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Saukenuk

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Buffalo Bill Cody, the Wild West showman, was fond of saying to Eastern reporters, "I stood between savagery and civilization most my whole life." He should have stood near the joining of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers, the site of one of the largest Indian villages in North America. Here, he would have found a clear contrast between the savage and the civilized.

Saukenuk was the principle permanent village of the Sauk who arrived in this area in 1760. Along its permanent avenues and alleys stood rows of multiple family lodges, twenty to thirty feet wide, and forty to a hundred and fifty feet long, covered with slabs of bark. From three thousand to seven thousand Sauk lived here until 1832.

Running through Saukenuk was a main street for games and ceremonies. The village was watered by springs from the nearby bluffs. Fish were plentiful in the rapids at the mouth of the Rock River; on the slopes of the bluffs, the Sauk cultivated eight hundred acres of corn, beans and squash, enough to feed themselves and provide surpluses for white traders and explorers. The blue grass bottomland served as pasture for horses.

So much for civilization; now for the savages. In 1780, in the westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War, General George Rogers Clark ordered troops to burn Saukenuk to teach the Indians a lesson for refusing to turn against their British allies.

It was the first of a series of attacks. In 1814, during the War of 1812, a force of soldiers under Zachary Taylor planned to sneak up on Saukenuk and burn it. They were discovered and sent packing back to St. Louis.

The end of this peaceful village came in 1831 when the Sauk returned from their winter hunting grounds to plant crops, and discovered white squatters living in their lodges. Their fences had been pulled down and their fields destroyed. A year later, Illinois militia burned down Saukenuk for good at the beginning of the Black Hawk War.

It's too late for Buffalo Bill, but Saukenuk might help the rest of us refine our definition of "savage."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.