The Spirit of All Indians
Seeking the eternal Indian in northern Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
In no part of Illinois are residents more alert to the local Native American past than northern Illinois—which is not to say that they are always more informed about it.
Note: The “Black Hawk” statue described below was nearly felled by age and infirmity in the years since this account was drafted. Disputes over conservation approaches, lack of funding, and bureaucratic inertia stalled restoration work for years, but the project work is back on track and the new old statue was unveiled in January 2020.
Had Sinnissippi’s various Indian peoples been more alive to commercial concepts they might have build their villages to last long enough to provide marketable ruins for gawking visitors. Sadly for the region’s tourist trade, no village sites exist in anything like their original form, wood and hide being even more ephemeral than reputations. The only physical remnants of their occupation of northern Illinois are the graves of its last generation of leaders. One of these can be found in Morris's Evergreen Cemetery, where lies the Pottawatomi Chief Shabbona, who earned a reputation as the Settlers Friend in 1832; Shabbona not only refused to join Black Hawk’s war against the Americans, he played Paul Revere by riding from cabin to cabin warning settlers across Sinnissippi of Black Hawk’s intentions.
A memorial boulder on the grounds of the Boone County Courthouse marks the grave of Big Thunder, a popular Potawatomi chief. He was interred according to custom in a sitting posture in a grave that was surrounded by a palisade to protected the body from animals. The precaution proved adequate against wolves but not tourists. The late chief’s knife, tobacco, and most of his clothing were stolen as souvenirs; eventually, reports the Federal Writers Project 1939 guide to Illinois, even his bones were filched by souvenir hunters who, passing through the town by stagecoach, visited the stockade while the horses were being changed. The guide adds: “[T]he young men of the village, wishing to keep the stockade attractive to tipping travelers, obtained a supply of sheep and hog bones and solemnly distributed them to curio collectors as part of the remains of Big Thunder.” Big Thunder has had his name filched too, which has been attached to a local street, a shopping center (Big Thunder Village), a park (Big Thunder Park, the former City Park), and the local chapters of the Grange and the Odd Fellows.
That the Indian structure vanished was an inevitable result of age and decay. That so few Euro-American relics of the period are preserved owes mostly to neglect. In 1832, settlers on the Apple River in Jo Daviess County threw up a rude fort on a hillside as protection against Black Hawk’s band. Not much more than a log stockade around a settler's cabin, the fort sheltered about 45 men, women and children against about 150 warriors who attacked while most of the men were out hunting. (The defenders were rallied by one Elizabeth Armstrong. She she was hardly the only brave woman on the frontier but she was one of the very few whose bravery has been officially commemorated; the Apple River settlement was named Elizabeth in her honor in 1842.) The fort stood until 1847, when residents beat swords into ploughshares, in effect, by using its lumber to build a barn. Its precise location was forgotten until one hundred and fifty years later, when its outline was betrayed to archeologists by (among other remains) spent lead bullets that littered the site. Local volunteers rebuilt it, and the new old fort was opened in 1997; The State of Illinois’ Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 2000 took over operation of the Apple River Fort from the foundation.
No one knows how accurately the reconstructed Apple River Fort resembles the original, but when it comes to the Indian past, close is usually good enough. Lorado Taft’s “Eternal Indian” looks out from a bluff in the Lowden Memorial State Park near Oregon. On misty mornings the 50-foot plaster and concrete monument seems to rise like a ghost above the trees. A visitor in 1913, described it as “looking into the great beyond, into the land of the Great Spirit” but the figure may be just as plausibly understood to be looking into the land of Iowa. In any event it is an imposing work; sunsets show it off especially well.
