Thursday, August 21, 2008

Black Hawk's bones


Severe headaches develop when you try to sort out all the conflicting accounts of what exactly happened to the bones of the old warrior Black Hawk after they (or part of them) disappeared in 1839 from his grave here along the Des Moines River. But since I'm more interested in Jim Jordan's bones right now, I'll leave that headache to you and get on with this little tour of the Iowaville bottom.

We were just in Iowaville, remember. What now is the Davis/Van Buren County line formed the west limit of Iowaville because when the village was platted in 1838 by James H. Jordan and others everything beyond still belonged to the Sauk and Fox. Members of the white tribe were welcome to look and travel through, but not to settle.

But trader Jordan, well-known to the Sauk and Fox and considered by them to be a friend, had jumped the border and located his trading house and home, described as a fine double log house, about a mile west/northwest of Iowaville on a prime spot commanding a view southwest out across the Des Moines.

Travel that mile west on the old trail out of Iowaville today and you'll find the only landmark still standing on the bottom --- the lock-keeper's house located on a tiny triangle of land just beside the road fending off assaults from corn fields and that quarry to its northeast.


This was constructed in the 1850s as part of a scheme involving 28 sets of locks and dams authorized by Congress in 1846, the year of Iowa statehood, to make the Des Moines more navigable from its mouth south of Keokuk to the fork of the Raccoon at Fort Des Moines. Apparently some work was done on the lock here, too, but that has long since vanished.

The navigation scheme was abandoned in 1858 when it became clear railroads rather than riverboats would be supplying Iowa in the future, and neither the lock nor dam was completed. You can get an idea of what was planned downstream in the little riverside park in Bonaparte, where Lock No. 5 survives although the dam has long since vanished.

The lock-keeper's house was built on land owned by Jim Jordan and the proposed lock itself sometimes was referred to as Jordan's. He had built his trading house and home just to the north, in the southwest corner of Section 1, Salt Creek Township (Davis County), and would build his "mansion," a fine L-shaped wood-frame home in the federal style, there years later after he had been able to legally purchase the property from the government (patents for both the west half of the southwest quarter of Section 1, where his home was located; and Lot No. 1 of Section 12, where the lock-keeper's house is, are dated 1 February 1848).

This tiny triangle of Davis County, cut off from the rest by the river, has always had an identity crisis. Residents were far more likely to identify either with Wapello County to the north or Van Buren County to the east except when it was necessary to make the inconvenient trip across the river and crosscountry southwest to Bloomfield, the Davis County seat, for legal purposes.

The lock-keeper's house has never been separated from the Jordan property here, although the old homestead site (the home was demolished while the land remained in Jordan hands) and the acres surrounding it were sold out of the family after the 1968 death in California of the last of Jim Jordan's grandchildren, Grace (Jordan) Baldwin. It remains privately owned.

Although residents of the Selma-to-Eldon neighborhood always have valued the venerable building, the cut-off nature of this little corner of Davis County may help to explain why it has not drawn wider attention. Once badly damaged in a storm, it was repaired I'm told in a community effort involving neighbors and its owner. But there are no signs to explain its significance and the building itself is beginning to fray. One corner of the roof has been damaged and shutters on the gable windows have fallen away.

This is changing now. A group of Eldon-area people and the owner are working together to obtain a place on the National Register of Historic Places for the building, a move that will give it recognition long due and also make it eligible for grant funding for repairs.


Adding to the puzzlement of those who pass by the lock-keeper's house is the word "Chief" in concrete letters set into the side of a low mound in the yard. You can't see the letters here because the grass surrounding them hasn't been clipped this year. "Chief" presumably refers to Black Hawk, but it's not clear exactly why --- neither his lodge nor his grave was located here, although the lodge where he died was nearby, a short distance upstream between Jim Jordan's now vanished big house and the river.

The concrete letters mirror in a small way the much larger "Chief Wapello" set into an embankment near the graves of that old chief and members of the Street family in southeast Agency. So far, it's not clear when "Chief" was installed here.


Black Hawk had settled here along the river after his return from what was intended to be a penitential tour of the East that had developed into a personal triumph for the old man already famous because of the war that bore his name and his autobiograhy, "Life of Black Hawk, or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Dictated by Himself," first published in Cincinnati in 1833. It's still a good read by the way and paperback versions are available.

