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Elephant Pipes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Reverend Jacob Gass was not the first Davenporter to become fascinated by the prehistoric Indian mounds which dotted the Mississippi Valley, but he soon became the most successful. Reverend Gass came to Davenport to supply a Lutheran congregation in 1871. He soon joined a local amateur science group, the Davenport Academy of Sciences, and began excavating a mound on the west edge of the city.

He had extraordinary luck with his excavations. Fellow academy members called him an "indefatigable explorer, zealous to extend the domain of science." On January 19th, 1877, after only an hour of digging, he came across the find of the century: two stone pipes carved in the effigies of elephants, and three slate tablets inscribed with phonetic writing.

At the time, archeologists at the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Ethnology were beginning to suspect that the mysterious mound builders were merely early Indian cultures, and not a great civilized race of people who had vanished. But here in Davenport, the tablets proved that race existed, and the pipes proved that humans were here while the mastodons still lived.

Reverend Gass's discoveries made Davenport the center of a controversy which raged for years. Archeologists first authenticated the tablets and pipes, then gradually grew suspicious. Several members of the Davenport Academy came to Gass's defense, as national magazines accused him of planting the artifacts to bring himself glory. To the end, he denied these charges, but he left the area in disgrace.

Much later, the truth came out. Reverend Gass himself had been the victim of a practical joke perpetrated by several academy members who disliked him. They had planted the goods for him to find. The stone tablets they had stolen off the sides of the Slate House, a notorious brothel along the Mississippi frequented by steamboat crews. The holes in the tablets were identical to the nail holes in the other slates on the building.

Things went badly for the Reverend Gass, but as a Lutheran minister, they might have gone worse. He might have recognized the slates.

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