Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


It has long been concluded that Black Hawk’s skeletal remains burned in a museum fire before they could be returned to the family on request, or to his burial site. According to historical sources, Dr. James Turner of Lexington removed Black Hawk’s skeleton for research purposes and had it mounted for exhibition. It was later turned over to Governor Lucas for safekeeping, and was housed in a museum in 1853. Black Hawk’s family made several attempts to obtain the skeleton, but it was consumed by fire when the museum burned. However, information from an eye-witness account presents a different picture and several possibilities.

Sarah Welch, a resident of New Lexington at the time of the grave robbery, later wrote an eye-witness account that differs from the official story. Dr. James Turner was a neighbor. He thought that if he could steal Black Hawk’s head, he could make a fortune from it on exhibition.

Black Hawk died of malaria fever in 1838 and was buried under a large sugar tree on the north side of the Des Moines River. For two weeks, Dr. Turner watched for a chance to exhume the grave, and when he had the opportunity, he quickly severed the head and returned to Lexington with his treasure.

Thirteen-year-old Sarah was at the time caring for a sick sister-in-law, Mrs. William Turner, who shared the home of Dr. James Turner. They sat up that night to await Dr. Turner’s return with Black Hawk’s head, and he arrived about 4 o’clock in the morning. He hid it until afternoon, then cooked the flesh off the skull. Sarah witnessed his return and says that if the rest of Black Hawk’s body was ever removed from the grave, it happened long after the head was stolen.

Dr. Turner hid for awhile at Tom Robb’s place on the south side of the Des Moines River. Ten Indian warriors came to William Turner’s demanding to see Dr. Turner and threatened retaliation if his whereabouts weren’t discovered. The Indians returned to Iowaville to hold council.

Meanwhile, a messenger was sent to Dr. Turner telling him to flee to Missouri, and William Turner and his family fled down the river by canoe, finally arriving in St. Louis. The sheriff pretended to chase Dr. Turner, but "could not find him." However, Turner was frightened and took the skull to Quincy, Illinois where he put it in the care of a doctor who later refused to return the skull to Dr. Turner. Dr. Turner stayed in St. Louis several years and eventually died of cholera, but stayed in contact with the Welch family.

The doctor in Quincy took the head to Burlington and sold it to a museum where it was housed for several years. If it was placed on a skeleton during its exhibition, this likely was not Black Hawk’s skeleton. That is of no consequence since the skull burned in the museum fire and no longer exists.

There is a possibility that the remains of Black Hawk other than his head, are located in the Iowaville Cemetery where a monument exists honoring the dead chief. Perhaps the Indians circulated the story that the entire skeleton had been removed from the chief’s grave in order to prevent any further looting. The cemetery location is not Black Hawk’s original grave site, as he was buried on the James Jordan farm a short distance from the Iowaville cemetery. Thus Black Hawk actually has two grave sites.

The story of Turner’s treasure from Black Hawk’s grave as told by eye-witness Sarah Welch Nossaman is considerably different in detail from the official version but is probably a more accurate account.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick