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Road Trip Through History: Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button

The nineteenth century button industry based on fresh-water mussels was a recurring theme of our ten days on the Great River Road this year.

In 1891 a German button manufacturer named John Frederick Boepple opened a button factory in Muscatine, Iowa, after a change in tariff laws caused his business in Germany to fail. Shell buttons weren’t new. The Boepple family had made buttons from shells and horn for many years. But the plentiful mussel shells found in the Mississippi River near Muscatine were thick and well suited for cutting into buttons.

At the time that Boepple opened his small factory, the McKinley tariff of 1890 meant that imported shell buttons were expensive. The original foot-operated lathes that Boepple adapted from those used to make buttons from ocean shells were designed to allow skilled craftsmen to create a button from beginning to end, which meant that even without the additional cost of the tariff buttons were not cheap.* With the introduction first of steam-powered lathes and then a revolutionary machine called the Double Automatic that, well, automated the process,  attractive mother-of-pearl buttons were affordable to the average household. By the late nineteenth century, buttons made from river mussel shells were so popular that bars in at least one river town accepted mussel shells as payment.

Like other industries along the Great River Road, buttons were a boom and bust business.  “Clammers” earned good livings harvesting shells from the river in large quantities.  Button factories sprang up in towns up and down the Mississippi, creating hundreds of factory jobs and more opportunities for cottage industries where women and children sewed buttons to cards at home. In the same way that the logging industry overcut the great forests of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, by the 1920s, the button industry had decimated the Mississippi’s mussel population, and precipitated its own demise.**

* Today we tend to think about buttons as nothing in particular. Or more accurately, unless you knit or sew, you probably don’t think about buttons at all unless you have to sew one back on your jacket. (A skill everyone should learn, in my opinion.) But historically buttons were a luxury item: made by hand and often from expensive materials. It turns out there was a good reason my grandmothers (and probably yours) kept a button jar. (For that matter, I still have one.)

For those of you who’d like to know more, I recommend this article:

** The related story of efforts to restore the river mussel population was also a recurring theme of our trip. At one time there were 51 species of mussels in the upper Mississippi; today theater are 38, eighteen of them endangered.


Road Trip Through History: The Genoa National Fish Hatchery and the Black Hawk War

Here’s what I knew about the Black Hawk War at the beginning of our most recent travels along the Great River Road: it was a small scale war between Native American tribes and American settlers in the upper Midwest prior to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln fought in it as a member of the Illinois militia. I didn’t even known which tribes were involved.

It soon became clear that the war would be one of the recurring themes of the trip. We drove on Blackhawk streets and across a bridge named in honor of Chief Black Hawk. His picture appeared with brief paragraphs in the displays at Effigy Mounds National Monument, the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center in Lansing, Iowa, and the River Museum at LaCrosse.

We began to get a better sense of the story when we came across historical markers describing actions in the war appeared along the road in Wisconsin.(1) They were set up as a driving tour dedicated to the Black Hawk War, put together in the 1930s by a Wisconsin history buff named Dr. C.V. Porter, who was determined that the events of the war should not be forgotten. He put concrete markers at each stop. (They bear an uncomfortable, and not inappropriate, resemblance to tombstones.) In the 1990s, the Vernon County Historical Society restored the markers and added explanatory plaques. You can now drive a trail that follows Black Hawk’s doomed flight toward the Mississippi, aided by a pamphlet put out by the Vernon County Historical Society and the text on the markers.

Unfortunately, not all of the markers were on our path, and we did not read them in order. Which meant we did not get anything more from the markers than an unhappy sense that the story was an ugly one.

We finally learned the story from beginning to end at an unexpected stop on the road: the Genoa National Fish Hatchery.(2) Here’s the short version:

The conflict began in 1804, with the Treaty of St. Louis, when Sauk and Fox chiefs signed a treaty ceding a large portion of their land to the United States in exchange for $1000 a year and the right to continue using the land until the United States sold the land to settlers. There is some suggestion that William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana territory,(3) resorted to trickery in the treaty negotiations. (In fact, President Jefferson wrote Harrison a letter suggesting ways that the Native American tribes could be pressured into selling their lands, including a establishing a monopoly on trading posts and then allowing Native Americans to get so deeply in debt that they had to sell their lands.) (4)

Black Hawk never accepted the treaty, claiming that the chief who signed for the Sauk did not have the authority to sell the land. He and his people traveled back to their settlement at Saukenuk, near modern Rock Island, Illinois, modern each summer to grow corn and other crops. When they returned in 1828, they found that the government had sold off parcels of the Sauk territory to individual citizens. In fact, settlers were living in Black Hawk’s own long house.

In 1832, Black Hawk determined to return his people to their home, encouraged by promises of help from the British, with whom he had sided in the war of 1812, and by visions of success from an influential medicine man named Wabokieshiek, known as the Winnebago Prophet. (You can see how this is going to work out, right?)

Relationships between the Sauk and settlers had been tense for several years. When Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin from Iowas with a group of 1500 Sauk, roughly 1000 of them women , children and the elderly, skittish settlers sent word to General Edmund P Gaines. Commander of the Western Army, and Illinois Governor John Reynolds that Black Hawk had invaded.

By mid-April, Gaines and Reynolds, worried about the possibility of British support for the Sauk, had mobilized both the US Army and the Illinois state militia in pursuit of Black Hawk and his people.

Not surprisingly, the promised support never arrived. In May, Black Hawk attempted to negotiate with a small group of Illinois militiamen under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman who were camped nearby. He sent three of his men with a white flag to the militia camp. The militiamen, who could not understand their language assumed the worst and fired on them, killing one of the truce bearers. When the Sauk retaliated, Stillman’s volunteers panicked and fled in the face of what they perceived to be a large body of warriors. The losses at what came to be known as the Battle of Stillman’s Run were few, but they were enough to end any hope of peace.

