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The Black Hawk Tower Witch

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When Mary Jane Wiley McCaw arrived in Rock Island in 1843 and settled her eight children in an abandoned schoolhouse on Crow Creek in the shadow of Black Hawk’s Watch Tower, she was already proficient in the healing arts. She had brought several herb starts with her from Pennsylvania. All she needed was a reputation.

That reputation was not long in coming. Rock Island already had a full complement of healers, ranging from doctors with 16 weeks of training to outright quacks. They were not about to put up with any new competition. They spread the word around town that Granny McCaw was a witch. Soon, whenever milk soured, it was blamed on Granny McCaw. If churned cream wouldn’t turn to butter, Mrs. McCaw had bewitched it. “Be good,” parents warned their children, “or the witch of Black Hawk Tower will get you.”

It was exactly the reputation Granny McCaw need to make her medicines more potent. A prescription from a mere doctor might work, and then again, it might not. But herbs prepared and collected by a witch—that was strong medicine.

Being a witch isolated Granny from the rest of society, but it brought increasing numbers of patients to her door for herbs. Isolation allowed Granny to befriend a Sauk medicine man, Lakachiwa, who taught her the Indian healing arts he knew. She was soon proficient in all the local herbs.

Granny’s skills grew, as did her reputation for healing among both Indian and White settlers. When she died at the age of 67, her children buried her in pioneer Dixon cemetery near Black Hawk’s Watch Tower.

I’m sure that Mary Jane Wiley McCaw never was a real witch. On the other hand, she did single-handedly strike out from Pennsylvania alone after her husband died, taking eight children and all her belongings (filling ten large wooden boxes) down the Ohio river in an open, second-hand flatboat she had remodeled. She then transferred the whole crew to a small steamboat, the Holy Spirit, for the ride up to the wild frontier near Rock Island, where she lived, indifferent to the gossip about her.

Maybe there was just a touch of witch in Granny McCaw. It’s hard to imagine that any mere man could have had the gumption and energy to do all that alone.

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.