J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

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Captain John Whistler, the builder of the first Fort Dearborn in 1803. Major
Whistler, however, did not arrive until June 17th, 1832, when the Black Hawk
War had arrived at its most acute stage.

The following concise and scholarly narrative of the Black Hawk War in north-
ern Illinois and southern Wisconsin was prepared by Professor George L. Scher-



ger of the Armour Institute, and delivered as a lecture before the Evanston Historical
Society on November 22d, 1902; and is here inserted with Professor Scherger's
permission, with some changes in the verbiage as seemed to be required.


The Black Hawk War is not to be numbered among the great campaigns of his-
tory. The officers who served in this war are not to be placed alongside of Na-
poleon, Caesar or Hannibal. No fierce battles such as those of Marathon or
Waterloo took place. In fact, the incidents of the war in general scarcely rise
above the dignity of the skirmishes and forays common along the frontier during
the pioneer period. Yet the Black Hawk War is one of the most important events
in the history of the Northwest. Numerous descriptions of this campaign have ap-
peared, but many of the contemporary accounts are untrustworthy and inaccurate,
for they were intended chiefly as electioneering documents to sound the praises of
those who were seeking office and posed as heroes who had delivered their country
from great perils. The real results of the war are important enough, however, as
are also the events of sufficient interest to merit our investigation of the chief in-

On November 3d, 1804, the United States government purchased from the Sac
and Fox Indians fifty million acres of land for an annuity of one thousand dollars.
This tract comprised the eastern third of the present state of Missouri, and the
land between the Wisconsin river on the north, the Fox river on the east, the Illi-
nois on the southeast, and the Mississippi on the west. Clause seven of the treaty
stated that the Indians might occupy the land until the United States government
granted it to individuals. The treaty was negotiated by General William Henry
Harrison at St. Louis. In 1815 this treaty had been confirmed by the Sac and
Fox nation.

The chief village of the Sacs, named Saukenuk, lay on the north side of Rock
river, three miles above its mouth, and the same distance south of Rock Island on
the Mississippi, in the midst of a region whose soil is very productive. About five
hundred Indian families lived in this valley, and there were few Indian settlements
so large as this. The chief cemetery of the Sacs being located here, the interests
and affections of the entire tribe centered around this spot, where about three thou-
sand acres of land were in a state of cultivation. Of these farms the Sacs were
very proud.


Black Hawk, or Black Sparrow Hawk, was born at the Sac village in 1767. He
was restless and ambitious, though lacking first rate capacity. He was a demagogue,
jealous of the other chiefs, and hating the Americans. His mind was slow and plod-
ding, and he could not compare in ability to such great Indian characters as Pontiac,
Brant and Tecumseh. In person he was large and well developed, and he had been
a warrior since the age of fifteen. His prime ambition was to a great warrior, and
it was a boast of his that the number of the enemy he had killed surpassed belief.

Black Hawk frequently visited the English at Maiden ; and on these occasions
they flattered his vanity. It had been the policy of the English since the war of
1812 to incite the Indians of the Northwest against the Americans. Black Hawk


had taken part in the war of 1812, fighting on the British side as the leader of "the
British Band/' although Keokuk, the principal chief of the tribe, and the rival of
Black Hawk, was friendly to the United States government. Black Hawk would gifts from the United States, but often accepted presents from the English.
After the war of 1812, the relations between the Indians and Americans contin-
ued quite friendly until 1830. In that year Keokuk ceded definitely to the United
States all the land of his tribe east of the Mississippi. Black Hawk opposed this
cession most bitterly, and determined not to leave the ceded tracts, declaring that
the treaty of 1804 had been obtained by fraud, and bent upon using force if need
be to prevent the expulsion of his party from their lands. Black Hawk tried to con-
vince his followers by maintaining that the land could not be sold ; that the treaties
were void because fraudulent; and that the nation had not been consulted when the
treaty was made in 1804, all of which statements were false. Even the British
authorities advised him to leave the village. The leniency of the United States to-
ward him, and its hesitancy in forcing him to move westward he misinterpreted, be-
lieving that he would or could never be forced to evacuate these lands. Moreover,
the Sacs had their just grievances. Since 1823 squatters, attracted by the news of
the fertility of the soil, had gradually enqroached upon their lands. Though this
section had not yet been surveyed, and there was still a large extent of unsettled
territory to the east; this territory was seized by white settlers without a shadow
of right. The white settlers even encroached upon the village of the Sacs, and,
taking advantage of the absence of the tribe upon their annual hunts, began to drive
off the squaws and children of the Indians and fence in their cornfields.