Taft’s work certainly was inspired by the Black Hawk story; tradition holds that it stands on a spot where the old warrior “often stood pondering over the fate of his people and yearning for the days of glory that had passed.“ But Taft meant the piece to invoke the spirit of all Indians. As historian Arthur Charles Cole (an admirer) states, “It is not in the likeness of Black Hawk and not in the likeness of an Indian.“ In spite of that—or because of it, since real Indians sometimes make problematic heroes—the public since its unveiling in 1911 has preferred to call it the Black Hawk Statue. (Not only the public is confused; Donald Miller, in his fine history of Chicago, City of the Century, calls the Taft statue a monument to Black Hawk and further errs in reporting it made of granite.)
By any name the work is an icon of regional identity, as emblematic of Sinnissippi as the Sears Tower is of Chicago or the statehouse of Springfield.
Like most icons, Taft’s statue succeeds to the extent that it flatters its subject. Official depictions of the Sinnissippi Indian at state parks and historic sites do better. Most of them these days strive for accuracy within the limits of anthropological knowledge and the touring public’s tolerance for complicating facts. One such resource is the Hauberg Indian Museum on the grounds of the Black Hawk State Historic Site on the Rock River in Rock Island, which is the world’s only museum devoted exclusively to the Sauk and Mesquakie peoples.
Rock Islander John Henry Hauberg (1869-1955) was a lawyer by training, a rich man by marriage, and a civic improver and historian by inclination. Among his many contributions to life in the Quad Cities was the collection that makes up about half the museum that now bears his name. Hauberg recorded via interviews and photographs the traditions and daily life of the descendants of Black Hawk then living in an Indian community along the banks of the Iowa River in what is now Tama County. Hauberg was made an honorary member of the tribe and given the name "Standing Bear," which made him almost certainly the only Mesquakie member of the Rock Island Rotary Club in that era.
Hauberg also was instrumental in the creation of the park of which the museum now is part. In 1927 he took the lead in lobbying against developers’ plans to convert the last few unbuilt-on acres of the Saukenuk site into what he derided as “a typical suburban allotment.” Hauberg explained its significance to the General Assembly with a monograph and lecture. The legislature, which doesn’t usually respond so well to instruction, responded by authorizing a 208-acre Black Hawk State Park, graced by the Watch Tower Lodge, constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Later the site was designated the Black Hawk State Historic Site in recognition of its historic rather than its recreational value. (Some 50 years later, citizens were again obliged to band together to protect the park, this time from a planned highway extension.)
Hauberg’s curiosity about the region’s Native American interregnum, once a rich man’s eccentricity, has since become a civic value. Indian history is taught in Sinnissippi schools, Indian names grace its public places, and Indian ways are popular subjects of the region’s museums. Non-Indians have formed archeological societies devoted in large part to unearthing—literally—the physical remnants of the local Native American occupation. Each year Rock Island stages by a whole festival (Black Hawk Days) honoring native American culture, Geneseo holds an annual powwow complete with dancing and drumming. In Rockford’s Beattie Park there survives a rare effigy mound in the shape of a lizard. Misnamed Turtle Mound, the feature sprawls for 150 feet, making it second in size only to the great serpentine mound in Ohio; Rockford hosts an annual Honor the Mounds Gathering there. There are even re-enacted episodes in the Black Hawk war; the Old Lead Region Historical Society has staged the 1832 occupation of the Apple River Fort by civilians and 20-odd soldiers of Captain Clack Stone's militia company as played by volunteers from Lincoln's New Salem.
“Keep it as we did”
The identification of Euro-American Sinnissippians with their Native American predecessors is a phenomenon of many parts—race guilt, the 1990s vogue for new-agish religions, and the enduring appetite of American tourist for romance, among other things. But perhaps the most important thing that Indians and non-Indian share across the decades is love of place. That part of Black Hawk that was moved to a foolhardy war to keep Sinnissippi his own beats within the heart of many a modern-day resident as well. As he did, many of them have sought in the relatively uncluttered Sinnissippi countryside a refuge from an aggressive new culture—in this case, one whose advance guard consists not of white squatters but mall developers and highway engineers whose campfires they can see glowing ominously just over the horizon. ●
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