I first encountered the spirit of Black Hawk in February of 1979. It was an unseasonably warm, muggy night in New Orleans. A gauze of mist shrouded the city as I left the French Quarter, crossed Industrial Canal bridge, and entered a threadbare black neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward.
I was doing research for a documentary about the families of jazz musicians. The patriarch of one clan, a deacon in his church, told me of a ceremony invoking the spirit of the long-dead Illinois Indian leader. Black Hawk had little connection to my project, but curiosity has its current.
The mist had turned to rain when I reached the church, a small cement-block building that had once been a laundromat. Only a dozen people were inside, most of them women. The humble environment included framed pictures of Jesus, candles on a modest altar, an old creaky piano–and standing in front of the altar a tepee made of thin stakes, with incense burning at its base.
I introduced myself to the bishop, who had been expecting me. After an exchange of amenities I took a seat in a pew.
The bishop said opening prayers; after an a cappella hymn punctuated by tambourine bursts, he made a brief statement. “And so we welcome tonight our Black Hawk celebrator . . .”
The man who would be Black Hawk wore a flowing white gown. He was about 23, with olive-brown skin, dark hair, dark eyebrows, and piercing black eyes. His name, I later learned, was Jules Anderson. But that night, as far as I was concerned, he was Black Hawk.
“We come tonight to speak of a great warrior,” Anderson began, “the great chief–Black Hawk! And all of us know how Black Hawk will come to our aid. He will fight your battles . . . if you just be still.”
A bolt of thunder struck the sky, and the tiny chapel absorbed the current. Thunder hit again and rain started pounding the roof like cannonballs. The lights went out. Anderson’s white robe shone in the flickering light of candles on the altar. “Remember that Black Hawk will help you! He’s here to use his powers! We call to him, we pray to him, we tell him what we need.”
Just then the door flew open and volleys of rain blew in. All heads turned. A man in his early 20s stood there, soaking wet and somewhat dazed. The bishop emerged from darkness beside the altar and an overhead light came on. He sensed trouble. The newcomer, with eyes red as coals, was lit up on something.
“We welcome all our people,” the bishop murmured cautiously.
Anderson paused at the altar, waiting for the ceremony to resume. The bishop said, “We pray for those behind bars. We offer counsel and friendship to those in the night.”
“It’s rainin’ hard, y’all,” blurted the newcomer.
The bishop escorted the man to an empty pew and whispered to him as he sat. For a moment, in the furrowed brow of an elderly woman I sensed embarrassment–that on the night a visitor should come, a drugged man interrupts the service. But then she turned toward the altar and I wondered if she had thought that at all.
The lights lowered once again. Rain continued drumming the roof. I noticed now a wooden Indian statue placed on the altar just behind the tepee. Smoke curled up amid the incense.
“We believe in the spirits,” Anderson said, “and we know the spirits will come if we call them.”
“Yes Lawd!” cried a woman.
Then the sky exploded with such fury that a cold chill went up my spine. Anderson paced back and forth across the floor in front of the tepee. “The name Beatrice!” he said. “The name Beatrice has come to me. Beatrice . . . who is Beatrice?”
From the lips of the man just arrived came the words: “That’s my mama, bra!”
Everyone turned as Anderson pointed to the stranger. “Yeah, and yo’ mama’s worried about you! She’s walkin’ up and down, pacin’ the floor. She knows you gone out in the streets, and all kinda things can happen! Look at you: you know yo’ mama’s worried. Beatrice is grieving!”
The man looked shocked. Then he said, “I wanna testify!”
“No,” said the bishop calmly from his seat behind the altar. “You can do that later on.”
The man sat down, mumbling to himself.
“And we know from Black Hawk that we have to be careful about–our money,” continued the celebrant. “We have to use our money carefully. Can’t waste money. And you”–his voice was gentler now, as he faced a small woman in the front pew–“I know you been worried about money.” She nodded. “And you need money.”
“Yes Lawd,” she said softly.
“All right now. The money is coming. But you have to wait. But the money is coming. Now, when the money comes, it will be a check in the mail. And you leave that check up on yo’ bureau. When it comes, no matter how much you need that money, you leave it on the bureau, and wait five days before you spend it.”
As he went through the room, addressing individuals, telling people to be patient, to plan this, not to worry about that–the relative who is sick or “the one who is so close to you . . . and yet, oh so far”–it was clear that his prophecies were not the stuff of miracles. A folk preacher, he probably knew most of the people there, and in a congregation so small and so poor, his advice on love and coping with financial stress was universally applicable.