Black Hawk remonstrated in vain. Year by year the whites appropriated a
larger extent of territory. When the Indians attempted to regain their land by de-
stroying the crops of the whites and even attacking and wounding certain settlers,
Governor Reynolds was petitioned to interfere and prevent the outrages which the
Indians were committing. One of these petitions stated that "the Indians pasture
their horses in our wheat fields, shoot our cattle, and threaten to burn our houses
over our heads if we do not leave." Reynolds, a conscientious, able and energetic
man, after giving the matter careful consideration, decided that everything seemed
to show that the three hundred Indians at Sac village intended to use force to re-
tain possession of the country; and, on May 26th, 1831, called on the militia for
seven hundred mounted men. The whole state of Illinois,- with its forty thousand
white settlers, resounded with the war clamor, everything being in bustle and up-
roar. More than double the number of men called for assembled at Beardstown
early in June, from whom were chosen a brigade consisting of two regiments and
two battalions, which were placed under General Joseph Duncan as commander.
This small force was composed of the flower of the state, of men possessed generally
of strong sense and unbounded energy. The men were intensely bitter towards the
Indians. Eight miles below the Sac village General Gaines of the United States
regular army received the troops into the national service and assumed command.
He appeared before the Sac village on the 25th of June, 1831. Black Hawk, having
less than three hundred men at his command, left the place during the night, with-


drawing to the west bank of the Mississippi. The town was then burnedj after which
Black Hawk was brought back to the headquarters of the general, where he signed
a treaty to remain on the farther side of the Mississippi, and never cross the river
unless with the permission of the President of the United States. Thus terminated
the campaign of 1831, no blood having been shed on either side. Black Hawk and
his followers passed a very disagreeable winter. It was too late to raise crops for
their sustenance, and though food was dealt out to them by the United States au-
thorities, they suffered greatly.


Black Hawk now attacked the Menominees, who were encamped on an island
opposite Prairie du Chien, to retaliate for an attack which had been made by that
tribe upon his followers the previous year. Out of twenty-eight Menominees all,
except one, were massacred. The Indian agent, General Joseph M. Street, demanded
that the murderers be delivered up. This was refused. Believing that the Winne-
bagoes and Pottawattomies would support him, Black Hawk resolved to recapture
the old village. He therefore violated the treaty he had entered into and crossed the
Mississippi, April 6th, 1832, marching up the Rock river. His pretext was that he
intended to visit his Winnebago friends in Wisconsin, and to plant corn in their
country. He disregarded the warnings of General Atkinson at Fort Armstrong, and
finally reached Dixon's Ferry, where he encamped with a force including about five
hundred men.

Northern Illinois at this point possessed very few settlers. The United States
government had not yet surveyed the Sac and Fox lands ; there were a few posts
in the lead region about Galena ; Galena and Peoria were connected by a coach
road opened in 1827, over which the mail traveled daily, and along which a few
taverns had been established. Galena was connected by an Indian trail with Chi-
cago, whose population at this time consisted of from two to three hundred souls,
whose rude huts clustered about Fort Dearborn.

Governor Reynolds, hearing of Black Hawk's invasion and his warlike inten-
tions, raised a force of eighteen hundred volunteers, with General Whiteside in
command. This force was sworn into the service of the United States by Brigadier
General Atkinson of the regular army, and, on the 12th of May, 1832, reached
Dixon's Ferry. Colonel Zachary Taylor, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, and Abra-
ham Lincoln were among the members of the army.


