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Civilized Indians

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One day in February of 1834, four Winnebago Indians appeared in the little frontier mining village of Dubuque in what was then still Michigan Territory. They had with them specimens of almost pure lead ore they had found in the wilderness thirty miles south of Dubuque. The ore attracted the attention of Gy Morrison and five of his buddies who had been hoping to get rich quick. The lead mines at Dubuque and at Galena across the river had already made men wealthy. Now it was their turn.

Morrison bargained hard with the Winnebagos, who finally agreed to lead the speculators to the site in return for four blankets, a bit of tobacco, a supply of trinkets and a piece of calico. The men were thankful the Indians had little sense of value.

The journey through heavy timber and eight inches of new snow was arduous. On the second day, the temperature fell to 20 below zero. Several of the men determined to go back to Dubuque, until the Winnebagos told them they were only nine miles away from easy wealth. On they went.

The men reached the land of promise at two the following afternoon. The Indians raked the snow aside, and there lay scattered about on the surface thousands of pieces of lead. They were rich. They staked their claim by carving their initials on a large tree.

Then, a problem arose. There was a hunting party of Sioux a mile away—enemies of the Winnebagos. “If they find us, we’ll all be killed,” said the Winnebagos.

The four Winnebagos disappeared, leaving the Whites to find their own way back to Dubuque, which they did, sore, tired and hungry, in the bitter cold, almost by accident.

That spring, when the weather had warmed, the six prospectors set out to find their mine once again but were unable to do so since the landscape was so changed. Not until years later did Gy Morrison come across the tree on which the men had carved their initials. He was unable to find a single piece of lead anywhere around.

Apparently, the Winnebagos had learned the White man’s value system somewhat better than the six entrepreneurs had thought.

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.

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.