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The militia surgeon was terrified. All around him the night flickered and danced with muzzle flashes, and the darkness rang with terrifying war whoops and screams of terror. Desperately he kneed his rearing horse, but could not pull away from the grim, dark form holding tightly to his mount. He leaned forward into the gloom and held out his sword.

‘Please Mr. Indian’ he pleased, ‘I surrender. Please accept my sword.’

Only after his captor failed to take the sword, or move at all, did the petrified doctor realize that he was talking to a stump — the very one to which had had tied his horse. Slashing the tether, the surgeon fled madly into the night.

For 25 miles, he and hundreds of his militia comrades galloped through brush and trees, crazy with fear, more than a little drunk, and certain that every bush and log was a Sauk warrior with a tomahawk thirsting for white man’s blood. Few of them ever actually saw an Indian or fired at anything other than shadows. Their officers, with few exceptions, were in the van of the retreat, led by Colonel James Strode, commander of the 27th Illinois Regiment, notable, until then, for a large mouth and a bellicose air.

The general rout had begun on May 14, 1832, when 275 Illinois militiamen, commanded by Major Isaiah Stillman, were spooked by about 40 Sauk warriors, who were as surprised as anybody at the chaotic panic they created. Thus the Battle of Old Man’s Creek was ever after to be better known by the unfelicitous name of Stillman’s Run. The defeat was more humiliating than serious, though the Indians mutilated the bodies of the 12 white men they killed and a good many more militiamen subsequently deserted for good. The Sauk had lost three braves, one of whom had been murdered before the fight began, as he had tried to negotiate for peace.

Later there would be a good deal of pious bragging and invention about a gallant defense against as many as 2,000 Indians. But the militia knew it had been whipped — whipped badly and nearly frightened to death. In later days, most of the men didn’t talk a lot about being at Stillman’s Run. One officer spoke for most of them in a letter to his wife: ‘I will make you one promise, I will stay with you in future, for this thing of being a soldier is not so comfortable as it might be.’

Indeed it wasn’t. What had started as a wonderful, drunken Indian-killing party was getting serious and, what was worse, downright dangerous. But the war would go on. It was mid-May 1832, and a fundamental question still had to be decided that spring. Was the Sauk and Fox nation to be allowed to return to its ancestral lands near Rock Island, east of the Mississippi River, or was it to be forever confined to its new home west of that river, to which it had been exiled by a scandalous treaty signed in 1804?

The Indian signatories to the treaty had had no authority to speak for the entire tribe. Only one was a legitimate chief, and even he was a noted alcoholic. The Indians’ compensation was pitiful; one historian called it a collection of ‘wet groceries and geegaws.’ As young George McCall, a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, put it, the fact that the white men had simply stolen the Sauks’ land ‘was apparent to the most obtuse.’

Even that farcical treaty had given the Sauk and Fox the right to hunt and plant on their old ground until the land was surveyed and opened for settlement. But hordes of settlers had promptly squatted on the land, making the treaty unenforceable. It was too much for proud men to bear.

And so, in the spring of 1831, a band of Sauk crossed the Mississippi and moved into the ancient tribal territories around Rock Island. Their hearts were there, and so was their chief village, a well-laid-out town called Saukenuk. The Indian invasion produced a small amount of bloodshed — and a large amount of unmitigated panic on the part of the squatters, who promptly appealed to the United States Government for help.

Major General Edmund Gaines, Western Department commander, sent the 6th U.S. Infantry and part of the 3rd, and asked the Illinois governor for added militia assistance. War was averted when still another treaty was thrashed out with the Sauk, who promised never again to cross to the east bank of the Mississippi without the consent of both the U.S. president and the governor of Illinois.

Within four months, however, a Sauk band was back across the river, and was said to have killed a couple of dozen Menominee Indians, their hereditary enemies. The panic-stricken squatters again appealed for government aid. It was, after all, less than 20 years since the horrors of the War of 1812, when most of the northwestern Indians had joined the British. Many Indians still fondly remembered those days, times of victory over the Americans. One of them spoke for all: ‘I had not discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans. They made fair promises, but never fulfilled them! Whilst the British made but few — but we could always rely upon their word!’

The man who spoke those words was 65 at that time, but still a power among the Sauk. He was not a great chief, but a respected warrior who had killed his first man when he was 15 and was credited with 30 by the time he was 45. He was also a consummate tactician. His name, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, roughly translates as Black Sparrow Hawk, but he was more widely known simply as Black Hawk.