But the way he faced those people, and the personal address in each of his statements, elevated his general line of oratory into something more specific, and at the same time charismatic. His sway over the tiny group was total. The man radiated confidence. In a room of true believers, who was I to doubt the power of his ministry?
As for Beatrice–well, if he didn’t know the whacked-out dude, perhaps he had something of a gift, as faith most certainly is. The guy off the street was spellbound.
As the ceremony wore on, the chants to the Indian–“Black Hawk is a watchman! He will fight your battles!”–melded into a positive theme of reinforcement, of solidarity in a common struggle. As he sang the praises of Black Hawk I saw the ceremony as a performance of spirit: he became the presence of Black Hawk, dancing across the floor, chanting, kneeling before the tepee, calling Black Hawk’s name.
The ceremony reached a lull. Anderson, back on his feet, continued pacing the floor. “Now, I ain’t gonna call any names, but there is money in this room. Big money!”
My thoughts went chink like a cash register. The budget for the video documentary I was working on had been awarded the month before in a grant from the state humanities endowment: $36,000.
“And the important thing about the money,” he continued, “is it’s got to be used right.”
Anderson now stood at the altar holding candles sheathed in red glass bottles, with a yellow Indian sticker on each one. He was selling them for a dollar. He also sold small vials of a sweet-smelling oil. I stood in line with the others and purchased one of each. When everyone was back in the pews, Anderson began hitting his tambourine, chanting softly, and in the middle of this he stopped and pointed at me.
“If you wanna know Black Hawk then you must come to the altar,” he commanded.
So, I went to the altar. He was pounding the tambourine harder as the rain continued its drumbeat on the roof. A woman in the front pew hit her tambourine as Anderson began dancing around the altar, everyone clapping in rhythm with his feet. Rather than look like a dumb cluck, I started dancing too, sort of, making a wide arc behind the celebrant, then slipped back into my seat as he continued dancing and chanting.
I had never seen anything like it. The Catholicism of my youth was considerably more understated.
Later I learned that Black Hawk services have been performed in New Orleans since the 1920s. Today at least a dozen churches host such rituals at least once a year. The preachers who invoke Black Hawk are in one sense religious performers, enacting his cultural memory. But believers, mostly low-income people, also give testimony about troubles they have endured “with Father Black Hawk’s help,” as one man put it in a recent service. They beseech Black Hawk for financial help and protection. “My son got in trouble, and he had to go to the courthouse,” a woman cried. “I prayed to Black Hawk to protect him–and they did not put him in jail!”
Ever since that strange rainy night in the Ninth Ward, I have been trying to understand how this came to be. How did a 19th-century Indian from western Illinois become a saint in the black churches of New Orleans?
“I was born at the Sac Village, on Rock River, in the year 1767.” Thus begins Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, Black Hawk’s autobiography, which he dictated to a government interpreter and a newspaper editor in 1833.
Some chroniclers of Indian history have questioned the authenticity of Black Hawk’s autobiography. But Donald Jackson, who wrote an essay and footnotes for the 1955 edition published by the University of Illinois Press, makes a persuasive argument that it is genuine. The interpreter, Antoine LeClaire, spoke Black Hawk’s tongue and read the dictated work back to him. Although the text is dotted with Anglicisms like “whilst” and other phrases that betray a white man’s pen, such embellishments recede beneath the powerful voice of the narrative. “Black Hawk’s story,” writes Jackson, “despite the intrusive hands of interpreter and editor, is basically a tale told by an Indian from an Indian point of view.” It’s a tale of betrayal, anger, and humiliation; it marks the passing of Indians forever from Illinois and the last gasp of native resistance to the white man’s usurpation of the Northwest Territory.
The Sauk village–which now lies beneath the city of Rock Island–was located near the confluence of the Rock River and the Mississippi. The Sauk (also spelled Sac) had settled along the Mississippi after being pushed out of Wisconsin by the French. They were allies of the British in their battles with the French over lands in southern Canada, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Theirs was not a peaceful life, to judge from Black Hawk’s autobiography. After mentioning his birth and giving a brief history of his ancestors and how they came to occupy their village on the Rock River, Black Hawk skips ahead to about his 15th year, when he took part in a bloody battle with the Osage Indians, a persistent enemy of the Sauk: “Standing by my father’s side, I saw him kill his antagonist, and tear the scalp from his head. Fired with valor and ambition, I rushed furiously upon another, smote him to the earth with my tomahawk–run my lance through his body–took off his scalp, and returned in triumph to my father. He said nothing, but looked pleased. This was the first man I killed! . . . Our party then returned to our village, and danced over the scalps we had taken. This was the first time that I was permitted to join in a scalp-dance.”