Black Hawk had in the meantime advanced to Sycamore Creek, thirty miles
away. At Dixon's Ferry the volunteers met Major Stillman with a battalion of
two hundred and seventy-five men awaiting their arrival. Stillman requested per-
mission to go out with his men as a scouting party, and make a reconnoissance of
Black Hawk's camp. Reluctantly the privilege was granted. Stillman had marched
twenty-five miles up the Rock river, and was preparing to encamp within a few
miles of Black Hawk's main camp. His troops were in confusion and disorder; no
pickets or sentinels had been stationed. Suddenly three unarmed Indians appeared
bearing a white flag. Disregarding the flag the whites took the Indians prisoners.

By permission of the Chicago Historical Society
From Catlin's '-'North American Indians"


From "The Indian and The Northwest"




On the north side of Rock river, three miles above Its mouth and three miles south
of the present city of Rock Island


Soon after six others appeared on horseback three-fourths of a mile away. With-
out any orders a few soldiers gave chase while a great portion of the troops joined
in the pursuit. Several of the Indians were killed, but no whites.

This violation of the rules of war can only be understood by remembering that
the whites were intoxicated. At the time Black Hawk was feasting with many of
his Pottawattomie friends. Hearing the uproar he and his friends hastily mounted
and rushed into the fray, falling with fury upon Stillman's disorganized band. The
whites were chased to their camp. The troops at the camp, frightened at the yell-
ing and tramping of horses' feet, which seemed all the more terrible now that
night had set in, believed that Black Hawk's whole band was upon them, although
but forty Indians were pursuing the fugitives. They became panic stricken and
fled precipitately to Dixon's Ferry, telling a horrible tale. But one straggler after
another appeared while these stories of wholesale slaughter were being told, so that
all save fifty-two had appeared by the next morning.

Want of discipline among the officers and men was the cause of this rout. Eleven
of the whites were killed. But while it filled Black Hawk with disdain for the
fighting qualities of the militia, and with an exaggerated estimate of the courage
of his followers, it aroused the whites to redoubled efforts, though the immediate
effect was a reign of terror for the inhabitants who dwelt between the Illinois and
Wisconsin rivers. The name of Black Hawk was spoken with dread and fear in
every household, and consternation prevailed everywhere, the men and their families
gathered at the forts believing that the war had now begun in deadly earnest.


On the da}' that news reached him of the rout just described Governor Reynolds
issued a call for two thousand additional volunteers. It was feared that the
Indian tomahawk and scalping knife would now endanger the lives of the settlers,
sparing neither age nor sex. General Whiteside had buried eleven mangled corpses
of the men who had been killed during Stillman's rout, after which the army, now
numbering about twenty-four hundred men, started up Rock river in pursuit of the
Indians. But just at the time when they were most needed the men wished to re-
turn to their homes, to protect the families they had left behind them. The news
received was of the most heart-rending character. The Indians had visited the
houses of Hall, Davis and Pettigrew, not far from Ottawa, on the 20th of May,
and massacred and scalped fifteen persons, mangling the bodies in a frightful man-
ner. They had likewise taken with them the two daughters of Hall. The news
of this massacre filled the country with alarm, yet the soldiers persisted in de-
manding their discharge, and accordingly the Governor discharged them all. A
few reenlisted and a new force was at once organized. Among those who con-
tinued in the service were General Whiteside and Abraham Lincoln. The two
thousand volunteers called out by the Governor assembled at Fort Wilbourn (near
Peru) on June 15th, and were organized into three regiments and a spy battalion,
the whole forming a brigade.


