- 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
“Never was I so much surprised in my life, as I was in this attack! ” Black Hawk later recalled. “An army of three or four hundred … to retreat when they had ten to one , was unaccountable to me.” The old Sauk was elated. He knew there could be no more thought of a peaceful retreat down the Rock River, but his easy victory led him to believe that he no longer needed to fear the Americans, who, he said, “had no … braves among them.” His people, too, had cause for rejoicing, for in their haste Stillman’s men had left behind their entire store of provisions.
Revived in body and spirit, the Indians headed north up the Kishwaukee, where, guided by friendly Winnebagos, they hoped to find a safe hiding place in the tangled swamps and marshes of southern Wisconsin. When his people were well on their way, Black Hawk and a party of mounted warriors armed with guns and tomahawks returned to Illinois and unleashed their fury on the settlers in the Galena mining district, attacking a stockade on Apple River and an isolated detachment of volunteers at Kellogg’s Grove. Five men were killed at Kellogg’s Grove, and Abraham Lincoln was among those who helped bury them the next day. Later Lincoln remembered how each of the dead men “had a round, red spot on top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken off his scalp.” The foray was Black Hawk’s one act of offensive war, a brief and bloody outburst. But elsewhere renegade bands of Potawatomis, Winnebagos, and Kickapoos, fired by Black Hawk’s victory on Sycamore Creek, began spreading terror throughout northern Illinois. The worst massacre was at the Indian Creek settlement near Ottawa, where a Potawatomi war party slaughtered three families—fifteen men, women, and children. But wherever Indian war cries were heard and white men’s blood ran over the ground, Black Hawk was blamed until it seemed that he and his warriors were everywhere. Terrified settlers in outlying areas carried their muskets with them into the fields and kept their women and children near the stockade. Outraged politicians and newspaper editors began demanding a war of extermination against the Indians. In Washington President Andrew Jackson was fuming at Atkinson’s delay inbringing the Indians under control, and finally he ordered General Winfield Scott to assemble an army at Chicago and take charge of the campaign.
While the Indians were rampaging through Illinois the pursuing army was falling apart at Dixon’s Ferry. After Stillman’s defeat the volunteers had completely lost their nerve and were clamoring to be discharged. General Atkinson also overestimated Black Hawk’s strength and was reluctant to engage his regulars without the support of the militia. Governor Reynolds was forced to call for new recruits. A small number of veterans, including Lincoln, chose to re-enlist, but it was the end of June before Atkinson had what he considered a sufficient force to set off after Black Hawk. His army swollen to almost 3,500 men, Atkinson confidently followed the Indians’ trail into Wisconsin. His guides, however, were Winnebagos, who, though friendly toward the whites, were more friendly toward the Sauk and Foxes. They led Atkinson and his army on one false trail after another, backtracking and crisscrossing the marshy, mosquitoridden country until provisions began running out and the weary and disgusted volunteers began drifting back to their crops and their families in Illinois. This time Governor Reynolds and Lincoln also joined the exodus. Atkinson was forced to halt on Lake Koshkonong while detachments of regulars went in search of food. One of the foraging expeditions was on its way back to Atkinson’s camp when, on July 18, a scout stumbled on Black Hawk’s trail. Sending word back to Atkinson, the officer in charge, General James B. Henry, joined Colonel Henry Dodge and his Galena volunteers and set off in pursuit.
The Indians, in the meantime, had moved west to the Four Lakes area (the site of present-day Madison), where Black Hawk had rejoined them at the beginning of July. He found his people desperately short of food and exhausted from three months of almost steady travelling. In the marshes “there was but little game of any sort to be found—and fish were equally scarce,” he said. “We were forced to dig roots and bark trees to obtain something to satisfy hunger and keep us alive!” When he learned that the Americans were again on his trail, Black Hawk decided to move his people across the Mississippi, believing that once they had returned to the Sauk country in Iowa the Americans would leave them alone. With five Winnebagos to guide them, the Indians broke camp again and followed the sun to the west, intending to descend the Wisconsin River.