Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
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See Illinois (unpublished)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.
For more about the native peoples of northern Illinois, see here and here.
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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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