Amateur historian from Burlington, Russ Fry, gave a presentation on Sauk Indian chief Blackhawk at the Oakland Mills Nature Center on Sunday, Sept. 15.
The presentation centered on the mystery of the location of Blackhawk’s remains and the continued ambiguity about whether his remains survived a fire that occurred in 1853. Fry noted in his presentation that he has reason to believe Blackhawk’s remains are actually buried in Potter’s Field in Aspen Grove Cemetery, located in Burlington.
Fry, a retired probation officer, was inspired to begin authoring history books and making documentaries after beginning to research a murder in his own family. In the twelve years since he began, Fry has published 13 books and ten documentaries. Because of his research efforts, Fry travels to do presentations almost every month.
The historian’s research focuses mostly on local history in Iowa and is often inspired by small anecdotes that he reads.
“I’ll find a small thing and decide to look into it further,” he said. The story surrounding Blackhawk’s final resting place caught Fry’s attention because there seemed to be so many sources that conflicted with the accepted recorded history, which stated that Blackhawk’s remains had perished in a museum fire in Burlington. In his presentation, Fry very adamantly noted that the “history books got it wrong” when it came to Blackhawk and his story.
The historian recounted that Blackhawk and his people, the Sauk Indians, had lived in Eastern Iowa before several treaties, of which leaders of the Sauks had signed without understanding the contents, required the tribe to cede their land in the eastern half of Iowa.
According to Fry’s telling of the historical events, the United States government forced the Sauk’s out and ultimately inspired Blackhawk to attempt to collect forces and return to Iowa with his people. The conflict was known as the Black Hawk War and lasted from May to August of 1832. Blackhawk’s actions and notoriety made him and his gravesite a target for disgruntled Americans, including a doctor by the name of James Turner.
When Blackhawk passed away of old age in Oct. 3, 1838 at the age of 71, less than a year later on July 3, 1839, Turner robbed his gravesite, stealing Blackhawk’s skull, returning the year following for the rest of the chief’s remains.
Eventually the remains were returned to Blackhawk’s widow, who entrusted the remains to a governor. The remains were passed between several officials before eventually landing at a historical museum in Burlington, which was destroyed in a fire in 1853. Fry disputed this conclusion with various primary source documents including newspaper clippings and recorded testimonies that suggest Blackhawk’s remains were not at the museum on the day of the fire.
Fry began research on Blackhawk over a year ago and felt it was important to tell the story because “what was done to Blackhawk’s remains was disgraceful. They were stolen, flesh removed and they were going to exhibit them out. And to ignore that story, to try to sugarcoat it or cover it up … would be disgraceful. What was done to him was disgraceful and trying not to tell about what happened would also be disgraceful.”
Following his introductory presentation, Fry also did a showing of his Ken Burns-style documentary on Blackhawk, which won an award at the Native Spirit Film Festival.
At the end of the showing, Fry noted that he has an idea of where exactly Blackhawk’s remains are in the cemetery but would not pursue his search further without the blessing of Blackhawk’s tribe.
Speaking on the larger context about the importance of correcting widely-accepting history, Fry said, “Those who don’t learn from history are, of course, doomed to repeat it. And the lesson here that I took from all of this is that in human conflict, the party with the upper hand often mistake their power for moral superiority and then they give themselves permission to do whatever they want.”