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Steamboats and Indians

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the first steamboat showed up at Fort Armstrong on Rock Island in 1823, maneuvered across the Rock Island Rapids, and made its way all the way to Fort Snelling, the smoking monster, tiny as it was, frightened the tribes of Native Americans living along the river. Steamboat men did their best to encourage such fright, thinking it might scare the tribes into moving off their prime real estate. Until they discovered there was money to be made transporting Indians to treaty sites at government expense. The Sioux, the Sauk, the Menominee, and the Chippewa were soon comfortable riding steamboats to Fort Snelling, Prairie du Chien, and Rock Island.

Too comfortable in the case of the Winnebago Indians in southwestern Wisconsin. In 1846, the Winnebagos and their chief, Wabasha, signed a treaty agreeing to move west to Sioux territory in Minnesota. When the steamboat "Dr. Franklin" first arrived to take them to their new home, Wabasha and his tribe hid in wooded islands rather than board the boat. A few, including Wabasha, were forcibly dragged aboard and given a short ride.

Not bad, the Winnebagos decided, and the first group was soon on its way up the Mississippi. Then another group, and another, and another. There seemed to be far more than the expected 2,000 Indians. Another load, and another.

It turned out that the Winnebagos were getting off the boat at Fort Snelling and canoeing the hundred miles back to Wisconsin, and getting on the steamboat again, just the way you do on those rides at Disney World.

No wonder, then, that fifteen years later, when the Winnebagos agreed once more to move from Minnesota to Fort Randall, Nebraska, they chose not to walk the two hundred miles overland—a distance equal to their summer hunting trips—but insisted on being taking by steamboat down the Minnesota river to the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and from there up the Missouri River to Fort Randall, a roundabout distance of 2,000 miles—2,000 miles of games and card playing.

And one other advantage over Disney World. Do you know of a single roller coaster ride that comes complete with three delicious meals a day?

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.