Iowa has no history. Honestly. That’s what I was told. So I did not spend even one hour of one day during my entire secondary-school education in Davenport, Iowa, studying local history. Kind of amazing, really. Especially since, if you look into it at all, you find some seriously hair-raising tales: about how English-born trader and not-really-a-colonel Col. George Davenport hooked up with his wife in order to get her daughter; about Davenport’s equally brilliant business negotiations with the area’s whites & Indians, including the not-really-a-chief Chief Blackhawk (pictured); about how the Black Hawk War caused all kinds of problems with that relationship; how Abe Lincoln showed up as a young militia captain; how a fresh-from-West Point Robert E. Lee showed up to scout the river for a new bridge; how Davenport was murdered in his home on the Fourth of July while his wife and her daughter were out picnicking; and how Davenport wasn’t even founded by Davenport but by his buddy, an obese Frenchman named Antoine LeClaire. It’s all right there at the bend in the river in an area now generically called the Quad-Cities—and that was before Bix Beiderbecke & Louis Armstrong showed up or John Deere was founded. James Michener would have had a field day.
Anyway, so it’s nice to see Bookforum reviewing a book about Black Hawk (the person, not the helicopter or my high school newspaper), since I never learned anything about him in school. But it’s disappointing to hear that it’s disappointing.
In his concluding chapter, Trask is very hard on Black Hawk. It is true that the old man and several other chiefs abandoned the Sauks in the moments before the massacre. How often do generals die with their troops? But he survived only to surrender and be placed in chains. The Americans sent him east in an attempt to awe him with the power of urban America. Instead Black Hawk became a symbol of resistance to those Americans who opposed the violent removal of Indians. He returned to the Sauk village and dictated his autobiography, which in its day was something of a best seller and has since become an enduring classic for its narration of the native side of an important moment. Held back by his contempt for Black Hawk's limitations, Trask misses the opportunity to write more expansively about one of the great figures in American history.