The Black Hawk War: A conflict of deadly folly and miscalculation

Got a question after last week’s post about place names here in Kendall County, particularly one that a reader heard involved an Indian attack. As it turned out, there was such a thing and the reader’s question was about the Black Hawk War of 1832.

I’ve frequently written about the war over the years in my newspaper columns, but, as a quick search surprisingly showed, I’ve never done one about the war here at History on the Fox. Which is a bit odd, since the Black Hawk War was a truly pivotal event here in northern Illinois, one that ended up introducing the region–especially the Fox River Valley–to hundreds of people who eventually decided to join the rush to settle the prairies round hereabouts.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk, though not a chief of the Sauk Tribe, was a respected military leader who had successfully fought U.S. troops during the War of 1812.

If World War I was “The War to End All Wars,” then the Black Hawk War of 1832, the last war fought inside the bounds of Illinois, could fairly be characterized as “The Miscalculation Conflict.” Black Hawk, an elderly warrior of the Sauk Tribe, miscalculated when he thought he could lead more than 1,000 men, women, and children of his tribe across the Mississippi to live peacefully once again in Illinois. U.S. Army Gen. Henry Atkinson miscalculated his ability to control the impetuous Illinois governor, John Reynolds. Reynolds miscalculated when he thought he could stage a major coup by quickly attacking Black Hawk and ending the war to his own political advantage. And Illinois Militia Major Isaiah Stillman gravely miscalculated the military ability of his poorly organized and undisciplined troops to overawe, much less subdue, even a small group of armed Indians who knew what they were about.

The most immediate result of these miscalculations was the short, bloody Battle of Stillman’s Run on May 14, 1832 on what was then named Old Man’s Creek in western Illinois. After being attacked despite attempting to parlay under a flag of truce, about two dozen Sauk and Fox warriors under Black Hawk routed Stillman’s 240-man mounted militia battalion, killing 11 and sending the rest fleeing the battlefield in total panic. Maj. Stillman fled faster than most of his men, and the routed force spread panic all over frontier Illinois. In coming years, the name of Old Man’s Creek would be changed to Stillman’s Run in an ironic tip of the hat to Stillman’s tactics that day.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Waubonsee, chief of the Prairie Potawatomi in the Fox and Illinois River valleys, refused to join the war against American settlers prompted by Black Hawk’s move back into Illinois from Iowa.

While the battle had a bit of comic opera flavor, the aftermath did not. Following the battle, the U.S. Army and the state militia decided they faced all-out war. Meanwhile, Black Hawk and the other head men of his band decided that retreat back to the west bank of the Mississippi was the only sensible course open to them. Their supposed Indian allies—local Winnebago, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal bands—and the British in Canada all made it plain they would not participate in a war against the might of the U.S. Government and the State of Illinois. Chief Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Potawatomi in northern Illinois flatly told Black Hawk that his people would not fight the whites no matter what.

Even so, Black Hawk’s stunning defeat of Stillman’s militia force did embolden some local Indians who used the confusion to settle personal scores. Waubonsee and Chief Shabbona both realized the dangers the situation created. Shabbona, an experienced military leader who had been a chief aide of the great Chief Tecumseh, decided he had to warn as many local settlers as he could to flee to somewhere safe. The old chief and his young nephew spread the alarm to the isolated settlements and homesteads that had begun springing up and down the Fox Valley.

Settlers during that era in what is now Kendall County (it was then part of LaSalle County) were not the hard-bitten frontiersmen normally associated with pioneer life. U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for widespread armed violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines wrote after doing a personal assessment. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

In fact, the settlers’ best mode of defense was to run away, which they did as quickly as possible. Settlers in the northern part of Kendall County fled to Walker’s Grove (now Plainfield), while those farther south got to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

Late in his life, Ansel Reed, who in 1832 was a young hired hand of Big Grove Township pioneer Moses Booth, recalled the fear and confusion the outbreak of war caused:

“In going to work in the afternoon I met two Frenchmen, halfbreeds, riding each a mare with a colt following. They said they lived in Kankakee and were going north for seed corn….They talked a little while longer, and passed on toward Newark….Mr. Booth came out and had made two or three turns to furrowing [plowing] out the potato land when the Frenchmen returned in a great fright and told Mr. Booth what they had seen. He sent them on to alarm Anthony Litsey and beckoned to me to hurry, saying as I came near, ‘I don’t know but we shall all be killed.'”

