A Persistent Removal: Black Hawk, Commemoration, and Historic Sites in Illinois

By Sherfy, Michael | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Persistent Removal: Black Hawk, Commemoration, and Historic Sites in Illinois


Sherfy, Michael, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Black Hawk made his final public appearance at a Fourth of July celebration in Fort Madison, Iowa in 1837. He seems an unlikely attendee at such a patriotic function. Five years earlier, he had been at war with the United States-throwing the frontier into a panic from Michigan to St. Louis and lending his name to the last armed Algonquian resistance to American expansion east of the Mississippi. In 1833, Black Hawk was a prisoner-of-war, brought to Washington to meet with President Jackson, and sent on a tour of the Eastern cities to assure him that future conflict between his people and the Americans could result only in the annihilation of the Natives. Upon his eventual release, the war-chief became a published author and pleaded his own justification for going to war-and unrepentantly fixed blame for the conflict firmly on the conduct of American officials.1 Yet, in 1837, he stood with his former enemies and one-time captors celebrating the birth of a nation that had sought to destroy him. At the festivities, he joined in thirteen toasts-with cold water in his glass rather than the more potent potables preferred by his white associates. When it came his turn to speak, Black Hawk raised his glass and gave a short speech that concluded, "A few summers ago I was fighting against you. I did wrong perhaps, but that is past-it is buried-let it be forgotten. Rock River was a beautiful country. I liked my towns, my corn-fields, and the home of my people. I fought for it-it is now yours-keep it as we did."2

Black Hawk's advice went unheeded. Thousands upon thousands of American settlers flooded into northern Illinois in a remarkably short time and irrevocably altered the landscape to suit their own needs. In less than two generations, the newcomers cleared the woodlands, drained the marshes, and broke the prairie. They replaced the native grasses with domesticated crops and created a region of unprecedented agricultural productivity. They developed the region's industrial capacity as well-digging canals, laying railroads, and building cities of a size that dwarfed anything that had come before. Determined to coerce Nature into submission, they even reversed the flow of the Chicago River.

With each passing year, it became more difficult to remember-or even imagine-the historical past that had led to such development. In 1837, Black Hawk and other Native people-removed from Illinois but neither inaccessible nor forgotten-stood as living reminders of a time that preceded the arrival of an American population and the transformations that followed. Generations passed and the frontier shifted west. Most Indians went with it. New immigrants supplanted the pioneer families of Illinois and there arose a fundamental disconnection between the present and the past. By 1900, fearing the loss of the region's "ancient" history and the social cohesion it provided, various individuals and groups worked to preserve its memory...even if that meant re-inscribing it on a landscape that would have appeared wholly alien to the people whose lives were being commemorated.

Paul Angle, one of the most respected historians of Illinois, pointed out that, although his state possessed a captivating history, its own citizens were generally unfamiliar with more than small segments of it. "And travelers from outside the state,"he added,"of whom there are many thousands annually, may cross from boundary to boundary without becoming acquainted with any part of fllinois's heritage except, perhaps, that it was the home of Abraham Lincoln, and that his body is buried in our soil."3

George Palmer, another member of the Illinois State Historical Society (ISHS), echoed these sentiments. He pointed out that Illinois offers "a story as rich in history and romance of any of her sister States; but... that it would be difficult to induce then citizens of Massachusetts or Virginia to accept this assertion."4 He and Angle agreed also that Illinois residents were too often ignorant of the history even of their own localities.

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A Persistent Removal: Black Hawk, Commemoration, and Historic Sites in Illinois
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