Soon Black Hawk’s main goal was to get his people safely back to Iowa. The local American authorities, fearful that Black Hawk and his band would trigger a general uprising among the local tribes, were determined not to let him get away.

Throughout June and early July, small bands of militia and Native Americans fought their way across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. (Not all of the Native Americans were part of Black Hawk’s band. Some other groups appear to have taken advantage of the situation to attack settlers, secure that Black Hawk’s people would take the blame. Although the main Sauk band successfully eluded the pursuing militia, they had no time to rest or resupply.

On August 1, Black Hawk’s remaining forces of perhaps 500 men, women, and children had reached the banks of the Mississippi near the town of Bad Ax.(5) Notified by members of the Winnebago tribe that the Sauk were at the river’s edge, the settlement at Prairie du Chien sent a steamboat upriver, carrying a detachment of US Infantry and a six-pound cannon, with orders to keep the Sauk from crossing the river. Black Hawk attempted to surrender to the steamboat captain, who fired on the unprepared Sauk

The following day, bands of militia pushed the Sauk toward the river, where the steamboat fired at those who tried to cross. The “battle” of Bad Axe lasted more than three hours. The few who made it across the Mississippi met a band of Sioux, who took advantage of the battle to settle old scores.

Black Hawk surrendered on August 27. He was held for a time at Fort Crawford, then sent east as the main attraction of a multi-city tour designed to impress his peers with the folly of standing up against the United States government. The United States used his rebellion as an excuse for demanded further concessions from the Sauk and Fox chiefs, most of whom had not participated in Black Hawk’s doomed attempt to regain his homeland.

In my opinion, the fifteen weeks of the Black Hawk War of 1832 would be better best described as the Black Hawk Massacre. Not a story to be proud of.

(1) As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we love a good historical marker

(2) We came away from this trip very impressed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its information centers are right up there with those of the National Park Service.

(3) Best known as the president with the shortest tenure of office, dying after only 31 days in office. His death triggered a political crisis, which ultimately clarified how power is transferred when a president is unable to serve his full term. Not a small legacy. But I digress.

(4) Ironic, given Jefferson’s own problems with debt.

(5) Later renamed Genoa at the suggestion of a group of Italian immigrants who argued, probably with some justice, that the name Bad Ax attracted unsavory elements to the town.

From the Archives: Kepler’s Mother-A Scary Story for Halloween

The seventeenth century was a period of scientific revolution. Astronomers, like Galileo, worked out the motions of the planets and stars in the sky, and overturned the concept that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos.(1) Galileo, Newton and others created a new science of mechanics that applied the laws of mathematics to motion. Physicians explored the structure of the human body. The development of scientific instruments allowed students to see new worlds in a drop of water and scan the skies with a clarity not possible with the naked eye. Natural philosophers (the name used by scientists at the time) began to perform experiments in a way that could be verified by others.(2)

The seventeenth century was also the height of the European witch trials. Black magic, maleficum, was a capital crime, clearly defined by law. Between 1570 and 1680, roughly 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft in Europe and between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed. Most of the accused were women. One of the women accused was Katharina Kepler, the 68-year-old mother of German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The charges against Katharina will sound familiar to anyone who has read accounts of the witch trials.  A woman who suffered from a chronic illness accused Katharina of poisoning her. The local schoolmaster reported that the illiterate Katharina constantly pestered him to read letters from or write letters to her famous son, and that on one occasion she entered his house though the doors were locked. A local matron reported, second-hand, that a young seamstress told her that Katherina had roamed the house late at night(3)  and offered to teach her (the seamstress) witchcraft. She was accused of killing various local animals by magic and of turning herself into a cat. Katherina vehemently denied the charges. The only charges she couldn’t  deny were a) being old and b)being difficult. (4) Obviously prime witch material.

Her trial lasted six years.

In 1620, five years after Katharina’s ordeal began (!), at the height of his career, Johannes Kepler packed up his family, moved to the city where his mother was on trail, and took over her defense. He dissected the charges in a powerful, and groundbreaking, legal document. He attacked the reliability of many of the witnesses. He pointed out the fact that many of the accused acts–like entering someone’s house uninvited–could not necessarily be attributed to witchcraft. And that to do so would make any difficult old woman vulnerable to attack. (5) He discussed the differences between natural and unnatural illness in scientific detail, with the authority of one of the great scientists of his age. He pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony. It took almost a year, but he ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted.

Katharina died six months after her acquittal, no doubt worn down by her ordeal

At base, Kepler wasn’t that different than the men who tried his mother. He believed in magic. The division between magic, religion and science was not clear. Sir Isaac Newton spent as much time studying alchemy and interpreting biblical prophecies as he did on the scientific theorems for which he is famous. William Harvey, who discovered how blood circulates in the body, dissected a witch’s toad familiar, looking for the source of its supernatural power. Most witchhunters and demonologists were scholars and rationalists who believed in the importance of direct observation and were concerned with the question of what constituted reliable evidence . The investigation of witchcraft, magic and miracles was a much a part of the scientific revolution as the study of gravity and electricity.

Small comfort for cranky old ladies who liked cats and annoyed their neighbors.

(1) Or at least shoved it off balance. It takes a while for new ideas about the nature of reality to work their way through society. Consider the existence of the Flat Earth Society.
(2) It is only fair to point out that many of these breakthroughs had been anticipated by Islamic scientists during the Golden Age of Islam, most notably Alhazen, whose work laid the foundation for the scientific method.
(3) There is a reason they call them the witching hours.
(4) In her trial Johannes himself admitted that she “disturbs the whole of her town, and is the author of her own lamentable misfortune.”
(5) As indeed they were.



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