In a subsequent battle with Cherokee, Black Hawk’s father was killed. The son gathered forces for a revenge attack, but “only found five of their people, whom I took prisoners. . . . Great as was my hatred for this people, I could not kill so small a party.” The sense of mercy is notable. Though Black Hawk’s memoir emphasizes the number of men he killed in various battles, it also expresses a recurrent quest for justice, sometimes as a cri de coeur over the white man’s ways.
The climax of the autobiography, and the source of Black Hawk’s legend, is what came to be known as the Black Hawk War of 1832, the culmination of a conflict that stretches back to at least 1804, when Sauk and Fox Indians signed a dubious treaty in Saint Louis. To Black Hawk this story begins simply: “One of our people killed an American.” Actually, according to historian Jackson, a young chief was accused of killing three settlers. Answering a summons from territorial governor William Henry Harrison, and apparently unaware of the larger forces at play, the village council at Rock Island sent the accused young chief to Saint Louis with a delegation intent on “paying for the person killed,” in Black Hawk’s words–“thus covering the blood, and satisfying the relations for the man murdered,” according to the Indians’ custom. (Black Hawk, who was never formally a chief, was not part of this delegation.) The contingent returned from Saint Louis wearing fine coats and reporting that the American chief who met with them wanted land “on the west side of the Mississippi, and some on the Illinois side” in exchange for the prisoner’s freedom. The Indians, who had no authority to do so, had agreed to the terms and signed a treaty; but before they could fetch the young chief, he was shot dead, perhaps while attempting an escape. President Thomas Jefferson’s letter pardoning him for killing the settlers in self-defense came too late.
It was also too late to undo the land deal, which to Black Hawk looked like a swindle. According to his memoir, the Sauk delegates “had been drunk the greater part of the time they were in Saint Louis.” In return for an annuity of a thousand dollars a year, the treaty they signed ceded control of some 15 million acres to the federal government, including a large area in upper Illinois and valuable lead mines in Wisconsin. A telling clause stipulated that “as long as the lands which are now ceded to the United States remain their property, the Indians . . . shall enjoy the privilege of living or hunting on them.” The unwritten message was that when settlers arrived and took possession of the land, the Indians had to vacate. This message registered with many Indians, who began leaving the area. But Black Hawk, described by historian Reuben Thwaites as an “obstinate patriot,” resisted; he and a group of like-minded followers remained in the village.
Black Hawk’s group came to be known as the “British band,” for unlike most Indians in the area, including the majority of his own tribe, they sided with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812 and remained loyal to the British long after their influence in the region had diminished–a friendship that made Black Hawk forever suspect in the eyes of American settlers and their government. “He passionately hated the Americans,” wrote Thwaites in a history of Wisconsin, “because they annoyed him, because the marauders of our nationality had stolen his property, because he had once been beaten by one of them, because they were intruders on the domains of his people, because his English father [the term Indians used for leader] hated them, because his rivals were their friends.” Black Hawk told Antoine LeClaire: “I had not discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans that had come to the country! They made fair promises but never fulfilled them! Whilst the British made but few–but we could always rely upon their word! . . .
“Why did the Great Spirit ever send the whites to this island, to drive us from our homes, and introduce among us poisonous liquors, disease and death? They should have remained upon the island where the Great Spirit first placed them.”
(All italics appear in the 1955 edition of the autobiography.)
As white settlers came ever closer to fulfilling what they later would call their manifest destiny, the tension between cultures became the advancing shadow of Black Hawk’s life. Proud and belligerent, by most accounts, he and his band of dissidents clashed repeatedly with the settlers and with the military forces sent to protect them. Black Hawk wanted to organize a militant resistance to white settlement, linking Indians from Rock Island to Mexico. But tribal rivalries, exacerbated by the pressure of white encroachment, prevented the unity he hoped for.
The conflict came to a head in the spring of 1831, when Black Hawk and his men returned to the Sauk village from a long hunt in the west and found white settlers dividing up their ancestral land. The settlers had damaged the Indians’ lodges and destroyed the corn crop planted by the Indian women. Meeting with government agents, Black Hawk demanded that the white intruders leave his village. “I now determined to put a stop to it,” he recalled in his autobiography, “and told them, that they must and should leave our country–and gave them until the middle of the next day.” But after a show of military force under the command of Major General Edmund P. Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812 who had fought with Andrew Jackson against the Creek and Seminole, Black Hawk signed an agreement pledging that he and his followers would never return to the east side of the Mississippi without permission of the government. In return, Gaines promised that they would be provided corn to replace that which they had left growing in the fields.