The Booth family joined with several others after arriving at the Rev. Stephen Beggs’ home, where they tore down some buildings and quickly threw up a rickety fortification they dubbed Fort Beggs. Some 125 thoroughly frightened settlers crowded into the improvised fort. Rev. Beggs later confirmed Gen. Gaines’ estimate of the pioneers’ defensive capabilities when wrote that the settlers had only four firearms among them and that “some of them” didn’t work.The settlers huddled in Fort Beggs eventually were escorted to Chicago by militia troops.

Indian Creek monument

The Indian Creek Massacre monument in Shabbona County Park near the Kendall-LaSalle County line, marks the deaths of 15 men, women, and children at the hands of Native Americans during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

On May 19, a group of men, among whom was Kendall County resident Daniel Kellogg, wrote from Ottawa to General Atkinson seeking immediate help: “To the commander in chief at Rock River we the undersigned having been Eye Witness to burning of houses destruction of property but as yet there has been no lives taken that we know, but there is some missing but where they are we don’t know. Therefore we wish to send to our relief two or Three Hundred men as soon as possible to Rendevous at Ottawa the mouth of Fox River Rapids Illinois Ottaway. “P.S. The above destruction of property and depredations were committed by the Indians but to what tribe they belong is uncertain. There has also been some men fired on and Chaced for Miles.”

South of the present boundary of Kendall County in LaSalle County, on Big Indian Creek, events of late May of 1832 moved towards the kind of bloody climax Kellogg and his frightened neighbors and friends predicted.

In 1830, William Davis and his family had moved to Illinois from West Virginia. With him had come his wife and six children. Davis settled on the north-northeast bank of Big Indian Creek in the southwest quarter of Section 2, Freedom Township (Township 35 north, Range 3 east), of LaSalle County. Davis and his family were among the first, if not actually the first, whites to settle on Big Indian Creek. Davis, a blacksmith, arrived on the creek in the spring of 1830, and built a cabin and a blacksmith shop. By 1832, he had completed a dam across the creek and a sawmill to service the settlers who were moving into the area along the Fox River.

A Potawatomi village was located about six miles upstream from Davis’s new dam and sawmill. The Indians living there depended on netting fish from the creek for a large proportion of their diet. Davis’s new dam cut off the upper portion of the creek from the fish in the Fox River, therefore damaging the spawning cycle of the fish, and cutting off a large portion of the Indians’ food supply.

When the Indians complained to Davis of this problem, they were contemptuously dismissed. Then in early May 1832, Davis caught Keewassee, a leading warrior from the Potawatomi village, trying to dismantle the dam. Davis severely beat the Indian, and Keewassee began plotting revenge against the white settlers.

As soon as word got around, about Stillman’s defeat, many private quarrels between Indians and whites violently broke into the open, including that between Keewassee and William Davis.

Several people, feeling there was safety in numbers, had gathered at the Davis claim for mutual defense. There was Davis, his wife, and his six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Hall and their six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Pettygrew and their two children; John H. Henderson; William Norris; and Henry George. Despite being strongly urged to take refuge at Ottawa where a fort was being constructed, the group fatally elected to stay at the Davis claim until the Indian trouble cleared up.

Late in the afternoon of May 21, most of the settlers were in or around the Davis cabin. Henderson and a number of the older boys, on the other hand, were working in the fields, while Norris was working in Davis’s blacksmith shop. At about 4:30 p.m., the settlers were shocked to see 20 Indians, painted for war and heavily armed, vault the fence about 10 yards from the house and run to attack the frightened whites.

