Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Black Hawk was a textbook stereotype of the American Indian. He was tall for his time, thin, proud, stubborn, brave, crafty and intelligent. He was stealthy, could walk across a wooden floor without making a sound, and in secretive catlike fashion, would suddenly appear as if out of thin air! He seemed to enjoy alarming people in this manner.

Naturally, settlers were at first very apprehensive and skeptical of Indians because of the many bloody encounters they had heard about or experienced and because they were often known to steal things that were not nailed down. Although the tribe was peaceful and friendly by the time white settlers were entering the territory, their surprise appearances and secretive behavior usually produced an element of uneasiness, and sometimes fear.

Every facet of Black Hawk’s life is filled with mystery and presents material for debate by historians. Most agree that he was born in 1767 in Saukenuk, near present-day Rock Island. Apparently his family accepted this date, as it is on his marker at Iowaville Cemetery. But James Jordan claimed that Black Hawk told him his birth was in 1775.

Likewise, the old man’s time of death is not totally clear. An article in the Ottumwa Courier by Mrs. Vernon Gardner in 1956 at the time the Iowaville Hotel was being razed says that he died at Iowaville on September 15, 1838. He had been sick for awhile. He sometimes suffered from bilious attacks, and Dr. Cresap in Bonaparte had once treated him for the condition. This time, it seems that the old Indian had gone into a fever. He sent for his friend, James Jordan and asked him to go to Fort Edwards (Warsaw, Illinois) and secure a white doctor. He had been sick fourteen days and his Indian medicine men could not do anything for him. One report claims that he was willing to pay $200 to the white doctor for making the trip to Iowaville.

This was in mid-September, 1838. Jordan was preparing to go to Rock Island for trading purposes, so by the time he got to Warsaw and summoned the doctor, it would be too late. Upon learning that it would take several weeks to obtain a doctor, the old man sadly realized his time had come, and gave instructions on how he wanted to be buried. He died "soon after," and his sons and wife fulfilled those wishes.

The consensus of opinion is that Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838. This date was accepted and published in newspapers throughout Iowa Territory. Flux disease, malaria, consumption and high fever are all attributed as causes of Black Hawk’s death.

It is known that Black Hawk frequently drank large amounts of liquor. When he was younger, he could drink heavily and still walk a straight line (which few men can do.) Although most accounts by people who met and knew the chief say that he appeared clean and sober, George Duffield said that he would often come to the back door of their cabin staggering drunk in un-kept, dirty clothing.

I am not trying to make excuses for Black Hawk’s alleged behavior, but since the Duffield family settled near Pittsburg in April, 1837 their encounters with Black Hawk would have been during the last year of his life, at a time when he was ailing and suffering. No doubt the heavy use of liquor had taken its toll on his health.

Exactly how Black Hawk was buried is also subject to several reports. It seems to be fact that he was buried with at least $5,000 worth of objects he revered. He wished to be buried in the full dress of a Chief, so his family clothed him in full blue cloth regimentals, military hat with ostrich plumes, gold epaulets on his shoulders, sword belted on, cane in hand and silver medals on his chest.

He had served for the British in the War of 1812. One medal he wore was presented to him by the British, one by President Madison as a token of friendship, and a third by General Jackson when Black Hawk was a prisoner at Washington after the Black Hawk War. Jackson also presented him with the military suit in which he was buried, and an American Flag that was hoisted over his grave and remained there until it wore out. Henry Clay gave him the cane.

There are reports that he was buried in a sitting position with his possessions around him and a huge mound of dirt was piled over him. Some say that his favorite horse was buried with him among his possessions, and in one account he was seated on the horse. According to description, there was even an exit to his "tomb" built so that he could ride his horse off to the "Happy Hunting Grounds."

Mystery did not end with Black Hawk’s death. Dr. Turner from New Lexington (a frontier village one mile west of present Bonaparte) felt that his body could better serve science. The grave was guarded well, but Turner watched for an opportunity and when he got his chance, dug up the Indian’s remains.

Sarah Welch Nossamon at Lexington was an eye-witness when Dr. Turner returned with the head and saw him boil the skin off of it in a large kettle. When the Indians came around to find Turner, he hid for awhile with friends across the river, then escaped to St. Louis by canoe. According to her, he left the skull with a doctor in Quincy who wired it onto another man’s skeleton.

According to other reports, the entire Black Hawk skeleton was wired together in Alton, Illinois. Soon after the theft, Black Hawk’s wife and children had Jordan write to Governor Lucas of Iowa Territory to inform him of the matter. Turner and another doctor were in dispute, so the Alton doctor informed Lucas that he had the skeleton. The governor received the skeleton and notified Mrs. Black Hawk and her children that they could obtain it.

The family knew that before long they would be moving to a reservation in Kansas, so they decided that it was safe to leave the skeleton with the governor until they were ready to move. However, the Governor’s Office burned down before they moved and the skeleton was lost.