But Black Hawk did not feel his people had been dealt with fairly, and his people were low on food: the hunting in Iowa that winter went badly, and they found the corn provided them inadequate to their needs. Black Hawk brooded over the possibility of obtaining justice. In this he was encouraged, probably deceitfully, by a Sauk chief named Neapope, who told him that a Winnebago leader called the Prophet stood ready to help Black Hawk and had secured promises of aid from the British and several other tribes. Black Hawk, displaying an ambivalence that seems to characterize his life, tried to ready a fighting force to take his village back and at the same time hoped for an audience with the Great Father in Washington, President Andrew Jackson, who he thought might arbitrate his grievance without bloodshed. “When it was ascertained that we would not be permitted to go to Washington, I resolved upon my course.” In April of 1832 Black Hawk crossed back to the eastern side of the Mississippi with 500 braves and their wives and children, moving north to meet the Prophet. The Prophet, who was believed to have spiritual powers and prescient dreams, now assured Black Hawk that a new white chief–General Henry Atkinson, who had replaced Gaines–would not attack so long as they acted peaceably.
But the Prophet was either mistaken or lying. Atkinson (whom Black Hawk called the “White Beaver”) sent messages ordering the Indians off the land; Black Hawk sent word back that his intentions were peaceful: he was traveling north, away from his ancestral village, to the Prophet’s land, there to plant corn. But despite their peaceful intentions the Indians were soon drawn into combat: On the night of May 14, Black Hawk received word at his camp that there was a large contingent of soldiers nearby; these were militia troops under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman. Having previously decided that “if the White Beaver came after us, we would go back–as it was useless to think of stopping or going on without provisions,” Black Hawk now resolved to give up the march. He dispatched an advance party of three braves to meet with the soldiers and make peace, and a second party of five to observe from afar. But Stillman’s men, who may have been drunk and were certainly inexperienced and undisciplined, killed three of the Indians, and with their lives went Black Hawk’s credulity about white motives. In retaliation he led a group of about 40 braves against Stillman’s 270 soldiers and routed them with surprising ease, killing a dozen. “The dead that were found were cut and mangled in a most indecent way; their hearts cut out, heads off, and every species of indignity practised upon their persons,” a sentry wrote.
Fortified with arms and supplies from Stillman’s troops, Black Hawk now removed the Indian women and children to Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin, and led his warriors back into Illinois. As word spread among settlers of Stillman’s mutilated soldiers, a legend of Black Hawk arose. “There was consternation throughout the West,” Thwaites wrote. “Exaggerated reports of [Black Hawk’s] forces and the nature of his expedition were spread throughout the land. His name became coupled with stories of savage cunning and cruelty, and served as a household bugaboo, the country over.”
He was indeed a fierce combatant, but it was a rearguard battle all the way, fought over food as much as freedom. An Indian sensibility–the myth of endless space–was dying by the day. Black Hawk was at war on a historical chessboard that made of him a pawn.
Less than a month after “Stillman’s run,” as it came to be known, Black Hawk’s men were beating their own retreat under fire from General Atkinson’s forces, which had reinforcements of Illinois volunteer militia. The Indians were pushed back to Lake Koshkonong, where they’d left their women and children, and from there westward to the Wisconsin River. With a battalion of lead-mine rangers from Wisconsin now augmenting the U.S. and Illinois troops, the Indian warriors scrambled up the riverbank bluffs at Prairie du Sac as the women and children fled. “With consummate skill,” wrote Thwaites, “Black Hawk made a stand at the summit of the heights, and with a small party of warriors held the whites in check until the noncombatants had crossed the broad river bottoms below and gained shelter upon the willow-grown shore opposite.”
The war lasted but another week, with Black Hawk and his men on the run. Black Hawk again tried to surrender, but his enemies wanted to eradicate Sauk rebelliousness–and his enemies now had allies in Menominee and Sioux warriors, who ironically, in settling old scores with the Sauk, hastened the extirpation of Indians from the midwest. As a final indignity a band of Winnebago–the tribe of the Prophet, whose bad advice Black Hawk had heeded–joined the hunt for Rock Island’s last free Indians.