We shall here attempt to describe but a few of the many incidents of the irregu-
lar war which ensued. About two hundred and fifty whites, as well as an equal


number of Indians, lost their lives in the conflict. The country was ravaged far
and wide and the inhabitants were in constant fear of being massacred. Black
Hawk now sent out many scouting parties, particularly against the settlements
around Galena. On June 24th, he personally commanded an attack on Apple River
fort, fourteen miles east of Galena, where the town of Elizabeth now stands. The
besieged garrison repulsed the Indians with great gallantry, even the women aid-
ing by moulding bullets and loading guns. After withdrawing, Black Hawk at-
tacked a body of troops under Major Dement numbering one hundred and fifty
men. A detachment of militia under General Posey brought relief, and the Indians
were routed with a loss of fifteen killed. About three weeks after Stillman's defeat
the new force of soldiers, embracing in all about three thousand, two hundred men,
had assembled at Fort Wilbourn, and had been placed under the command of Generals
Alexander Posey, M. K. Alexander, and James D. Henry. In addition there were
also in the field at this juncture a band of rangers under Fry, another under the
leadership of Dodge in Michigan Territory, and a force of United States infantry,
making a total strength of about four thousand men to oppose a band of about five
hundred Indians.


After the news of the defeat of Black Hawk by General Posey had been re-
ceived, General Alexander was sent to Plum river to attack him in case he should
attempt to cross the Mississippi in this vicinity. Atkinson remained at Dixon
until learning that Black Hawk was still at his camp near Lake Koshkonong, when
he set out in pursuit, crossing the state line one mile east of Beloit at the head of
twenty-six hundred men. Upon reaching Lake Koshkonong on the 2d of July,
however, he found the camp deserted. The signs indicated that Black Hawk, in-
stead of crossing the Mississippi, had reached Rock river above the Kishwaukee
three or four days before. The troops were on their guard, for they perceived
that the savages were prowling about throughout the neighborhood.

Posey and Dodge with about three hundred men advanced through swamps for
several days, being led by White Crow and thirty Winnebagoes; 'and had almost
reached the place where they expected to find the hostiles, when to their great dis-
appointment Atkinson recalled them to his camp on Rock river. Probably this
order saved the force from the destruction which White Crow was treacherously
meditating. Having been informed by some Winnebagoes that Black Hawk's camp
was on an island in the Whitewater river a few miles to the east, General Atkinson
set out in a fruitless pursuit, wading through morasses, from the 7th to the 9th of

The Winnebagoes were plotting the destruction of the entire American army
by giving wrong information and attempting to lure the whites into a trap. While
the army was continuing its vain pursuit of Black Hawk, the latter had fled from
his almost inaccessible position on the east bank of Rock river. Governor Reynolds
and a number of others who were with him regarded the pursuit through trackless
marshes as unlikely to result in success; and at this period he left the army. The
Governor knew that the troops were doing their duty, and he had been praised by
President Jackson for his course in the war.

On the 10th of July, General Winfield Scott with about one thousand regulars


arrived from the Atlantic coast at Chicago. He had been dispatched by the gov-
ernment and had conveyed his troops from Old Point Comfort in Virginia to Chi-
cago in eighteen days. The Asiatic cholera had appeared in the army, and many
had died of the disease.


Generals Henry and Dodge, while at Fort Winnebago, where they had been
sent to obtain supplies, ascertained from Pierre Poquette, a well known half breed
scout and trader, the true location of Black Hawk's camp. They set out with seven
hundred and fifty men, and when they had reached the spot where it was expected
they would find the Indians no trace of them was to be seen. The leaders learned
that the Sacs had proceeded to Cranberry lake, now Horicon, about half a day's
march up the river. While on their way the soldiers discovered a broad fresh trail
leading westward. The discovery that Black Hawk's band was retreating toward
the Mississippi aroused unbounded enthusiasm in Henry's men, and they pushed
on in hot pursuit, wading through swamps, the water often reaching to their arm-
pits. All encumbrances were cast aside. They found all along the road kettles,
blankets and the like, which the Indians had thrown away in their haste to advance.
On the 19th of July Henry's men had marched fifty miles. A terrific thunderstorm
occurred in the evening and continued nearly all night; the soldiers could not
make a fire for cooking, and they lacked tents and blankets, but in spite of their dis-
comforts they continued the pursuit vigorously. They were told by several Winne-
bagoes who were deserting the Sacs that the Hawk was but two miles in front, and
they hurried forward therefore in spite of their hardships.

