Captain Stubbs

Feb 18, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Henry David Thoreau advised the readers of Walden to be tolerant of those who live outside the norm. "Perhaps they hear a different drummer," he said.

In the case of Davenport's only certifiable hermit, that drum may have been the Mississippi River. Captain James R. Stubbs seemed destined for a brilliant military career. He graduated from West Point with high honors, and in 1822 was stationed at Fort Armstrong at the west tip of Rock Island. He remained at the fort for four years, enchanted by the river and its bluffs.

In 1826 he was transferred East and served for a few years in the Post Office Department in Washington. Here he was much sought after as a private tutor.

Then came the beat of a different drum. Captain Stubbs resigned from the military in 1833 and returned to the Davenport area. He drank heavily, descended into melancholy, and avoided his old friends. Many thought him insane, the more romantic surmised an unrequited love affair.

Eventually, James Stubbs dug out a small cave on a hill in East Davenport, and retired there with a cat, a pet pig, and an occasional stray dog. Rivermen called his hill "Stubbs’s Mound," and began using it as a marker for steering boats.

Stubbs treated his menagerie as family, walking them along the river each morning and evening, but he was a stern father. People often heard him lecturing the cat and pig when they had violated social norms, and even holding court and meting out punishment when the pig had eaten food meant for Stubbs's supper.

Aside from a warning to "Get off my roof," aimed at strollers who happened onto his hill, there was little human contact.

And then, after eight years, as abruptly as Thoreau left his small cabin at Walden after finishing his business there, Capt. James Stubbs left his cave, moved into a house, ran for Justice of the Peace in Davenport, was elected, and served well until his death in 1848. But, no one will ever know—and he never said—what demons or dreams, what promise or penance, or what dark drum, marched him into his cave.

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