In the end it was a rout, with 3,000 whites stalking remnants of the force with which Black Hawk had begun. On August 1 and 2, attempting to cross into what they thought would be the safety of Iowa, Black Hawk’s band, including women and children, were brutally set upon by an armed steamboat, the Warrior, and by some 2,000 troops under the command of General Atkinson. A third time Black Hawk tried to surrender, but the attempt was misinterpreted or ignored. “Early in the morning,” he recalled, speaking of August 2, “a party of whites, being in advance of the army, came upon our people, who were attempting to cross the Mississippi. They tried to give themselves up–the whites paid no attention to their entreaties–but commenced slaughtering them! In a little while the whole army arrived. Our braves, but few in number, finding that the enemy paid no regard to age or sex, and seeing that they were murdering helpless women and little children, determined to fight until they were killed! As many women as could, commenced swimming the Mississippi, with their children on their backs. A number of them were drowned, and some shot, before they could reach the opposite shore.” Most of those who did make it across, again including women and children, were slaughtered on the other side by the Sioux. Black Hawk escaped to a Winnebago camp, where he was turned over to the Americans. His fickle ally, the Prophet, was turned over with him. In the autobiography Black Hawk describes himself as a captive steaming downriver toward an army barracks under the charge of a “young war chief,” Lieutenant Jefferson Davis:
“On our way down I surveyed the country that had cost us so much trouble, anxiety, and blood, and that now caused me to be a prisoner of war. I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites, when I saw their fine houses, rich harvests, and every thing desirable around them; and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.”
Among the whites who participated in the Black Hawk War were Abraham Lincoln, of the Illinois Mounted Volunteers, and another future president, Zachary Taylor, who was garrison commander at Prairie du Chien. The volunteer horsemen included three future governors of Illinois and one of Wisconsin. Newspapers gave the war extensive coverage for the time, recording details of atrocities by the Indians. Nevertheless, the defeated leader became a topic of fascination in the popular mind.
Atkinson, the victorious general, treated Black Hawk with the respect that competing warriors often accord one another. (Black Hawk returned the favor by dedicating his autobiography to the general: “The path to glory is rough, and many gloomy hours obscure it. May the Great Spirit shed light on your’s–and that you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to, is the wish of him, who, in his native forests, was once as proud and bold as yourself.”) After a short stint in prison Black Hawk and a retinue of five other Indians were taken to Washington for a meeting in the White House with President Jackson, who stressed the futility of bearing arms. To underscore the point Jackson had the Indians briefly reimprisoned, but he soon decided on a different tack: he sent them to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York to behold the buildings, the crowded streets, the energy of commerce–the economic prowess of white civilization.
It was a PR tour of sorts. A London publisher who encountered the Indians on a steamer in Buffalo wrote of Black Hawk “dressed in a short blue frock coat, white hat and red leggins tied around below the knee with garters. . . . His shirt not very clean. . . . His nose perforated very wide between the nostrils, so as to give it the appearance of the upper and under mandibles of a hawk. He wears light colored leather gloves, and a walking stick with a tassel.”
The Indians posed for portrait artists, whose renditions would become collector’s items. Crowds gawked as they went to theaters and restaurants. But when they arrived by boat in Albany, with a huge crowd lining the dock, ugly epithets rose out of the throng, drawing the curtain on the goodwill tour.
Donald Jackson writes that their return voyage took them to Detroit, “where they were allegedly burned in effigy,” and across Lake Huron to Mackinac and then Green Bay. From there “they embarked in an open boat and went up the Fox River and down the Wisconsin River.”
A ceremony was held when they returned to Rock Island. Keokuk, a longtime nemesis of Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk majority who had compromised with the whites early on, arrived to greet the defeated warrior. When Major John Garland read a document directing the vanquished Indians to “follow Keokuk’s advice and be governed by his counsel in all things,” Black Hawk, defiant to the last, uttered a protest. Garland apparently did not understand what he said; Donald Jackson quotes from a letter the major wrote to the secretary of war: “The old man rose to speak, but was so much agitated and embarrassed that he said but few words, expressive of dissatisfaction, and sat down. He, however, soon discovered that he had gone too far, and begged, that what he had said might be forgotten.”
Black Hawk settled near the Iowa River with his wife and three children. It was there that he dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter of mixed Indian ancestry, and John Patterson, editor of the Galena newspaper the Galenian. Jackson writes that Black Hawk was friendly to the white families who lived in cabins near his own.
