Iowa Writes

STEPHEN C. HULL
The Passing


The old man was buried on a hilltop under a gold and rust canopy of hardwood trees safely above the ever-meandering Des Moines downstream from the rapids at Ottumwanoc. He had only lived there a year, constantly daydreaming of his Saukenuk where he spent summers his entire adult life surrounded by fields of maize protected by the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi. The last few years had been demeaning to the old man. He could hardly stand with his weak knees or grasp a knife with his aching fingers. But it was the loneliness that was most demeaning. Shunned by the tribal leaders who had bristled at his bravado and piety, he was an old warrior whose battle glories were mostly forgotten.

He was one of those warriors who lived too long. Born in an era when pious warriors were revered, when transgressions demanded retribution. Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Black Sparrow Hawk, shortened to Black Hawk by his admired British redcoats. Feared by the Sioux-tongued tribes, he never lost a battle as he led his Sauk and the Sauki-speaking Mesquakie to defeat the Osage then annihilate the Ioway and finally control the Iowa and Illinois region of the Mississippi Valley. His tribe deified him at fifteen when as a child-warrior he killed an Osage and when his father was killed, the nineteen-year-old mourned alone in the woods for five years, leaving the woods with a condescending piety, later condemning the polygamous and alcoholic Keokuk.

The old man was buried on a hilltop under a gold and rust canopy of hardwood trees safely above the ever-meandering Des Moines downstream from the rapids at Ottumwanoc. He had only lived there a year, constantly daydreaming of his Saukenuk where he spent summers his entire adult life surrounded by fields of maize protected by the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi. The last few years had been demeaning to the old man. He could hardly stand with his weak knees or grasp a knife with his aching fingers. But it was the loneliness that was most demeaning. Shunned by the tribal leaders who had bristled at his bravado and piety, he was an old warrior whose battle glories were mostly forgotten.

He was one of those warriors who lived too long. Born in an era when pious warriors were revered, when transgressions demanded retribution. Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Black Sparrow Hawk, shortened to Black Hawk by his admired British redcoats. Feared by the Sioux-tongued tribes, he never lost a battle as he led his Sauk and the Sauki-speaking Mesquakie to defeat the Osage then annihilate the Ioway and finally control the Iowa and Illinois region of the Mississippi Valley. His tribe deified him at fifteen when as a child-warrior he killed an Osage and when his father was killed, the nineteen-year-old mourned alone in the woods for five years, leaving the woods with a condescending piety, later condemning the polygamous and alcoholic Keokuk.

When the wave of settlers washed over Illinois and pressed against the maize fields of Saukenuk, he kept his British Band in the village while the Keokuk-led faction realized the futility and quietly moved their summer residence to their winter hunting grounds west of the Mississippi. Then with tensions high among the settlers, the military moved his British Band to the west bank and General Atkinson ordered Saukenuk burned. Throughout the winter and spring of 1832, Black Hawk fumed at his removal from Saukenuk as old chiefs of the Winnebago and Kickapoo presented wampum belts to Black Hawk and he quixotically fantasized of an alliance of tribes with the redcoats. In June the 65-year-old Black Hawk once again led 2000 Sauk warriors, their families and supplies back across the immense Mississippi in a deadly pursuit of old dreams. But time had replaced the anger and frustration of the other chiefs with the realization that the encroaching American settlements were inevitable. The old man's dream vanished as his plans for an overwhelming force disintegrated. 

His warriors were scattered over the countryside hunting for food for their caravan of families when Atkinson ordered their return. Black Hawk must have swallowed his pride as he sent a message requesting an escort to the sanctuary of the west bank when the state militia attacked, 250 drunk and rowdy militiamen, untrained and undisciplined. His mobile village fled slowly north, a cumbersome caravan of village supplies, women and children, certainly not fleet warriors on horseback. Black Hawk executed a classic retreat leaving a rear guard to burn and destroy settlements. Their entire existence now depended on the temperament of a 65-year-old ideologue whose unrealistic dreams were shattered. They fled north through the oppressive swamps, then followed the Bad Axe River to the Mississippi, only to be cut off by a gunboat, pursued by army troops under Winfield Scott and Henry Dodge following the trail of dumped supplies and exhausted and starved women and children. Cannon shot felled those who didn't drown as buzzards and carrion crows circled the mangled warriors, women, and children. Black Hawk and several warriors slipped north in a diversionary tactic only to later surrender to General Street, ignominiously ending the last American Indian battle east of the Mississippi.

Six years later, humiliated and humbled, he died of malaria on the Des Moines below Ottumwanoc. Older tribesmen, remembering his prideful years, buried him sitting up in an American army uniform rather than his beloved British brigadier's redcoat, sheltered by a mausoleum of branches and twigs. A few months later his head was severed by the skilled hands of a greedy physician and illegal settler in Van Buren County, James Turner, who boiled and desiccated the skull in a hog's cauldron.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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STEPHEN C. HULL

A CPA in Orange County, California, Steven C. Hull graduated from Iowa in 1966, after taking an undergraduate course in the Writers' Workshop that convinced him to stay in business. He is writing a book on immigration and the quest for economic security in southeastern Iowa, from which "The Passing" is adapted.

This page was first displayed
on November 18, 2007

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