- 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
On May g a start was made. Whiteside, Reynolds, and the mounted volunteers followed Black Hawk’s trail up the east bank of the Rock River while the regulars and the few volunteers who had come on foot trailed behind in boats with the provisions, baggage, and artillery. Whiteside’s forces quickly outdistanced Atkinson’s, and in a short time they reached the Prophet’s town. Finding Black Hawk gone, they put the village to the torch and pressed on as far as Dixon’s Ferry, where they decided to wait for the supply troops to catch up. They were soon joined by two more volunteer battalions, commanded by majors Isaiah Stillman and David Bailey. Stillman’s men were eager for action and too impatient to stand around waiting when Black Hawk could be no more than twenty-five miles ahead. Finding it impossible to hold them back, Reynolds gave them permission to scout ahead and if they found the Indians to “coerce them into submission.” On May 14 Stillman’s 275 men galloped off in high spirits, not stopping until late afternoon, when Stillman decided to camp in a grove of treesjust below the mouth of Sycamore Creek.
All this happened while Black Hawk had been discovering to his dismay that aside from the Prophet and a handful of young warriors, the Winnebago wanted no part of a war against the whites. The very presence of the renegade Sauk and Foxes in their village was making them anxious for their own safety. After a week of fruitless councils with the Winnebago chiefs, Black Hawk angrily concluded that Neapope had been deceived. He still hoped for something better from the Potawatomi, but now, for the first time, he began to fear that the journey up the Rock River had been a mistake. Yet he continued to assure his people that help was at hand and that they would yet plant their corn in their own country. Leaving the Winnebago village, he sent his people on ahead while he and about fifty of his braves camped near the mouth of Sycamore Creek and met with the Potawatomi chiefs. Again the news was bad. Afew of their braves were eager for war, they told him, but most had made their peace with the white man. Black Hawk also learned now that he could not count on getting help from the British. It was a grave moment. The old warrior’s dream of regaining the lands of his fathers was revealed to be nothing more than empty fantasy. He had kindled the hopes of his people and had led them into a hostile land; now they were tired and hungry, without friends to help them and with neither food nor the promise of the ancestral lands to sustain them. Angry, desolate, defeated, the old man decided there was nothing to do but turn back.
But it was already too late. As Black Hawk’s Potawatomi guests were preparing to leave the council grounds scouts brought word that a party of whites was setting up camp a few miles away. Thinking them to be Atkinson’s advance guard, Black Hawk sent three of his young braves with a flag of truce to convey his offer to parley. As a precaution he sent another party of five braves to keep watch from a distance.
The militiamen, undisciplined to begin with, were well into the whiskey ration by the time Black Hawk’s emissaries appeared on the prairie. The sight of the three Indians threw them into turmoil. The flag bearers were immediately surrounded by a mob of hooting and threatening volunteers. While the three were being interrogated someone spotted the second party of Indians out on the prairie. The excited Americans decided they were being attacked. Without waiting for orders, a pack of horsemen took off after the I ndians, who turned and fled. Two were overtaken and shot; the others rushed back to Black Hawk’s camp. Meantime, Stillman’smenhad turned their wrath on the three flag bearers. In the melee guns were cocked, someone fired, and one of the Indians fell dead. The other two dashed through the crowd and made their escape.
Black Hawk was preparing a flag of truce when the three surviving scouts came galloping into the council grove with news of the white men’s treachery. Ina fury he tore up his flag and called upon his warriors to avenge the murder of their brothers. Determined to make their stand whatever the odds, Black Hawk and his fifty braves concealed themselves behind a long fringe of bushes and waited to see what would happen. As the white army of almost three hundred men came rushing toward them in disarray the Indians leaped up with whoops and yells and a volley of musket fire. In the uncertain light of early evening the militiamen thought they were being attacked by a whole nation of savages. They stopped short, and as some men in front fell from their horses and others turned to run, the men behind caught their panic, until all of Stillman’s volunteers were fleeing in terror across the prairie, pursued by a handful of Indians. Darkness ended the chase, but the Americans did not stop running until they reached Whiteside’s camp, twenty-five miles away, bearing frenzied tales of two thousand savages and a horrible massacre. The next day Whiteside and his army marched to the battlefield, where they found the scalped and mutilated bodies of eleven of Stillman’s men.