But his retirement was not idyllic. In Southern Travels, an 1834 journal of John H. B. Latrobe, who traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the November 29 entry reads:
“One of our passengers last evening told me that about a month since he was at St. Louis, and went to pass an hour on board the “Museum Boat’–a floating collection of curiosities. Here, who should he find but Black Hawk the Prophet and some young Sauks, forming a part of the show and hired to be in attendance. Towards the end of the evening, Black Hawk addressed the company through an interpreter, informing them, that he was now very poor and without any money, and that if they would make up a collection for him one of his young men should dance the war dance for them. This was agreed to, the dance was danced and a collection of $10 to $15 made on the spot. How pitiable–how melancholy–the red warrior who but a few brief months ago was at the head of a brave band of his countrymen & friends, endeavouring to wage war against the white man, their invader and their curse, is now turning his warriors into buffoons to win a melancholy one–but what help is there for it. Civilization will pass on among them and they must be trampled beneath its footsteps or flee where they cannot follow them.”
In Latrobe’s diary the second sentence above has no comma between “Black Hawk” and “the Prophet,” but the meaning seems clear: his old nemesis was still on the road with him, this time as fellow entertainer.
The pathos that an educated white man felt on hearing of Black Hawk so reduced in circumstances vividly conveys the stature to which Black Hawk had grown in defeat. Once a bloody savage, he was now in the eyes of John Latrobe a noble symbol, emblematic of courage and resistance.
In 1838 Black Hawk and his family moved to a site on the Des Moines River. At an Independence Day celebration in Fort Madison where he was honored, the aging chief said bitterly: “I was once a great warrior. I am now poor. Keokuk has been the cause of my present situation.”
He died later that year; his grave was robbed. “The governor of the recently created Iowa Territory obtained Black Hawk’s skeleton and kept it on view in his office,” writes Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The bones ended up in a museum in Burlington, Iowa. In 1855 Indians burned the building to the ground.
About five years after the rainy night I was introduced to Black Hawk, I finally had a long conversation with Jules Anderson, the flamboyant young preacher who had invoked his spirit. At his house in New Orleans he told me that his father had been a minister in a black Creole neighborhood, in a church that invoked the spirits of the dead but did not include Black Hawk in its pantheon. As a teenager Anderson left that church for a spell and joined the Church of God in Christ, which cleaves to a more conservative doctrine. When the new church got wind of his old spiritualist habits, Anderson experienced a crisis of faith:
“In my house I had an altar, saints on my altar and burning candles,” he recalled. “This church did not agree with candle burning, incense, statues, saints. Some of the elders came to my house and saw the altar; they said that this was not God. They cursed at me for having it, and I went through this thing, and I didn’t know anything about Black Hawk at the time.
“So I prayed, and I went through this sensational experience I never had before. It was like a voice, and a hand, and I actually seen my spirit leave my body. It was like a cloudy city, but it was one of the most beautiful things to see. I’ve never seen nothing similar to it, and they had these arches, and these people–I don’t know if they was people or statues–but there were different kinds, Indians and others I had never seen. I heard a voice. It spoke to me. “These are my saints and I will teach you how to use every one.’ But the one that stuck with me out of all those was Black Hawk.”
Not long after that, Anderson said, “I was walking down the street in the French Quarter and this big Indian guy just came to me, in the spirit. It wasn’t a real man. He was an Indian but he was dressed in ordinary American clothes, and he walked to me and folded his hands, like we see the statue of Black Hawk in Illinois. And he just walked right into me. And it was from that day on that I began to have this personal relationship with the spirit of Black Hawk, and I started to go around to different churches and other leaders told me I had the spirit strong. They said Black Hawk would work with me beautifully.”
By the late 1970s, when the Indian “walked right into” Anderson, Black Hawk had been a fixture in certain New Orleans churches for half a century. Called the Spiritual churches, they celebrate the dead as dynamic, existential presences. Black Hawk is one of the preeminent “spirit guides” in these churches; others include spirits called Father John and Queen Esther. These guides stand alongside some of the saints of traditional Roman Catholicism in a pantheon of spirit personalities that are called down from heaven to give strength and hope to the faithful. They also serve a historical purpose–by reciting litanies of past ministers, saints, and spirit figures, the flock recalls its past and affirms its permanence. Altars in these churches are eclectic: statues of Black Hawk, Saint Michael the Archangel, and the Blessed Virgin are found beside vases of flowers, bowls of fruit and sweet potatoes, and (in one case) a photo of Martin Luther King. The call-and-response patterns of Afro-American worship imbue the ceremonies with shadings of jazz and blues.
According to Hans Baer, author of The Black Spiritual Movement (University of Tennessee Press, 1984) and a professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, “The black spiritual movement has syncretized American spiritualism, Afro-American Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and voodoo. How those elements are blended together varies considerably from region to region and city to city–there’s a lot of fluidity. . . . It’s a very eclectic religious movement. You have middle-class people in it, but it came out of the black working class and is still largely a lower-class movement.”
