The Black Hawk Legend

One of Cleveland's oldest and most enduring legends is that famed Sauk war chief Black Hawk was born in Cleveland and that the grave of his mother Summer Rain is located on the grounds of Riverside Cemetery.

The story dates back to 1833 when, according to two Cleveland newspapers, Black Hawk stopped here on his way home from a triumphal tour of New York, Philadelphia and other east coast cities. While in town, he visited Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese Twins, who were being exhibited locally as part of nineteenth-century America's fascination with physical deformities. Neither newspaper article, however, included mention that Black Hawk was born in what is now Cleveland or that, while here, he had visited the grave of his mother.

Black Hawk returned to Cleveland's papers decades later, after the Civil War, in romanticized stories about his previous visit to Cleveland. Native Americans once again had become objects of fascination as American troops confronted Native cultures on the Great Plains and drove them off the land. To many Americans Native Americans represented the savage forces of nature that needed to be civilized by technology, democracy, and American ideals.

In1875, W. W. Armstrong, owner and editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, editorialized that Black Hawk had canoed several miles up the Cuyahoga River to visit the place where he was born and where he spent his childhood. A few years later, in 1879, Frederick T. Wallace, a city of Cleveland lawyer and local literary figure, claimed that he had been informed by an "intelligent gentleman since deceased" that Black Hawk had been born in Cleveland and that the grave of his mother was located on a bluff overlooking the west bank of the Cuyahoga River on the grounds of the recently-opened Riverside Cemetery. Finally, in 1883 Harvey Rice, a well respected nineteenth century Cleveland civic leader who had been living in Cleveland in the 1830s, published "Pioneers of the Western Reserve," a history of Cleveland in which he repeated Wallace's account of the birthplace of Black Hawk and the location of the grave of Black Hawk mother's at Riverside Cemetery.

In the 1870s and 1880s, with little direct evidence to support their claims, Cleveland's civic boosters appear to have constructed the legend of Black Hawk's birth and familial connections to Cleveland. Perhaps the legend was based on early dealings with the area's original population. Or perhaps it was done to promote Cleveland by connecting the city's emerging industry and civilization to Black Hawk; a symbol of Native Americans and the previously powerful and untamed forces of nature out of which Cleveland had been born.

According to this apocryphal narrative, the southeast corner of the bluff on the grounds of Riverside Cemetery is not only the final resting place of many of Cleveland's early civic and industrial leaders, but also that of Summer Rain, mother of Black Hawk.

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