The History of the Butterfly, Part 137: A Final Indignity

Black Hawk suffered a final indignity in death. His grave was robbed. There is an account of a part of the theft in Annals of Iowa, Volume XIII, No. 6, October, 1922. This is part of an account by Mrs. Sarah Welch Nossaman called “Pioneering at Bonaparte and near Pella.” “…In 1835 my father moved to what is now Iowa, but at that time it was part of Wisconsin Territory. We settled one mile below where Bonaparte now is, in Van Buren County. We had but few neighbors, among them being old Uncle Sammy Reed and his brother Isaac, and an Indian trader by the name of Jordan. I think Uncle Jimmy Jordan was known to most of the old settlers of the eastern part of this state. He was my father’s nearest neighbor. It was here we had for neighbors Black Hawk, Keokuk, Wapello, Hard Fish, Kishkakosh, Naseaskuk and a score of others of the Sac and Fox Indians. Here we had hard times and often went hungry. We lived there five years, one mile above where Bonaparte now is. The town of New Lexington was laid out, so we had a post office, but if a letter had come for us we could not have taken it out of the office. Letters were not prepaid with a two-cent stamp as they are now, but the one that received the letter had to pay twenty-five cents before he could take it out of the office. While we lived there Black Hawk and his sons were frequent visitors and often partook of my father’s hospitality. In 1837 or 1838, I don’t remember which, Black Hawk died of malaria fever. One of our neighbors, Dr. James Turner, thought if he could only steal Black Hawk’s head he could make a fortune out of it by taking it east and putting it on exhibition. After two weeks’ watching he succeeded in getting it. Black Hawk’s burial place was near old Iowaville, on the north side of the Des Moines River, under a big sugar tree. It was there that Dr. Turner severed the head from the body. At the time it was done I was taking care of his sick sister-in-law, Mrs. William Turner. The doctor made his home with his brother. We knew the evening he went to steal the head and sat up to await his coming. He got in with it at four o’clock in the morning and hid it till the afternoon of the same day, when he cooked the flesh off the skull. So I can say that I am the only one now living that witnessed that sight, for it was surely a sight for me. If the rest of Black Hawk’s bones were ever removed it was a good many years after his head was stolen.

The second morning after their ruler’s head was stolen ten of the best Indian warriors came to William Turner’s and asked for his brother, the Doctor.  They were painted war style.  He told them he did not know where his brother was.  They told him they would give him ten days to find his brother, and if he did not find him in that time he would pay the penalty for his brother’s crime.  But he knew where his brother was.  He was at the home of a neighbor named Robb, Uncle Tommy Robb as he was called by everyone, on the south side of the Des Moines River.  But he did not want to find his brother and sent a boy to tell him to fly for Missouri, which he did.  The Indians returned to Iowaville to hold council and conclude what to do, and while they were holding council William Turner and his wife made their escape in a canoe down the river.  William Turner kept a little store in New Lexington.  He got his neighbors to pack and send his goods after him. 

But the Indians demanded their ruler’s head, and for three weeks we expected an outbreak every day, but through the influence of their agent and the citizens together they gave up hostilities for a while.  The whites told them they would bring Turner to justice if he could be found.  The sheriff chased Turner around for awhile, which only gave him the more time to get out of the way.  The Turner family finally all went to St. Louis where the Doctor was found again, and to keep the Indians quite the sheriff went to St. Louis in search of him, but he did not find him.  He did not want to find him.  But Turner got frightened and took Black Hawk’s skull to Quincy, Illinois, and put it in the care of a doctor there for safe-keeping (I forgot the doctor’s name) till the Indians would get settled down, and then he intended to take it east.  But when he got ready to go east with it the doctor in Quincy refused to give it up, and he did not dare to go to the law about it, so after all his trouble and excitement he lost Black Hawk’s skull, and not only made Turners endless trouble, but put the lives of all settlers in jeopardy for months.  We lived principally on excitement and that was a poor living.  But they finally got over it till all was peace and then we were happy.  The doctor that had the head took it to Burlington and sold it to a museum and the museum was burned down, so Black Hawk’s skull is not now in existence.  The Turner family were warm friends of my father’s family.  They stayed in St. Louis two or three years, I don’t remember just how long, and they all three died with the cholera.  So I am left alone to tell the story.

About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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