- 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
The country was even rougher than before. Heavily wooded and cut up by thickets, swamps, and creeks, it was at times all but impassable. And heavy rains fell almost continuously. Every day a few old people died of starvation. Stragglers, too weak or too sick to keep up, were overtaken by their pursuers, and it was reported that “half a dozen of these old creatures were shot and scalped.” No longer was there a possibility of mercy from the whites, who were enflamed by the massacres in I Uinois and determined to exact retribution. By the time the Indians reached the heights above the Wisconsin on July 21, Henry and Dodge, with 570 mounted men, were within a few hours of catching up with them. As a delaying tactic Black Hawk posted snipers along the trail. Then, sending most of his braves ahead to assist the women and children in crossing the river, he and fifty of his best warriors took possession of a hill about a mile to the rear, intending to hold the whites back as long as possible. Jefferson Davis, a young lieutenant at the scene, later recalled that “the Indians made so determined a stand, and fought with such desperation, that they held us in check. During this time the squaws tore bark from the trees, with which they made little shallops, in which they floated their papooses and other impedimenta across to an island, also swimming over the ponies.” Eventually the whites rushed forward and drove Black Hawk and his braves from the hill by sheer force of numbers, pushing them back into a brushcovered ravine. From this new position the Indians kept up a withering fire, holding the whites back until darkness fell and Dodge and Henry reluctantly called off the attack. During the night Black Hawk moved the rest of his people across the river, and in the morning the Americans found no one to fight. Having neither adequate supplies nor any means of crossing the river, they were forced to give up the chase.
Black Hawk’s conduct of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights was later given high marks by Jefferson Davis, who was himself on the way to an illustrious military career. It was, he said, “a feat of consummate management and bravery, in the face of an enemy of great superior odds. ” Black Hawk said he lost six men in the engagement, though Dodge estimated that “we must have killed 40 of them,” while only one American was killed. During the crossing of the Wisconsin a number of Black Hawk’s followers, faced with another long overland journey, decided to continue downstream on their rafts, hoping to escape down the Mississippi. But the refugees, among them a great number of women and children, were cut off by soldiers from Prairie du Chien, and most were killed or drowned. Several were taken prisoner, and a few others escaped to the woods, where they starved to death or were slaughtered by Menominis sent out to search for them.
Black Hawk was relying now only on himself. Neapope had deserted him after the battle, and the Prophet no longer cared or dared to offer advice. Without rafts or canoes to descend the Wisconsin, Black Hawk and the remainder of his band started over the rugged and increasingly hilly country toward the Mississippi. The chief tried to hurry his people along, knowing that the Americans would soon be after them again. But progress was painfully slow. Many of the ponies had given out. More old people died. So did some children and several of the wounded. Rushed along by the braves, the Indians abandoned their belongings, leaving a pathetic trail strewn with kettles, pots, blankets, mats, and graves. There was still nothing to eat but roots, boiled grass, bark, and occasionally a pony that had grown too weak to be of any other use. But the Indians trudged on, and on August i they reached the Mississippi, just below the mouth of the Bad Axe, about forty miles above Prairie du Chien.
They had been at the river only a short time and some had already begun to cross when the steamboat Warrior came into view upstream. Carrying a detachment of troops and armed with an artillery piece mounted on the bow, the Warrior was returning from Minnesota, where the commander of the troops had been urging the Sioux to watch for their enemies the Sauk and Foxes and prevent their escape across the river. Far from being alarmed, Black Hawk was relieved to see the vessel. He knew its captain and was confident that he would at last be able to surrender and put an end to the suffering of his people. Waving a white cloth from a pole, he called to the captain to send a boat over so that he might come aboard to parley. The interpreter on the Warrior apparently misunderstood the message and said that the Indians wanted those on board to come ashore. The Americans refused, suspecting a trap. When some of the Indians jumped into the water and began swimming toward the boat with a white flag, the troops got panicky and opened fire pointblank with the artillery piece. The attack caught the Indians by surprise. A number were killed immediately. The rest ran for cover behind logs and trees and began returning the Warrior ’s fire. The shooting went on for two hours and only ceased when the steamboat ran short of wood and had to return to Prairie du Chien to refuel. The next day the captain described the skirmish to a friend with all the verve of a sportsman at a turkey shoot. “This little fight cost them twenty-three killed, and of course a great many wounded,” he reported. “We never lost a man.”