- Historic Sites
“I Was Once a Great Warrior”
The tragedy of Black Hawk, who became the eponym of a war he tried to avoid
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Black Hawk apparently had every intention of retiring into peaceful old age in the new country along the Iowa River. He was now sixty-four years old, and his hair was turning white. Further struggle seemed useless without the support of Keokuk, who spoke for the majority of the Sauk and Foxes. But the bitterness in the old man’s heart would not be stilled. He could not forget the white man’s insults to himself and to his people, who, deprived now of their corn harvest in Saukenuk, were facing a year of hardship. He also worried that the young war hawks in his band, eager to avenge the injustices of the whites, might depose him and find a new war chief if hedid not lead them into battle. While he was brooding on these matters his second in command, an aggressive young firebrand named Neapope, “the broth,” brought news that banished all thoughts of retirement from the old man’s head. Returning from a visit to Canada, Neapope reported that the British supported the Sauk claim to the lands at Saukenuk and were prepared to assist the Indians if the Americans tried to keep them away. Neapope had also stopped at the Winnebago village, some thirtyfive miles up the Rock River from Saukenuk, where Black Hawk’s friend and adviser, an Indian mystic called the Prophet, had told him that the Sauk and Foxes could also count on the aid of the Winnebago, Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa. Should the Indians go to war, the British would furnish arms, ammunition, and supplies, and if they were defeated, they would be given refuge in Canada. Black Hawk and his people were invited by the Prophet to come to the Winnebago village in the spring and plant corn, while waiting for their allies.
All this, of course, was fantasy, an inflation of British and Indian sympathies into promises of active support. Perhaps Neapope and the Prophet had simply deluded themselves, so intense was their hatred of the Americans. Or perhaps they were goading Black Hawk into taking the lead in hopes that his rebellion would spark a general Indian uprising. Black Hawk, at any rate, heard Neapope’s “good news” with great satisfaction. Against Keokuk’s advice he began recruiting warriors and spreading the word that his people should rendezvous for crossing in the early spring. Keokuk, fearing reprisals against his own people for Black Hawk’s intransigence, sent a message warning the government agent at Rock Island of Black Hawk’s plans. He even offered to lead his own war party against the followers of his fellow Sauk.
Undaunted by Keokuk’s opposition, Black Hawk’s party of five hundred warriors and fifteen hundred women and children assembled on the western shore of the Mississippi on the morning of April 5, 1832, just below the mouth of the Iowa, and made their way across on rafts and canoes to a place called Yellow Banks on the Illinois side. There they were met by the Winnebago Prophet, who reassured them of support and offered to escort them to his village. The river was swollen by spring thaws and heavy rain, and the trip was slow going, with women and children in canoes pushing upstream against the turbulent current while the warriors, most of them mounted, kept pace along the shore. They had just reached the mouth of the Rock River on April 12 when two steamboats appeared on the Mississippi, carrying the troops of General Henry Atkinson, who was on his way up to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien when he received word of Black Hawk’s crossing. Fearing an attack on Fort Armstrong, he had ordered full steam ahead and had managed to overtake the Indians. Black Hawk and his warriors beat their drums and sang loudly “to show the Americans that we were not afraid,” then proceeded peacefully up the Rock River, past the charred ruins of Saukenuk and on to the Winnebago village. Atkinson, uncertain of the Indians’ strength, hesitated to pursue them without adequate forces. Such indecisiveness was to mark his entire campaign against Black Hawk. After warning Governor Reynolds and the nearby settlers of the Indians’ return, he sent messengers to Black Hawk, ordering him to withdraw peacefully or be driven back across the Mississippi by force. Black Hawk viewed these orders as a sign of weakness and refused to turn back.
News that an army of savages was on the warpath in Illinois spread fear and outrage among the settlers. When Governor Reynolds issued another proclamation calling upon the men of the state to defend their homes, the settlers came out in droves. Among the Sangamon County volunteers was Abraham Lincoln, then a twentythree-year-old clerk in a New Salem store, who rode to war on a borrowed horse. The volunteers, sixteen hundred strong, assembled at Beardstown in late April and then marched to the mouth of the Rock River, where they were sworn into federal service on May 7 under the command of Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside. Atkinson’s three hundred regulars had meanwhile been supplemented by a force of one hundred men from forts Crawford and Leavenworth, under the command of Zachary Taylor, who had risen to the rank of colonel since his encounter with Black Hawk eighteen years before. Keokuk’s band also appeared, but their services were refused, perhaps for fear of treachery.