On the evening of July 20th the troops bivouacked near Third Lake (now
Madison) and ate the first regular meal they had taken while covering the distance
of one hundred miles since they had first seen the Indian trail. On the 21st the
march was resumed and the excitement grew at every step of the way. The hostile
Indians were only a few miles ahead, and the soldiers were straining every nerve
to overtake them. Forty horses gave out and were abandoned. At length, with the
Wisconsin only a mile and a half ahead, they came up with the Indian rear. The
Indians had prepared themselves for attack in order to gain time enough to cover
the flight of the main body across the stream. Though the Indians fought and
yelled like madmen they were driven towards the river, where the main body were
attempting to cross. On the bank of the stream was a dense forest from which the
savages could inflict great damage upon the Americans. General Henry therefore
sounded a retreat when evening set in. The Indians had lost sixty-eight in killed
up to this time, while the American loss was but one killed and eight wounded.

This battle, known as the battle of Wisconsin Heights, was fought with great
skill by General Henry and was the first decisive victory obtained by the whites
in the war. Though young and inexperienced, General Henry had shown ability
and bravery. His conduct on this occasion made him the most popular man in
Illinois. He had set out in pursuit of Black Hawk without orders from his su-
perior, General Atkinson, and though a number of officers refused to join him be-
cause they did not want to move without orders and incur the charge of insubor-
dination, Henry saw how much depended upon immediate pursuit. It was certain


that Black Hawk would escape if the army returned to General Atkinson, almost a
hundred miles away from Fort Winnebago, from which Henry had set out in pur-
suit of the Sacs.


During the night following the battle just described, the Indians placed their
women, children and old men on a raft, believing that the regular troops stationed
at Fort Crawford, near the mouth of the Wisconsin river, would permit them to
cross t6 the western bank of the Mississippi unmolested. At the same time the In-
dians themselves crossed the Wisconsin river, and, supposing that the safety of
their helpless ones had been assured, plunged into the wilderness with the purpose
of reaching the Mississippi at some point farther north than Prairie du Chien.

But when the morning dawned and the whites discovered the raft loaded with
the women, children and old men, with needless cruelty they opened fire upon them,
killing fifteen outright while some fifty others were drowned in making attempts to
escape. Thirty-six of the survivors were made prisoners. The escape of Black
Hawk and his warriors, however, was effectual for the time being, as the whites
being without provisions found it necessary to abandon the pursuit long enough to
return to Blue Mounds and replenish their supplies. At the latter place General
Atkinson joined the victorious forces under Henry with additional troops, and as-
sumed command of the entire force. The task of recuperation occupied a week, and
on the 28th of July all the troops, regulars and volunteers, joined at Helena where
they were to cross the Wisconsin river and attempt to cut off the flight of the hos-
tile Sacs.

The advance was begun at noon, Brady with the four hundred and fifty regulars
in front. Then came Dodge, Posey and Alexander; while Henry in charge of the
baggage was ingloriously bringing up the rear. Atkinson and the regulars were
extremely jealous of Henry and his Illinois volunteers because they had won the
laurels of the campaign, and every occasion was sought to diminish and disparage
their achievements.

After advancing four or five miles the trail of the Sacs was discovered leading
towards the Mississippi. Though the intervening territory was almost completely
unknown, besides being swampy in some places, and covered with steep and thickly
wooded hills in others, the soldiers had become animated with the hope that the
hostiles would soon be overtaken. Black Hawk had indeed reached the Mississippi
at the mouth of the Bad Axe river, forty miles north of the mouth of the Wisconsin
at Prairie du Chien. He could not, however, obtain the means of transporting his
band across. When he saw the military transport steamer "Warrior" he showed a
white flag, thus manifesting his desire to surrender. But the twenty-three soldiers
on board mistrusted him and fired upon the Indians, and they returned the shot.
One of the white men and over twenty of the Indians lost their lives in this affair.
The steamer returned to Prairie du Chien. Black Hawk becoming hopeless of fur-
thur resistance now deserted his tribe, fleeing westward across the river, and taking

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.1) → online text (page 27 of 59)