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The Benefits of Civilization

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In 1837, the United States government set about civilizing the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians living in six villages along the Des Moines River in Iowa territory. It was hard work. The Indians simply did not understand the benefits of civilization. Or perhaps like Huckleberry Finn, they understood them all too well.

It was the coming of civilization that had precipitated the Blackhawk war of 1832 and the subsequent treaty that had forced them to surrender all their Illinois lands at a 50 mile wide strip of eastern Iowa and move west to the Des Moines River.

Now, in 1837, the government decided to begin the process of civilization by setting up small model farms of 30 to 100 acres at each village. Here the Indians would learn how to fence off the land, plow, plant and harvest crops properly. Then the government built two mills along the Des Moines River to teach the proper way of grinding grain into flour, and a sawmill to teach lumber making.

The Sauk and Meskwaki seemed unable to catch on to the civilized ways. They led horses and cattle into the fields to feed on the grain as they had always done, rather than cutting, threshing and drying the grain before feeding it to the animals. By fall, there was little grain left to bring to the mills. That was fortunate as it turned out; floods on the Des Moines River ruined both mills. One of them was rebuilt, but it burned down. The Indians graciously offered to thresh the grain by horsepower the way they had always done.

In the end, American agents assigned to civilize the Indians concluded that the Sauk and Meskwaki exhibited no inclination, quote, "to undergo a practical instruction in agriculture or any of the mechanical arts," unquote. That meant they would never become materialists whose desire for more money would lead them to demand an education by teachers in schools, which in turn would lead them to want houses and comfortable furniture, which would lead them to want to settle down and learn manners, which would finally lead them to search for the truth, which they would find, of course, in white churches.

For the Indians along the Des Moines River, it was a hard choice: continue to live as uncivilized savages or put up a fence and end up in Sunday school.

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.