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 Iowa 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.