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Rumors and Promises

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No historian is quite certain why the Sauk Indian leader, Black Hawk, broke a promise to remain on the Iowa side of the Mississippi in April of 1832. He must have known that the Americans would confront him with overwhelming force. What is certain is that he and a thousand followers, men women and children, did cross the river at Oquawka, Illinois, that April, and head north toward his former village, Saukenuk.

He was met with an army of some three thousand Federal troops and Illinois volunteers, pursued up the Rock River into Wisconsin, in what came to be known as the Black Hawk War, but was instead a massacre. Black Hawk's band was trapped on August first, 1832, at Bad Axe, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi River. Only about 300 Sauk escaped with their lives. Black Hawk was captured and sent to prison.

Why try anything so foolhardy? A prominent Meskwaki chief, Tama, who witnessed the war from his home just below present-day Chippiannock Cemetery, gave his explanation when it was all over.

The Sauk Indians had a choice of listening to British rumors or American promises. President Jackson had promised that the Sauk and other tribes throughout northern Illinois could remain on their tribal lands as long as they wished, so long as the United States government owned the land.

The British, however, who were still trying to stir up trouble against the Americans in 1832, told the Sauk Indians some distressing news about what the Americans were going to do. The Americans were going to take all the Sauk males, and "deprive them of their courage" with a very simple operation. Then, the Americans were going to import slaves from the south, give all the Sauk women and girls to the slaves, and raise a stock of slaves just like cattle.

Chief Tama was contemptuous of these foreign fables, as he called them, but they were widely believed among Black Hawk's band. That, Tama said, is why Black Hawk began such a desperate war.

It was the wrong choice for the Sauk. Had they listened to American promises instead of British rumors, they might well have been able to remain in northern Illinois for, perhaps, one more year.

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.