On April 1, 1832, some 300 regulars of the 6th Infantry left Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, by boat. They moved smoothly upriver in the burgeoning spring, under the command of bumbling Brig. Gen. Henry Atkinson, and arrived at Rock Island on the 8th. There they learned that Black Hawk’s band — called the ‘British Band’ for their undying allegiance to their old friends to the north — with some local Sauk and some Kickapoo had crossed the Mississippi at Yellow Banks and moved up the Rock River. There were said to be 600 to 800 well-armed braves, more than half of them mounted. And, because they intended to reoccupy their old lands, many of them had brought their families with them.

Atkinson sensibly decided he needed cavalry to catch a mounted enemy. The regular army had no mounted troops because a cheese-paring Congress would not appropriate enough money for it. Infantrymen were cheaper, and dollars were far more important on Capital Hill than military preparedness. Any mounted men would have to come from the local militia, and Atkinson asked Illinois Governor John Reynolds for help.

Reynolds, a pompous bumpkin, jumped at the chance. ‘Generally speaking’ as one historian neatly put it, ‘history has been kind to the governor by not mentioning him at all.’ Reynolds, an intellectual pygmy, was nevertheless alert to the political advantage to be gained form taking the offensive against the Indians — any Indians. Based on some early and undistinguished service in the War of 1812, Reynolds had conferred upon himself the sobriquet of ‘the Old Ranger.’ Now he would add to his self-developed luster by personally leading the militia to chastise the heathen.

Militia troops had long been the bane of the regular U.S. Army. Although they had fought well at times, they had also done a shameful amount of running away. Major General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne, who knew something about soldiering, thought he would do well to get two volleys out of the militia before they fled the battlefield. It was not so long since the Bladensburg Races, that dismal day in August 1814 outside Washington when a whole army of militia had skedaddled before a thin line of British bayonets and the whooshing of wildly inaccurate Congreve rockets.

The ensuing war would bring nobody glory, except maybe the Indians. A raw-boned former militia captain named Abraham Lincoln would seldom mention his participation except to comment drolly on the size of the mosquitoes that preyed on him and his men. Other participants — especially officers of the regular army — bluntly called the campaign what it was.

‘A tissue of blunders, miserably managed’ said Colonel Zachary Taylor, destined for well-deserved fame in the Mexican War and ultimately the White House. ‘An affair of fatigue, filth, petty jealousy, bickering [and] boredom’ wrote a junior officer — and future Confederate general — named Albert Sidney Johnston.

The militiamen showed up at Rock Island in droves, a couple of thousand of them by early May. These uncouth Illinois men rejoiced in their local nickname of ‘Suckers’ in memory of one of their chief foods, the unlovely bottom-feeding fish of the same name. The men were furnished food, equipment and arms by the government, and produced prodigious quantities of both hot air and whiskey, without which no movement apparently could be attempted.

The Suckers poked fun at the regular troops they saw, in part because the regulars had to walk. The militia could ride in some comport, and pursue its Indian quarry with much greater dispatch. As it turned out, it was also better able to run away from a fight, a thing it was to do often. Militiamen would kill many horses during the campaign, galloping madly away from danger, real or imagined. Most of them would kill nothing else.

Still, the militiamen were loud and boastful, singularly dedicated to their constant companion John Barleycorn and wholly without discipline. The only response to Lincoln’s first command was the loud advice to ‘go to hell!’ Apparently, the future president’s experience was not unusual. Part of this chronic indiscipline was frontier orneriness, part of it, maybe most, was whiskey. One soldier wrote of hearing officers shout at their men: ‘Fall in, men — fall in! Gentlemen, will you please some away from that damned whiskey barrel!’

The regulars, in turn, were not pleased with their new allies. They rightly considered them buffoons, ill-disciplined, noisy and all too likely to desert the battlefield. For their part, the militia made fun of the regulars, calling them ‘hot-house lettuces’ given to taking tea with the ladies and ‘eating yellow-legged chickens’ an apparently pejorative frontier term that loses something in modern translation.

Reynolds’ militia had its chance almost immediately, and the result was the absurd debacle at Old Man’s Creek on May 14. The evening before, the Suckers had decided to abandon their supply wagons and each man took what he needed — especially whiskey. ‘Everybody offered everybody a drink’ said one participant, and the column straggled on toward Old Man’s Creek. By sundown the Sucker horde was ‘corned pretty heavily.’

