A Little Rock Island History

picture of the very tip of arsenal island taken from the centenial bridge across the mississippi river at Rock Island, IL

Coordinates: 41.489083, -90.573154

Rock Island was originally called Saukenuk, it was the home of a band of Native Americans of the Sauk nation. The most prominent being Chief Black Hawk who went to war with the white man and lived to tell about it. Of all the wars fought in United States history, the Black Hawk War is the only war named for a person. Black Hawk passed from this world in 1838 in what is now southeastern Iowa.

By 1826, an estimated 4,800 Sauk lived in and around Saukenuk. It was the largest single settlement in the new U.S. state of Illinois. This is how Black Hawk described Saukenuk:

"Our village was situated on the north side of Rock river, at the foot of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock river and the Mississippi. . . . The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with blue-grass, which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out of the bluff, near by, from which we were supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes. We always had plenty - our children never cried with hunger, nor our people were never in want. Here our village had stood for more than a hundred years."

The Sauk and Fox tribes made there winter home here. Life gathered from all around during the winter because the Rock island Rapids kept the water open in all but the hardest of winters. Eagles liked to fish here.

In 1907 they exploded the Rock Island rapids to make the river more passable for barges. They built the lock and dam system and controlled the drop of nearly 50 feet with the biggest drop of 10 feet occurring at Rock Island.

The island that is now called "Arsenal Island" was once reserved for newly wed couples so they could have privacy during their honeymoons.

The Black Hawk War

The defeat of the British Canadians in the War of 1812 and the spread of settlers into Illinois and up the Mississippi River doomed the village. In multiple treaties, many of the Sauk had signed land cessions that sold the land under Saukenuk to the new American nation. Part of the tribe established new villages in Iowa and in Missouri nearer their winter hunting grounds.

Black Hawk's band of Sauk refused to accept the vaildity of the treaty of cession, and approximately 1,500 men, women, and children, called the "British band", recrossed the Mississippi River eastward from Iowa Territory in 1832 possibly to re-occupy the village site (although they may have been headed for a Potawatomi village further north). During the winter, while the village was empty, several American families and itinerant lead miners had occupied the village and begun planting. The Illinoisans considered Black Hawk's movements an aggressive act of war and called out the local militia, thus starting the Black Hawk War.

The campaign of 1832 led to a complete victory for the U.S. Army and the state of Illinois. Many of Black Hawk's followers were killed and the Quad Cities region was completely opened to settlement. However, many white Americans admired Black Hawk's courage in defense of his band's ancestral lands, and the native leader was elevated to the rank of a folk hero.

In the late 1800s, the central portion of the site of Saukenuk was set aside as a park and historic site. A statue of Black Hawk was raised on the site in 1892, and the Civilian Conservation Corps redeveloped and improved the park in 1934-1942.

The village site today

The center of the Sauk village of Saukenuk is now the Black Hawk State Historical Site and John Hauberg Museum of Native American Life. However, the village spread out over a much larger area than the boundaries of the current state park. The Rock Island side of the village's site is now partly a large quarry. Many villagers lived south of the Rock River, in what is now Milan, Illinois. The historic site is served by Illinois Route 5, which intersects with Interstate 74 in nearby Moline, Illinois at exit #4.

This area has a rich musical heritage. At one time the Yankee Clipper was a place where you might bump into B.B. King, or Muddy Waters on open mic night. Eventually the "Clipper" was torn down and condos were built in its place. It was the passing of an era.

The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was here at Rock Island. Completed in 1856 it was a subject of much contention in its day.

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