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Fever River

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asks, and then assures us that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Try telling that to Romeo and Juliet—or to the folks at the little Fever River settlement near the Mississippi in northern Illinois.

Lead was the attraction at the Fever River. The Sauk and Meskwaki Indians had mined lead there at least since the end of the seventeenth century. By 1788, the Frenchman Julien Dubuque had opened a large mine across the Mississippi.

Then in 1823, the plentiful, almost pure, and easily available led in the hills along the Fever River attracted American lead miners. In April of 1823, a band of 43 men, women, and children, and three dogs, and all their goods—seventy-five tons worth—boarded the keelboat, “Colonel Bomford,” and headed for the Fever River eleven hundred miles away. They were led by Moses Meeker, an enterprising lead manufacturer and mining prospector.

The pioneers reached St. Louis, and then headed north into country still unoccupied by Europeans. The keelboat was poled up the river or pulled along by crew grabbing bushes along the bank—a process keelboatmen called "bushwhacking."

Though a few scattered miners and one woman already lived along the Fever River, the arrival of the Meeker colony marked the beginning of real settlement.

The lead at the Fever River was everything that Meeker had hoped. Not so, the settlement itself. Would-be settlers were frightened by the name Fever, and so were some steamboatmen. Meeker was especially alarmed when the Government established a post office there in 1826 and named it Fever River. Meeker went to great lengths to point out that Fever was a corruption of the French word "Febre," meaning bean, but no one listened. A Fever River had to be unhealthy. A legend grew that an entire band of Indians had died from smallpox at that spot.

The following year, Meeker and his settlers changed the name from Fever River to Galena, the Latin term for lead. Within ten years, Galena, Illinois, had become the greatest metropolis north of St. Louis, a popularity that lasted until the discovery of gold in California in 1849. After that, it no longer seemed so romantic to live in "lead town."

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.