the first sign of a raid, they would make a stand at the rock house.

Work in the fields stopped. Inside the rock house, babies cried and children soon tired of games and began fighting.

Then, suddenly, on the fourth evening, the drums stopped. No drums all day or night. The stopped as mysteriously as they had begun. There had been no Indian raids. No Indians at all.

Two months later a traveling salesman passed through the valley. The settlers told him about the drums. "Oh," he replied, "did you hear them? One of Ed Brown's boys a few miles up the road got a job playing with one of those fancy bands in Dubuque. He was home for a few days practicing on his new drums, but he had to leave. Too bad you won't get to hear him anymore. He's a good drummer."

There is no record of what happened next, but I have an idea. I grew up among Germans in southern Minnesota, so it wouldn't surprise me if the Rumples and the other settlers got out their accordions one night and surrounded Ed Brown's farm.

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.