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The Violin

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Early in April of 1832, the Sauk war leader, Black Hawk, and a thousand followers—men, women, and children—crossed the Mississippi from Iowa into Illinois near Oquawka, and turned north toward Saukenuk, his village near the mouth of the Rock River. This move violated a treaty he had just signed with the United States agreeing to remain in Iowa. He must have suspected his actions would result in war—a war he was not likely to win.

Historians of the Black Hawk War have speculated on just why Black Hawk returned. Some say Black Hawk merely intended to visit his friend, the Prophet, up the Rock River at Prophet's Town. Some say he believed other Indian tribes would join him in a general war. My own suspicions are that it might just be the violin.

While they still lived at Saukenuk, Black Hawk and his people used to love to climb a high and steep bluff above the village, the bluff that came to be called "Black Hawk's Watch Tower.” From here they could see for miles out across the prairie. Black Hawk remarked how he used to sit here for hours and smoke his pipe and watch the setting sun.

One day, according to Black Hawk, a Frenchman who was living at Saukenuk for a time brought his violin to the Watch Tower and began to play and dance for the Sauk's pleasure. He grew more and more animated until, playing with his back to the cliff, he fell over and was killed on the rocks below.

After that, the Sauk claimed that evenings when the air was calm, particularly near the anniversary of the Frenchman's death, they could hear the soft sounds of violin music coming up the bluff as the Frenchman's spirit played on.

I like to think that the Sauk were returning to Saukenuk and to Black Hawk's Watch Tower not to defy Federal troops and the Illinois militia, but to spend one more evening at a violin concert.

In such a way, small, chance events have large consequences. That Frenchman's instrument could just as likely have been an accordion rather than a violin, in which case, the Sauk would have remained as far from Illinois as possible.

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.