Meanwhile, Black Hawk had led his band to the Winnebago village of Prophet’s Town, only to see his appeal for an alliance rejected. Although he flew a British flag wherever he camped, he eventually learned that reports and rumors he had heard of British support for his enterprise being forthcoming were utterly false. On the morning of May 14, he was at a council with Potawatomi chiefs, which was also to prove unproductive. When word reached him that the 275 militiamen of Major Stillman’s command were nearby, Black Hawk decided to abandon his hopes of returning to his traditional homeland. He sent three messengers under a white flag of truce to request a parley, with the intention of peacefully leading his band back across the Mississippi. He also sent five warriors to back up his envoys and observe how they were received.

What followed was a tragicomic farce. None of Black Hawk’s messengers could speak English and none of the militia could speak Sauk. While the parties tried to communicate, a militiaman noticed the five warriors watching the proceedings from a ridge and assumed that they were being drawn into a trap. A militiaman shot one of the Sauk negotiators dead on the spot and others rode off in pursuit of the fleeing braves, killing two of them. At least one reached Black Hawk, however, and the enraged war chief assembled 40 braves — all he had available, since the others were foraging for food and organized a skirmish line. Those 40 men were angry and aggressive, not at all what the Suckers were used to, and upon running headlong into that war party they promptly dashed back toward camp as fast as they had come.

Bedlam followed. The militia had enlisted for only 30 days, and as the fourth week approached they could think of all kinds of reasons why they had to go home. Some simply deserted. There was no end to the accusations about who was responsible for the shame of Stillman’s Run, and the governor seemed to have lost what little control he had. The regulars were so contemptuous of the militia that Atkinson put the Rock River between his men and the Suckers to avoid collision.

Meanwhile, Black Hawk found himself with the very war that he had tried to avoid fully on his hands. The heady and wholly unexpected victory at Old Man’s Creek, however, deluded the old war chief into believing he might have a chance of victory after all. Instead of quitting while he was ahead and withdrawing as planned just days before, Black Hawk took up the warpath.

Atkinson did what he could to get the expedition going again. He got a scouting party out, led by Colonel William Stephen ‘Uncle Billy’ Hamilton, a scruffy, hard-drinking son of the late Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Before anything more could be done, word came of the massacre of 15 white settlers on Indian Creek and the kidnapping of two teenage girls by the raiders.

Frightful news of other killings and burnings caused mass flight along the frontier, with fugitives pouring into havens as far away as Chicago. Not all the raiders were Sauk; there were Winnebago, too, but winged rumors made no distinction. At one settlement two shots fired at a flock of wild turkeys were enough to stampede everybody in the entire area into a wild flight for shelter at the local fort.

Meanwhile, orators and newspapers all along the frontier screamed for bloody revenge. By the end of May, much of the Illinois Militia had disbanded, with only 250 heeding frantic appeals form the Old Ranger to re-enlist. There was a new levy coming, but nobody knew just how large it could be. Men were unenthusiastic about the war. The Detroit Free Press sneered, ‘There is no danger — no more probability of an invasion by Black Hawk’s party than there is from the Emperor of Rusia [sic].’

A new swarm of militia soon gathered, however, thirsting for Indian blood and stealing anything that was not nailed down. They were organized into there brigades of about 1,000 men each, still as loud, brawling, hard-drinking and undisciplined as ever.

Black Hawk, camped around Lake Koshkonong, learned of the new army and knew he could not wait for it to come looking for him. In mid-June, he went over to the attack. First he sent small parties on forays westward, a feint to convince his enemies that he was beginning to move into Iowa. Meanwhile, his main force remained around Koshkonong, hunting to support the families.

The raiders stole stock and struck at isolated parties of whites, leaving a trail of scalped, mutilated bodies and unmitigated terror. The white pursuers did win one small success on June 16, at a place called Pecatonica Creek. The Battle of Bloody Pond, as it was also called, wasn’t much of a fight — 21 militia dragoons commanded by Colonel Henry Dodge took on 11 Kickapoo and managed to exterminate them while losing three of their own.

The frontier went crazy with delight. An ocean of hyperbole elevated the little skirmish into something approaching the Battle of Waterloo, and the militia leader was proposed as a candidate for governor. ‘The annals of border warfare’ crowed one writer, ‘furnish no parallel to this battle.’ That much was true: never in the field of frontier conflict had so much been said about so little.

In fact, the Battle of Bloody Pond did nothing to stop the ceaseless strikes of Black Hawk’s war parties, and most of the settlers remained terrified, disorganized and feckless. On June 24, Black Hawk led 150-200 warriors in an attempt to storm the hastily erected stockade at Apple River. The fort and its inhabitants were saved primarily by the exertions of a touch, tobacco-chewing woman with the appropriate name of Elizabeth Armstrong. This profane fury tongue-whipped the terrified refugees inside the fort and bullied its 25 male defenders into action, dragging one man from his hiding place inside a barrel and shoving him to a loophole.