Black Hawk, at this time, was a great national celebrity --- although that may be difficult to conceive of now. In the East especially (far less so on the frontier,which Iowa was at the time) his story had grabbed the hearts and minds of a white tribe now feeling some regret for its treatment of the tribes it had displaced ruthlessly and tangled up in a mare's nest of sentimentality and yearning. The old boy had, too, a lot of what we would call today charisma as well as a faithful wife, beautiful daughter and handsome son --- the stuff that whitefolk dreams are made of.

But he had come here to the banks of the Des Moines to die, and Jim Jordan was his neighbor and friend. And die he did on the 3rd of October 1838, reportedly two hours after Jordan had left his bedside. He was buried less than a quarter mile northwest some distance back from the river, but overlooking it, in an area now farmed over and featureless.

Jordan himself described the circumstances of the old warrior's death and burial several times, and those descriptions have been quoted, misquoted, summarized and just plain stomped on countless times. But here is one version of one account, taken from a letter postmarked Eldon and dated 15 June 1881, that was published later in The Burlington Weekly Hawkeye:

"Black Hawk was buried on the N.E. quarter of the S.E. quarter, Section 2, Town 70, Range 12, Davis County, Iowa, on the Des Moines River bottom, about ninety rods from where he lived when he died, on the north side of the river. I have the ground on which he lived for a dooryard, it being between my house and the river. The only mound over the grave was some puncheons split out and set over his grave and then sodded over with bluegrass, making a ridge about four feet high. A flagstaff some twenty feet high was planted at the head, on which was a silk flag, whch hung there until the wind wore it out. My house and his were only about four rods apart when he died. He was sick only about fourteen days. He was buried right where he sat the year before, when in council with the Iowa Indians, and was buried in a suit of military clothes, made to order and given to him when in Washinton City by General Jackson, with hat, sword, gold epaulets, etc...."

Even this letter reflects some of the problems involved in tracking material about Black Hawk and Jim Jordan to their sources. Although the letter was published in The Burlington Weekly Hawkeye of 9 February 1882, it was part of a long article that the Hawkeye had swiped from The St. Louis Republican "of a recent date," which quoted the Jordan letter --- written to Dr. J.F. Snyder of Virginia, Ill.

In 1839, everyone agrees, the grave was disturbed and all or part of Black Hawk's remains stolen by a James Turner, who then lived at Lexington, just upriver from where Bonaparte is now. Turner apparently felt he could make some money by either selling or displaying, side-show fashion, all or part of the remains.

What became of Black Hawk's bones now becomes multiple-choice based upon several of the many options presented over the years. Your guess is as good as mine --- and apparently we're as qualified to make a judgement here as anyone since it's unlikely all doubt ever will be removed. Choose from the following:

1. Only the head was stolen in 1839. 2. All of the remains were stolen in 1839. 3. The head was stolen in 1839, then thieves returned the next year and took the rest. 4. Black Hawk's family and friends removed the balance of the remains after the head was stolen and buried them secretly elsewhere (this is where the idea that some part of Black Hawk is buried in the Iowaville Cemetery comes from). 5. The skull and bones were cleaned and wired then recovered at Gov. Robert Lucas's order and brought to Burlington where Black Hawk's wife and children viewed and identified them, but asked that the territory retain them. 6. Black Hawk's skull was wired to someone else's bones, so that the remains recovered at Lucas's order and brought to Burlington were largely those of someone else. 7. Black Hawk's bones, once recovered and viewed by his family, were then stored in a building that burned and the bones burned with it. 8. The bones weren't in the building that burned at all, but remained in the possession of someone who buried them secretly in the old cemetery at Burlington from which they were transported upon its abandonment to the Potters Field section of Aspen Grove Cemetery. And there are more versions out there ...

Personally, I'm not quite sure what to think --- but suspect that the most widely-accepted account of the fate of Black Hawk's bones is the most accurate: That they went up in smoke in Burlington. But if you'd prefer to believe something else --- more power to you.

Like I said, a century later Jim Jordan's bones were snatched, too. I'm more confident here because I can show you where they ended up and propose to do just that.


This photo was taken upriver northwest just across the road from the lock-keeper's house. If you followed the river just a little ways in 1838, paddling hard against the current, you would have passed the lodge where Black Hawk died with Jim Jordan's double log house on the slight rise beyond it. About a quarter mile farther along, looking east from your canoe, you might have spotted a ragged silk penant flying from a 20-foot staff over the old warrior's grave.

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