Home Sponsored Shades of Dubuque Trappist Caskets: Bones on the Bluff

Trappist Caskets: Bones on the Bluff

Early Settler's Association at Julien Dubuque's grave - 1897

After Julien Dubuque’s death on March 24, 1810, members of the Native American Mesquaki tribe, who had mined lead with Dubuque, buried their friend high on a bluff overlooking Catfish Creek and the Mississippi River. The chiefs and warriors carried Dubuque to his grave with reverence and offered tributes, praise, and “the death song” for their departed friend. Some claim the Mesquaki kept a lamp burning on Dubuque’s grave for many years.

Historian Lucius Langworthy described his 1830 visit to Dubuque’s grave: “A stone house surmounted by a red cedar cross, with a leaden door, was placed around his grave, though in a dilapidate condition.”

Dubuque’s grave was reported to be intact in 1845, but by the Civil War in the 1860s, the stone house and cedar cross had been ravaged by souvenir seekers. Some say grave bones were collected and removed. A certain Mrs. Graves is rumored to have kept a jaw bone for many years. Soon, all that remained of the grave site was a depression in the ground.

On February 28, 1896, the Early Settlers’ Association of Dubuque County and the Iowa Institute of Science and Arts of Dubuque joined together to establish the Julien Dubuque Monument Association, recognizing the importance of preserving the grave site and honoring Julien Dubuque. The group raised $560, secured the land around the grave for a park, and selected Alexander Simplot’s design for a permanent monument.

Simplot, a Dubuque artist well known for his Civil War sketches, designed a stone tower, which resembled a “Castle on the Rhine.”

The contract to build the monument was let to Carter Brothers. On October 2, 1897, while digging the foundation for the monument, workmen discovered bones, beads, a small red clay catlinite pipe, and other artifacts. At the eight-foot level, they came across more bones and called Richard Herrmann, a local relic collector and naturalist. Herrmann surveyed the remains of three skeletons found at the gravesite, two within the foundation of the old grave and one just outside the foundation.

Herrmann identified the skeletons as the remains of Julien Dubuque, Dubuque’s Mesquaki friend Chief Peosta, and a female Mesquaki named Potosa thought to be Peosta’s daughter and perhaps Dubuque’s wife. Herrmann put the skeletons into separate burlap sacks and took them to his Central Ave. Museum of Natural History. Herrmann arranged the skeletons of Dubuque and Chief Peosta on the hardwood floor of an empty, upstairs room in his museum. A week later, townsfolk were invited to come see the skeletons.

A newspaper reporter examined the skeletons and wrote that Dubuque appeared to be about 5 feet, 7 inches tall with a high and well-rounded forehead. The reporter estimated Chief Peosta’s height at 6 feet, 2 inches, making him a giant among men. During the thirty days it took to construct the monument, thousands of visitors flocked to Herrmann’s museum to get a glimpse of the skeletons.

Herrmann had the Dubuque Cabinet Makers’ Association build a solid walnut burial case for Julien Dubuque’s remains. On Sunday, October 31, 1897, the case carrying Dubuque’s bones was buried inside the newly constructed, 29-foot tall, limestone monument. Some 2,000 people attended the ceremony which began at 3:00 in the afternoon with a thirty-member choir singing “The Day of Our Lord.”

Herrmann kept the remains of the Native Americans at his museum. His son, Oscar, articulated the bones of Chief Peosta, mounted the skeleton on a stand, and positioned it at one end of the museum’s “Indian Room” where it was surrounded by flint tools, arrowheads and axes, and a birch bark canoe. Potosa’s skull was displayed nearby. For years, the Native American remains were a major attraction, and hundreds of school children toured Herrmann’s museum and filed past Chief Peosta’s skeleton and Potosa’s skull.

After Richard Herrmann died in 1941, his children continued to show visitors through the museum until they were no longer physically able to do so. In 1964, the Herrmann collection was loaned to the Dubuque County Historical Society, and many of the artifacts were either stored or displayed at the Ham House – including the remains of Chief Peosta and Potosa. In 1982, much of the Herrmann collection was moved to the newly opened Mississippi River Museum. The Herrmann Family donation to the Historical Society was made permanent in 1995.

What happened to the bones of Chief Peosta and Potosa? By the 1970s, visitors to the Ham House had begun to complain about the morbidity of displaying the shellacked and wired skeleton of Chief Peosta and Potosa’s skull – the rest of her bones were kept in a bushel basket in the Ham House basement.

In October of 1972, the Historical Society began making plans to bury both Peosta and Potosa on the bluff near Julien Dubuque’s monument. But Native Americans insisted Potosa could not be buried with Chief Peosta since their culture did not allow a male and female to share a grave.

On May 12, 1973, George Traut of the Strueber Funeral Home carried out the burial of Chief Peosta’s remains. Lewis Mitchell, a Tama, Iowa, Mesquaki Chief and descendant of Peosta and Potosa attended the reburial. A few months later on August 20, 1973, an engraved boulder was donated by the Light Quarries of Dubuque and placed on Chief Peosta’s the grave.

Unfortunately, research has failed to determine exactly what happened to the remains of Potosa. However, most experts agree it is likely her remains were eventually reburied by either the Dubuque Historical Society or the Tama Mesquaki.

This article is part of the Shades of Dubuque series, sponsored by Trappist Caskets, hand-made and blessed by the monks at New Melleray Abbey.

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