Spiritual churches sprouted in the early 20th century in the rural south and in northern cities where blacks migrated; a strong current of white spiritualism ran through the midwest as well. But it was New Orleans that nurtured the religious movement most dramatically. The city was marked by a culture metissage, a mixing of bloodlines that included the Catholicism of the port’s French colonists, with their ideas of the individuality of each soul; the voodoo of Yoruba and Dahomean slaves, brought by colored Creoles who fled slave rebellions on the island of Haiti in the 1800s; the African dancing and drumming at the famous Congo Square, the cradle of New Orleans’s rich musical tradition; and the constant presence of Indians, who were enslaved by the French colonists and mixed and married freely with the African slaves.
In this fertile environment Black Hawk grew from a figure of midwestern history to a saint. The seed was planted by Mrs. Leafy Anderson, a black woman who came to New Orleans via Chicago and founded the Spiritual faith in the crescent city. It was just after World War I, while an exodus of New Orleans musicians begun by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong was carrying the jazz idiom to Chicago, that this mysterious impulse of folk culture was moving on a reverse path, down the Mississippi. In sermons, songs, and set pieces such as I saw Jules Anderson perform 60 years later, Leafy Anderson brought Black Hawk’s memory to New Orleans.
Not much is known about Mother Anderson, as she came to be called. In her 1927 obituary, the Louisiana Weekly, a black paper, stated that she was founder and president of the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Churches, a group “composed of twelve churches in various sections of the United States, the oldest being the [ELCSC] in Chicago, which she founded in 1913. She was forty years of age, and had been preaching and healing for fourteen years. She is credited with several miraculous cures.”
No information about her husband has been found; she may have been a widow, or divorced. An earlier Louisiana Weekly story, about a convention of Spiritualist churches that she hosted, mentions Beckoning Light Church, at 3020 Michigan Ave., Chicago, and the True Light Spiritualist Church of Chicago, at 3842 Eden Ave., as having sent representatives. “Words of encouragement were spoken to all through the wonderful spirits demonstrating through Mother Anderson,” the article states.
David Estes, an assistant professor of English at Loyola University of New Orleans (who interviewed female bishops in the modern Spiritual churches for an essay in Women Outside the Mainstream, a 1993 anthology published by the University of Illinois Press), consulted city directories at the Newberry Library and found a Mrs. Leafy Anderson’s address listed in 1914: “lunch 3114 Federal h. 3128 Federal”–which he takes to mean that she ran a lunch counter several doors down from her residence on the south side. She is not listed in the directory from 1910 to 1913, or for 1915. However in 1916 and 1917 her address is given as 3021 Federal–she had moved one block.
She went to New Orleans around 1920, according to Claude F. Jacobs and Andrew J. Kaslow, authors of The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans (University of Tennessee Press, 1991); they report that she also organized missions and churches in Little Rock, Memphis, Pensacola, Biloxi, Houston, and smaller towns. In New Orleans she began by establishing the First Spiritual Church South in a neighborhood upriver from the French Quarter. “Older church members claim that blacks and whites of all social classes visited her regularly for “readings’ and at the height of her popularity, Mother Anderson’s training classes enrolled approximately eighty people, all of whom desired a leadership role in the movement,” write Jacobs and Kaslow.
It was Spiritualism with a capital S that Leafy Anderson brought to New Orleans; spiritualism, worship involving the spirits of the dead, was of course already present in a variety of guises. In a service attended by Loyola’s David Estes, a bishop explained that before Leafy Anderson’s arrival, spiritualist people “had their little churches. They was hiding them all in little rooms, and going through the back doors. And all this time no one wanted to step out bold, standing up for what we believe in. . . . See, this was a bold woman in God. She wanted to make the world know what God was doing for her.”
One of her disciples, Mother Dora Tyson, was interviewed by a WPA writer in Louisiana during the 1930s, within a few years of Mother Leafy’s death. The transcript of this interview is in the New Orleans Public Library. It was written by a white person in a vernacular approximating black dialect.
Mother Dora said: “When Mother Anderson first came down heah, she told us dat she wanted us to pray to Black Hawk because he was a great saint for spiritualism only. She called Black Hawk to a special counsel for us. Ah know cause ah saw him. Yeah, Mother Anderson pointed him out to us an said, “Dat’s ya saint, chillun. Go to him for anything ya want. He’ll never disappoint ya.’ Well, ah was de first one to go to him and ah’m telling you he didn’t disappoint me. Yeah, we had a special night to honor and pay our respec’s to Black Hawk.”
