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The Outlaw of Jackson County

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the good citizens of Bellevue, Iowa, awoke to the fact that one of their most upstanding and mannerly residents, W. W. Brown, was, in truth, the leader of a daring gang of outlaws ranging up and down the Mississippi River, they did what any red-blooded American town would do: they went out of their way to make sure he remained in Bellevue. They went not about to share the fame and glory with Maquoketa, Andrew, or Dubuque just to the north.

Brown and his men had come to Bellevue in 1837. In no time he had built and was operating a hotel, a meat market, and a woodlot supplying fuel to passing steamboats. Among other citizens, Brown stood out for his dignified manners, his generosity to others, and his interest in and kindness toward children. Soon, he was appointed a town magistrate, and legislator.

On the other hand, shortly after Brown's arrival, the area crime rate skyrocketed. Horse thieves seemed to be thicker than usual on the frontier. And federal agents tracking down counterfeit money always seemed to end up in Bellevue. Could it be Brown?

The crime wave continued. There were reports of the Brown gang operating as far south as Missouri, and far into Iowa and Illinois, preying on isolated settlers. Before long, even the most naïve citizen of Bellevue had to admit that Brown's Hotel was in fact a haven for the outlaws, and that the other business activities were cover-ups helping to launder counterfeit bills. The vast area over which the Brown gang operated made it almost impossible to trace money or stolen goods.

The Brown gang brought Bellevue fame all over the region far beyond what it might have expected as a hardworking river town. Community pride grew.

Matters came to a head when Colonel Thomas Cox, a political rival of Brown's, swore out a warrant for Brown's arrest on a horse-stealing charge. When the Jackson County sheriff approached the hotel and tried to serve the warrant, however, they were met with hotel and tried to serve the warrant, however, they were met with open defiance from Brown's men, and from a majority of the citizens of Bellevue who sided with Brown, no doubt fearful he might be driven out of town and take his notoriety with him.

From then on, Brown was left alone to operate as both a good citizen and an outlaw—both valuable commodities to small towns trying to make something of themselves.*

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

*It has been pointed out to us that William Brown actually died in the fight that day. For more information, see: Lucke, Susan K. The Bellevue War: Mandate of Justice or Murder by Mob? McMillen Pub, 2002.

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.