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Louisa Massey

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Dubuque was not always the upstanding city she is today. Begun as a lead mining settlement in the 18th century, she struggled to improve herself. In spite of a new library and two churches, the level of lawlessness remained high. In 1836, the first issue of the Dubuque newspaper advertised for a minister of the gospel who could reason, preach and sing—and enforce the fourth commandment. Apparently, there was so much sin that Dubuque would have to improve one commandment at a time.

The problem was jurisdiction over the land west of the Mississippi. It was first part of the Territory of Michigan and then, in 1836, part of Wisconsin Territory. Territorial courts were not sure who had jurisdiction and cases were often thrown out on those grounds.

Which explains Louisa Massey. In the fall of 1835, John Smith and his son William shot Woodbury Massey in a quarrel over a claim. The circuit court at Mineral Point dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Then, Henry Massey tracked the elder Smith to Galena and killed him to revenge his brother’s death. Thereupon William Smith went to Dubuque in search of Henry.

At this point, Louisa, Henry’s blue-eyed, fair-haired sister, determined to end the feud. She went to Dubuque in disguise, found Smith in a store with several other men. She approached him. “If you are Smith, defend yourself,” she cried. Smith rose and Louisa fired her pistol, the ball entering Smith just above the third rib. Friends spirited her away to hide in Illinois.

That fall, when the case came before the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in Belmont, the court was in the same quandary over jurisdiction. They did, however, have some clear powers. In honor of the plucky Dubuque heroine, they carved out a new country in between Burlington and Muscatine and named it Louisa County.

If you happen to be from Dubuque, do not try this today. Dubuque is a much more civilized city now, with at least eight commandments under some control. Besides, there isn’t room for a new county in Iowa these days.

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.