West Fever

Apr 28, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When John Soule advised his Indiana readers in 1851 to "Go West, young man," a phrase Horace Greely later made famous, he was already writing after the fact. By then several hundred steamboats a month were streaming up the Mississippi past Rock Island and Davenport, loaded with young men—and women—with families from the East and the South, from Ireland and Norway, England and Germany heading west to the California gold fields or to the newly opened prairies of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Many immigrants could not stop moving westward. The first boat of Norwegian immigrants settled in New York in 1825. Ten years later they moved west to Illinois Fox River Valley; from there, most moved west again, and again, to Wisconsin, to Minnesota, and then to the Dakotas, following some siren song in the land itself. Ole Rolvaag sensed this call in his novel, Giants in the Earth. For Beret, the wife lonely and frightened on the immense Dakota plains, it was a disease, west fever, drawing her people toward a kingdom of death, toward the end of the world.

Even before the New World, the West was not just another direction. For the Greeks, it was the Hesperides, the Fortunate Isles, which lay beyond the Atlantic; for the Celts, it was the land of apple blossoms where Good King Arthur lies sleeping until his second coming. By his fourth voyage, even Columbus believed that he had discovered Eden. Shakespeare put Caliban and his witch mother here; for the Spanish it was the location of El Dorado, the Cities of Gold, and the Fountain of Youth.

Your high school history books tell you that the boats of immigrants coming up the river represented good American capitalism at work, nothing more. But you can see for yourself. Come visit us in our Mississippi River Valley at the edge of the Great West. In the evening at the top of a high bluff, watch the sun set out across Iowa filling the sky like a child coloring outside the lines, then tell me that it's all money, and the west is just another direction.

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