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Blackhawk's Bones

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Dr. James Turner must have temporarily forgotten his Hippocratic oath amid a vision of riches—riches which would come from exhibiting the head of Black Hawk to audiences out east. Indians lore was in demand there due to the popularity of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Bill himself had successfully toured with the scalp of Yellow Knife, an Indian he had ambushed in retaliation for the Custer massacre.

Black Hawk had been a war leader of the Sauk Indians living at Saukenuk between the Rock and Mississippi rivers. Following his defeat in the Black Hawk War of 1832, he was taken east to meet President Andrew Jackson and to be shown off as the spoils of war, and then returned to Iowa where he was placed in the custody of Keokuk, the pro-American Sauk who had opposed Black Hawk.

Knowing that in a short while he would go to be with the Great Spirit, Black Hawk went to live alone with his family along the Des Moines River near Ottumwa. There he died on October 3rd, 1838 and was buried in a mound near the river.

What happened next can only be priced together from several eyewitness accounts, all of which involved the good doctor Turner. Turner told friends he could make a fortune with Black Hawk's bones. Out east, the legend of Black Hawk was already growing; to the public he was Chief Black Hawk.

Apparently, Dr. Turner and two friends, Warren and Jefferson Cox, robbed the grave. Using the large kettle in which the Cox family made soap, the men boiled the flesh off the bones. Turner himself may have taken the head home and cooked it separately.

The angry reactions of both whites and Indians forced Turner to flee, taking the skeleton to a fellow doctor in Quincy, who, in turn, gave the bones to the Quincy mayor. Governor Lucas of Iowa now intervened and ordered the bones to be placed with the Burlington, Iowa, historical society. Black Hawk's widow agreed with the decision.

And it unwittingly turned out for the best. In 1855, fire destroyed the museum in Burlington—a spectacular funeral pyre for a fallen hero.

For Black Hawk, there would be no second tour out east.

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

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.