After a brief siege, the Sauk and Fox moved on to forage for food, and on the next day they moved on to an even smaller fort at Kellogg’s Grove, hoping to ambush its garrison as it ventured out. Instead, the Indians ran afoul of a large party of militia led by Major John Dement and lost nine warriors killed, including two war chiefs, in the running fight that followed.

There were now too many regulars and militia in the region, and Black Hawk’s time was running out. Gradually the white juggernaut moved ahead, pushing up the Rock River past Lake Koshkonong. Black Hawk’s band, with its women and children, fell back. It was not easy for either pursuers or pursued. On went the chase, slogging through a dreadful region called the ‘trembling lands’ a maze of swamp and bog and hummock, waist-deep in stinking water.

By mid-July, the whites were desperately short of supplies, and the ponderous pursuit halted, still without substantial success. A number of militiamen were sent home, doubtless to Atkinson’s relief, and the governor seized the chance to go home with them, loudly assuring everybody that Black Hawk was finished. Among those mustered out was Captain Abraham Lincoln, on his way home to infinitely greater things.

If Atkinson was to have the honor of winning this war, he would have to move fast. President Andrew Jackson, never a patient man, had already tired of the glacial pace of the campaign, and had sent out someone he knew would do something about it. Brevet Major General Winfield Scott, a smart, driving regular officer destined for glory in the coming war with Mexico, was sent west to take command.

Atkinson pulled his diminished force together and slogged on after Black Hawk, who was plainly heading back toward the Mississippi. It was a miserable march, dragging its way through more of the ‘trembling lands’ plagued by torrents of rain, blown-down tents and a stamped that left many militiamen on foot. On July 20, the column’s leading elements cut Black Hawk’s trail. The effect on Atkinson’s tired army was electric. Morale rose and the men pushed on hard, living on raw bacon and wet cornmeal, snatching sleep on the ground under the pouring rain.

It was the beginning of the end. Black Hawk’s band was already in dreadful straits, reduced to eating roots and tree bark to stay alive, and leaving behind the bodies of old people dead of starvation. The militia was closing faster now as it broke out of the swamps and into open country, near Madison, Wis.

Just when it seemed that the war was over, on July 21, Black Hawk turned on his pursuers at a place called Wisconsin Heights. Vastly outnumbered, he could not close, but volleyed again and again with musket fire, keeping the whites off balance and on the defensive as their casualties mounted, though only one man was killed. At last, as night began to fall, the Suckers managed to launch a bayonet charge toward the high ground and the ravine from which the Indians’ galling fire had come. Their assault crashed into empty air — Black Hawk was gone.

‘Our men stood firmly’ one militiaman wrote proudly, unaware that’standing firmly’ was precisely what Black Hawk desperately wanted the army to do. While they stood firmly, he had gotten his entire band across the Wisconsin by canoe, losing only five braves. He had commanded about 50 Sauk, who he later described as ‘barely able to stand up due to hunger.’

Now it was a race. Some of Black Hawk’s exhausted band kept on down the Wisconsin. Others headed for the confluence of the Bad Axe River and the Mississippi, north of Prairie du Chien. There, the Mississippi broke into shoals and island, and it might be possible to cross to the west. Black Hawk could not know that a thoughtful regular officer had already anchored in the mouth of the Wisconsin with a flatboat, carrying 25 regulars and a 6-pounder cannon.

The pursuers pushed every closer to the Sauk band, slogging through trackless swamp, matted undergrowth and difficult hills. Now, the leading Sucker units knew they were close — the air was filled with circling buzzards and the way was littered with Indian corpses. A few were marked with wounds, but most of them had simply died of exhaustion and starvation.

It was all over now but the killing. At the Wisconsin’s mouth, one band of Sauk was stopped cold by the flatboat’s murderous grapeshot. The survivors scattered to the river’s banks. They could perish miserably over the next few days, hunted down by bands of Menominee led by Uncle Billy Hamilton. Across the broad Mississippi waited bands of Lakota, alerted that the hated Sauk would try to cross. And upstream, as Black Hawk’s hapless survivors reached the mouth of the Bad Axe on August 1, blasts of canister from the steamboat Warrior slashed through them and drove them back from the shore. Black Hawk ventured out toward Warrior with some white cotton on a stick in what proved to be a vain attempt to surrender. The remaining Sauk were hemmed in between the great river and Atkinson’s force, outnumbered 4-to-1.

