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The 1804 Sauk Treaty

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Sauk Indians who lived at Saukenuk on the plains where the Rock River meets the Mississippi did not know what to make of the first Americans who appeared at the edge of their lands at the beginning of the 19th century. They had gotten along well with earlier Europeans, the French and then the English, who wanted only to explore or trade for furs, but the Americans seemed to want the land itself. They were odd, different.

The Sauk soon found out just how odd and different. In 1804 a delegation of Indians from Saukenuk was summoned to St. Louis following the death of several white squatters who had encroached on Sauk land. The Indian representatives assumed they would be asked to pay in money or furs for the deaths, but the odd Americans demanded that the murderers themselves be turned over to authorities.

Matters got odder still, when a second group of Sauk arrived at St. Louis and turned in one of the wanted men to the American in charge, William Henry Harrison. Harrison had been sent to St. Louis by the Secretary of War to convince the Sauk to cede small pieces of land along the Illinois River to the United States. Already showing the kind of ambition that would eventually take him to the White House, Harrison saw a better opportunity. He invited the four Sauk Indians to remain in St. Louis for a week of treaty-ing and even more drinking. By the end of the week, the four Indians, who had no authority to speak for the entire Sauk Nation, and were both drunk and hungover, had ceded away their Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa lands—an area as large as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey—in return for an allowance of a thousand dollars a year. This was somewhat less than the sixty thousand the Sauk made in a good year from the sale of furs.

This bogus treaty came back to haunt the Sauk in 1832, when it was used as the excuse to move Black Hawk and the remaining Sauk from Saukenuk. By now, the Sauk knew what to make of the Americans. Americans, they said, were like a spot of raccoon grease on a blanket, barely noticeable at first, but spreading until the entire blanket was ruined.

Not a bad description, although if I were the raccoon, I might object.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

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.