Wrote 17 year old Rachel Hall:

“Mr. Pettygrew made an effort to shut the door of the house but was shot down in the act of doing so, and indiscriminate murder of all the persons in the house consisting of one man, to wit, Mr. Pettygrew, four women Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Pettygrew, Mrs. Hall (my mother) and Miss Davis about fifteen years of age and six children, four girls and two boys, and four men killed out of the house, Viz, Mr. Davis, Mr. Hall, William Norris and Henry George, in all fifteen persons, the whole scene transpired within ten minutes as I think.”

John Henderson, three Hall boys, and two Davis boys working in the field escaped. Rachel Hall and her sister Sylvia, 19, were taken captive by the war party.

While Henderson and the Hall boys made a panic-stricken run overland to Ottawa, the Indians took the two girls to Black Hawk’s band, despite the fact that only three of the raiding party were Sauks, the rest being Potawatomis.

Gaines, Gen. Edmund P

General Edmund P. Gaines commanded the Western Military Department–which included Illinois–during the Black Hawk War. Gaines was generally sympathetic to Native Americans and opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Gaines expressed surprise at how unprepared the Illinois settlers of the 1830s were to defend themselves when war broke out.

As soon as word about the attack reached the authorities, action was taken to secure the return of the girls, including dispatching Chief Waubonsee on a mission to gain their release. His mission came to naught, however, as the girls had already been ransomed by the Winnebagos, who were trying their best to stay on the good side of the Americans in the midst of the war.

In an fascinating sidelight, shortly after the end of the Black Hawk war, warrants were issued at the courthouse in Ottawa for the arrest of Keewassee and two other Potowatomi warriors, Ta-qua- wee and Comee, for the murder of the settlers at the Davis cabin. Interestingly enough, charges were dropped against all three in 1834 because Sylvia and Rachel Hall could not positively identify the members of the war party.

Marauding groups of Indians prowled the valley. At Georgetown (now Newark), they looted and burned George Hollenback’s trading post. Robert Beresford (considered the county’s first permanent settler) and one of his sons were killed by Indians near Ottawa.

But all was not so grim—the war didn’t prove to be the sort of brutal, scorched earth Indian war we have heard so much about in American history. For instance, when William and Emily Harris left their Fox Township cabin to escape, Emily’s elderly father, Mr. Combs, helpless with rheumatism, requested he be left behind, saying he would only slow the rest of the family down. Since, he said, he had lived a full life, if he was to die, he was content to do so. But when the Indians discovered him in the Harris cabin ready to face his fate, he was carried, in his bed, out of the cabin, which was then burned. Other tribesmen made sure he was supplied with food and water before they left.

After a few other brief but violent incidents, the settlers slowly returned to their Fox Valley homes, spurred on by a cholera outbreak in Chicago. The U.S. Army had dispatched troops west to help fight the war, but along the way they’d contracted the deadly cholera. By the time they arrived at Chicago, the war’s action had moved west and north into modern Wisconsin, so the settlers remaining at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn decided that while Indians might kill them, cholera certainly would. Most quickly left to head back to their homes.

The Black Hawk War itself eventually ended when the bedraggled and starving Indians were trapped and most were massacred as they tried to cross the Mississippi during the Battle of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin. Ironically, the war would have ended much sooner had the army had interpreters with them—Black Hawk’s tribesmen attempted to surrender several times but none of the whites in the army could understand them.

While the war was a terrible tragedy for the Indians involved and for the small number of whites killed, it did give many militia volunteers a chance to see the rich lands in the Fox Valley, spurring a flood of settlement to northern Illinois in 1833. It also marked the beginning of the end of Indian occupation of the Fox Valley, and by 1836, virtually all the region’s Native Americans had been forcibly removed west of the Mississippi River.

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Firearms, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

2 responses to “The Black Hawk War: A conflict of deadly folly and miscalculation

  1. Susan Dailey

    Thank you for the history of the area I had heard about. Very interesting. I hope you learned something new. I enjoy all your articles.

  2. The Historical Diaries

    Wow. So many miscalculations my head is spinning haha, but in all seriousness what devastating results! This was a really interesting and thorough article. I have not read anything about the battle of stillman’s run but woa. Thanks for sharing this post! It was a great read!

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