The whole affair ended the next day, August 2, as Black Hawks knew it must. Atkinson’s men dropped their packs, fixed bayonets and pushed toward the banks of the Mississippi, regulars in the center, militia on either flank. There were perhaps 1,100 of them, plodding in line, holding muskets and equipment over their heads as they waded through pools of stagnant water. They advanced cautiously into the thick morning mist along the river.

Black Hawk’s warrior got off a single volley and then the soldiers were upon them. The whites suffered a mere 27 casualties — only five of them dead — while Black Hawk’s band was destroyed. At least 150 bodies were found, including many women and children. Many Indians fell or jumped into the river and the Mississippi took them forever. Those few who escaped were hunted down by vengeful Winnebago and Lakota, and even some traitorous Sauk.

A few refugees took to the water and the islands in a vain attempt to escape across the river. Fire from Warrior killed many of them with grapeshot and musketry, and even crushed some of the survivors with its paddle wheel as they tried to hide in shallow water. Fortified by whiskey, some militiamen pushed on to the islands and more fugitives were killed there.

A few of Black Hawk’s people escaped, against all odds. Many women tried to swim, some carrying small women on their backs. Most sank under a hail of musketry or were taken by the river as their strength ebbed, but a few made it. One mother swam the great river while clutching her tiny baby’s neck in her teeth. She would survive and so would the child, who rose to be chief, ever after called Scar Neck.

Perhaps 115 of Black Hawk’s party remained as prisoners, nearly all of them women and children. It was over, and there was much celebration, whiskey drinking and boasting over the pitiful scalps and booty that were all that remained of the British Band.

If the fighting was over, the dying was not. Cholera stalked down the river with the remains of Scott’s force and struck mercilessly at Sucker and regular alike. Fifty-five men were dead within a week, and many others deserted in terror, further spreading the epidemic. Its hideous rictus and vomiting would claim victims for the rest of that year and into the next, spreading all the way down the river to New Orleans, where it would kill 500 people a day at its height.

But at least there would be peace, however shameful. A new treaty was dictated by the victors. By its terms, the Sauk and Fox would leave the east bank of the Mississippi forever and five up a 50-mile strip on the west bank as well. There would be a trumpery payment to the tribe, which worked out to about $4 per Sauk per year, before, of course, ‘deductions’ for various sums owed merchants and agents.

Black Hawk was not among the prisoners, nor was his body found among the dead. He had left before the battle, old and tired and sick at heart. Whether he had simply given up on the war or was trying to lead part of Atkinson’s troops way from the Indian families is not clear. In any case, his people did not blame him for his absence. He had led them well, but the long march was over.

After eluding the militia for a few weeks more, in late August, Black Hawk finally gave himself up at Prairie du Chien. Kept for a time in chains at Fort Armstrong near the much-lamented village of Saukenuk, he was eventually taken to Washington, where he had a brief audience with President Jackson. Old Hickory had originally intended to imprison Black Hawk at Fortress Monroe, Va, but he was so impressed with the old war chief that he gave him a ceremonial sword and sent him home, one good soldier honoring another.

Before leaving the white man’s world, Black Hawk toured the Eastern seaboard, where he was ogled and lionized by the public. A condition of his release was that he renounce any claims to leadership of the Sauk, that position going to the more pliable Keokuk.

Back home, Black Hawk dictated a bitter autobiography in 1933. In it, he gave his chief reason for fighting the whites. ‘My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold’ he said. ‘The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it they have the right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.’

In time, Black Hawk would become something of a mascot in his new home near Burlingon, Iowa. He was generally treated as a respected citizen and often invited to listen to debates in the state assembly. In 1838, he died of an unspecified ailment called ‘bilious fever.’

Black Hawk remained something of a celebrity after his death. Curious white settlers invaded his tomb and stole his body. A local doctor boiled the bones clean, fleeing with his skeleton to start a touring exhibition. The governor of Iowa interceded and had the warrior’s remains returned to Burlington. In 1853, a fire finally put Black Hawk forever beyond the meddling of the white man.

The Suckers, Governor Reynolds, General Atkinson and other enemies have long since joined him in death, but Black Hawk the war leader had outlasted them all in memory. Wherever he is, the old Sauk must smile at the speed and sleekness of the U.S. Army’s current troop carrying helicopter that bears his name. On balance, it is not a bad epitaph.


This article was written by Robert B. Smith and originally published in the April 1991 issue of Wild West magazine.

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