Other reports have said that the Black Hawk family agreed to allow Burlington to house the skeleton in a museum and that the museum burned in 1846. Still other reports say that the skeleton was out on loan when the fire took place and made its way back to Iowaville, where it is buried in the grave at the Iowaville Cemetery.

Sarah Nossamon remained persistent in her claim that only the head was stolen by Turner and that if the body was ever taken it was stolen by someone else. She suggested that the Indians spread the story that the entire body was removed from the grave in order to stop further looting of the gravesite.

However, there are conflicting accounts that have been handed down by people who helped Dr. Turner loot the grave. He wanted to sell the skeleton for research and saw no sin in stealing a dead body, and convinced his friends to take part in the theft. Ed Reed, Warren Cox and Jefferson Cox participated in the adventure one night in July, 1839. All were from Lexington.

The body was conveyed on horseback to a hut near the mouth of Lexington Creek where a large iron kettle was brought. To ease the process of removing the flesh from the bones, Dr. Turner dismembered the body and the bones were placed in the kettle and the flesh boiled off. Last of all, he boiled the flesh from the head. Dr. Turner took the bones to Burlington by horseback and sent them to Quincy to be assembled.

According to one newspaper account, the angry Indians swarmed the little town of Lexington in search of revenge. The three men that were accomplices found a secure hiding place, and Turner took off for parts unknown, and died in San Francisco.

Governor Lucas had the bones returned from Quincy. Once the family was satisfied to leave the remains with Governor Lucas, he turned them over to the Burlington Geological and Historical Society where they were destroyed by fire in 1885 when that building burned down. (Effie Cox gives the date of this fire as 1855.)

Effie Cox, a descendant of the Cox brothers who were Turner’s accomplices says that after Dr. Turner died, his wife made a statement corroborating the story of how the other Lexington men participated in the theft. Sarah Nossamon was only 13 years old at the time, and the details were kept so secretive that perhaps she was never made aware of all of the proceedings that night. Perhaps Turner did not want to involve his friends so he appeared at his home with the head (which he had severed from the body) to give the appearance that he acted alone.

Black Hawk was a close personal friend of Dr. Turner and the men who accompanied him, as he came to trade at the little store in (New) Lexington. The bold adventure for financial profit gained Turner nothing but notoriety.

Jefferson Cox kept the post office at the village, Ed Reed was the blacksmith, and Warren Cox kept the store. Nossamon said that Dr. and Mrs. Turner owned the store. Warren Cox sold the Indians foodstuffs, tobacco and whiskey. At the time, James Jordan lived at the Indian village (Iowaville) and presided over the Indian Trading Post. Phelps had moved on up the river with the rest of the tribe.

Would these three friends of Dr. Turner make up the story of their participation in the grave robbery? They might at times embellish it, but it is doubtful that three people would tell a story with the same general gruesome details if it weren’t a true account.

The town of Iowaville was situated about 1 mile west of Selma. It was originally well within Van Buren County, but when Davis County was created and the line drawn according to modern boundaries, Iowaville was right at the county line. Black Hawk’s last residence (in Van Buren County at the time) would have actually been across the line in what is now Davis County as near as I can determine. Written reports including articles by Ralph Arnold corroborate this.

James Jordan first arrived in Iowaville in 1828 with a license to trade with the Indians.

The Indians gave Jordan about 3,000 or 4,000 acres. Although he lived near Farmington, near Bonaparte, and in several other locations along the river as he trapped and collected furs for trading, he is considered to be the first white settler in the Iowaville region.

Government agents left him alone because he was a trader. William Avery also traded in the area, and sold a man named William Betterton the "Haigler Farm" in June, 1837 for $250 in gold.

Government troops patrolled the region. Under the command of Captain Geach of Agency City, they burned his house and property and destroyed his crops, because he was behind the lines of the original Black Hawk Purchase. He fled into Jefferson County to a portion safely within the Wisconsin Territory boundaries.

Some historians believe that Black Hawk was always a warrior and never a chief. Once he angrily had to leave a council meeting because he was not considered qualified to be there. He hated Chief Keokuk with a passion, and this anger helped provoke his wrath that resulted in the Black Hawk War. He might not have been chief, but he had enough charisma to attract followers, and led more than 2,000 warriors into battle.

Keokuk was made head chief of the Sauk and Fox nation. Every village had a chief and it appears that Black Hawk at Iowaville was one of these, even though the terms of the Black Hawk War had forbade him to lead a group of people. By this time, his feelings and temperament had changed. He had made great friends with white people such as Roger Cresap in Bonaparte, James Jordan in Iowaville and Agent Street. He loved them like brothers and continued to hate Keokuk. This tame change of attitude is part of the mystery about the great, somewhat legendary man known as Black Hawk.

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