“No, ah don’t know where Mother Anderson got Black Hawk from. Ah think he came to her one time and said dat he was de first one to start spiritualism in dis country way before de white man come heah.”
Black Hawk died in 1838; Leafy Anderson’s obituary in the Louisiana Weekly states that she was born in 1887, in Balboa, Wisconsin, a place that does not seem to exist in present-day Wisconsin and, according to a quick check of historical sources, may never have existed. The reference could be a corruption of Baraboo, which is less than ten miles from Prairie du Sac, one of the key battle sites of the Black Hawk War. So Leafy Anderson may have learned of Black Hawk during her childhood in Wisconsin, or she may have heard the legend later, in Chicago. Claude Jacobs maintains that Black Hawk’s story, spread with the help of his autobiography, was well-known to midwesterners at the time. “If she’s from the upper midwest, she would have known that mythology, heard those stories. The Black Hawk autobiography circulated even in Mississippi in the late 19th century. There was some guy in the countryside around Vicksburg who was into banditry and had taken [Black Hawk] as his name.”
The question of how Anderson and Black Hawk met, in any case, is not nearly as interesting as the question of why they hit it off so well. What was it about the story of a stubborn Indian warrior that appealed so to a black woman preacher and her followers in New Orleans?
According to the book Spirit World: Pattern in the Expressive Folk Culture of Afro-American New Orleans, by Michael P. Smith (whose photographs accompany this article), Leafy Anderson claimed to at least some of her coworkers that she was half Mohawk Indian. Whether she was or not, there was certainly a strong affinity between Anderson’s brand of spiritualism and the Indian idea of existence as an interweaving of zones joining the living, the dead, and the unborn. Claude Jacobs points out that “[Anderson’s] being a Spiritualist means that she’s going to have connections with Indian spirits. They went hand in hand.”
Perhaps it is also significant that Black Hawk was reputed to have fought valiantly on the bluffs at Prairie du Sac while women and children escaped below. The early leaders of Leafy Anderson’s church were women; although men hold some key positions in the affiliated churches today, the majority of members are still female, and there’s a sort of feminism, or at least a sympathy with women’s concerns, that runs throughout the church’s history.
Besides Black Hawk, another one of Leafy Anderson’s spirit guides was Queen Esther. “According to Scripture,” Jacobs and Kaslow write, “Esther was a Jewish woman who dared to approach King Ahasuerus despite the sanctions against a female entering the royal court, and she succeeded in rescuing people from destruction. Since church members frequently speak of the plight of the Israelites, that Esther is both Jewish and female makes her a powerful symbol.”
In a religious movement propelled by women, Black Hawk was a masculine principle, the spirit of the warrior, the watchman, the protector. In one of Jules Anderson’s performances in the church of Deacon Frank Lastie (who referred to him as “our Black Hawk demonstrator”), I heard the young minister sing, “Black Hawk is a watchmannn”–to which the flock chanted in refrain, “He’s on the wall. . . . He’s on the wall!” Jacobs and Kaslow hint that this chant, common in Black Hawk services, may be connected to a passage in the 1882 version of the autobiography in which Black Hawk describes his personal “watch tower” above the village on the Rock River.
Another point of contact, of course, is the common experience of Indians and blacks (not to mention women and Israelites) as subjugated peoples. They have had to devise ways of enduring, of holding on to their self-image and core beliefs. When their visible rebellion is suppressed, their ritual expression becomes all the more important, and in New Orleans especially the rites of Indians and blacks have been thoroughly cross-fertilized. By the 1920s, when Leafy Anderson’s Black Hawk performances began magnetizing followers in central city wards, Mardi Gras Indian gangs had proliferated in New Orleans–black men masquerading as Indians, marching in carnival parades dressed in bright homemade costumes with sequins and billowing ostrich feathers of red, blue, and green. Sometimes the black Indians fought each other (or police); more often they sang coded a cappella chants about chiefs of carnivals past, in true spiritualist–and African–fashion.
Perhaps summoning an Indian spirit to inspire a burgeoning African American church was Leafy Anderson’s expression of solidarity, linking two defeated peoples of colonial America. Perhaps Black Hawk’s legend of bravery and resistance made him a protective spirit to her followers. Mostly black, mostly women, saddled with hardship and humiliation, they embraced her, and him, as spirit guides and saints guarding the rock of ages.
For information on Black Hawk’s path through Illinois and Wisconsin, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael P. Smith, courtesy Illinois State Hitsorical Library.