- 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
When the Warrior left, Black Hawk seems to have concluded that the war was over and that his people were free to return to the Sauk nation. But having led them to safety, he himself would go no farther. With his dream a disaster and his people decimated, he was apparently reluctant to return and face the scorn of those who had once honored him as a great warrior. Telling his people that they could now cross the river if they wished, he and his family, together with the Winnebago Prophet and the few lodges that were still willing to follow him, started north, intending to join the Chippewa.
Atkinson had meantime combined forces with Henry and Dodge and had again taken up the chase. General Scott’s army was at Chicago, stricken with cholera and unable to move. But Atkinson now had command of an army of fourteen hundred mounted men and an easy trail ahead, and he neither needed nor wanted Scott’s help. With buzzards and carrion crows to guide them, the Americans had no trouble closing the distance between themselves and the Indians. On the night of August 2 they camped within a few miles of the place where the ragged remnants of the Sauk and Foxes were making their way across the river. Black Hawk heard the news at daybreak. Fearing disaster, he hurried back to the Bad Axe, determined to “die with my people, if the Great Spirit would not give us another victory!” Hoping to gain as much time as possible for those at the river, he and his warriors retired a safe distance to the rear, where, aided by a thick morning fog, they set about obliterating the main trail and laying a new one. When the whites approached, advancing cautiously through the mist, the Indians suddenly opened fire from ambush. Atkinson and his army rushed up the false trail in pursuit, and Black Hawk and his men retreated, drawing them on. The troops of Henry’s brigade, however, were some distance to the rear. Not yet caught up in the excitement and having more time to watch where they were going, they discovered the main trail and realized Black Hawk’s ruse. Sending word to Atkinson, Henry marched his men forward and soon fell upon the Indians, many of whom were still on the east bank waiting to cross. The red men tried to give themselves up, but the Americans rushed on them with bloody fury, clubbing and shooting them without sparing the women and children.
In the first assault the braves fought back ferociously and killed several whites. But the main body of the army came up, and the Indians were quickly overwhelmed. In the midst of the battle some women jumped into the river and attempted to swim across with their babies on their backs. Others took refuge on an island and hid among the trees. But then the Warrior reappeared from Prairie du Chien and began raking the island with artillery fire, while sharpshooters on the upper deck picked off the Indians in the water. Those who were not shot or drowned were tomahawked by the Sioux on the west bank. Later, Dodge’s and Taylor’s men were ferried to the island, where they slaughtered those who had survived the artillery barrage.
The carnage went on for several hours. When it was over, the ground was littered with corpses. The whites lost seventeen men and counted the bodies of about 150 Indians along the shore. Many more Indians were killed or drowned in the river. General Joseph M. Street, the Indian agent at Prairie du Chien, wrote that “The Inds. were pushed litterally into the Mississippi, the current of which was at one time perceptibly tinged with [their] blood.” Some whites took Indian scalps. Others, not satisfied with that grisly souvenir, cut from the bodies strips of skin with which to make belts and razor strops. Of the Indians who made their way across the river, a large number were killed and scalped by the Sioux almost as soon as they crawled out of the water, while perhaps two hundred others got as far as the Iowa River before they were overtaken and killed. The rest were captured or else died of wounds or exhaustion before they could reach their friends on the Iowa. Altogether it has been estimated that not more than 150 Indians survived the massacre at the Bad Axe.
The war was over. Black Hawk and his small band, who had been at Atkinson’s rear during the fighting, managed to make their way north to the Winnebago country, where they were given shelter. But they did not stay long. Perhaps fearing further reprisals against his people, Black Hawk decided to give himself up. The Winnebago were anxious to appease the whites and offered to deliver him to their agent at Prairie du Chien. Black Hawk made no objection. Dressing himself in white deerskin as a sign of mourning, the old Sauk chief headed south with the rest of his party. Taken prisoner at Prairie du Chien, he and his two sons and the Prophet were eventually turned over to Jefferson Davis, who escorted them downriver by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks. There the Indians spent a miserable winter. Black Hawk felt his humiliation keenly enough, but General Atkinson, who had since returned to his post at the barracks, added to the Sauk’s mortification by forcing him to wear the ball and chain. “Was the White Beaver afraid that I would break out of his barracks, and run away? Or was he ordered to inflict this punishment upon me? If I had taken him prisoner on the field of battle, I would not have wounded his feelings so much, by such treatment. …”