Black Hawk’s War, 1832: The Campaign against the Sauk & Fox Indians—Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk dictated by Himself & Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War by Frank Everett Stevens
An Indian leader’s struggle against the tide of westward pioneer expansion
Black Hawk was a leader and warrior of the Sauk Indian tribe born in the Illinois Territory in 1767. He was not an hereditary chief but became leader of a ‘band’ and war chief, principally because he had demonstrated his prowess in action. Black Hawk fought for the British against United States forces during the War of 1812 in an attempt to keep American settlers away from Sauk territory. By the 1830s Black Hawk was leader of the so called ‘British Band’ of Sauk and Fox Indians with whom he became famous for his resistance against settlers in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory during the ‘Black Hawk War’ of 1832. On the close of this war he was captured by American forces and transported to the eastern states. Before his eventual release Black Hawk dictated his autobiography, included in the Leonaur edition, which notably was the first work of its kind to be published in the United States. Also included here, from the perspective of the Americans, is a history of the Black Hawk War by Frank Everett Stevens. The conflict was typical of those between native Americans and settlers, since the perennial issue was always about the occupancy of land. In this instance the Indians were pre-emptively attacked by militia who were convinced that the ‘British Band’ had hostile intent. The Indians responded decisively—and initially successfully—in pitched battle, but after an intensified campaign was waged against them they were inevitably defeated. These two combined works will give students of the period valuable insights from both sides of the conflict.
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We started in a direction toward sunrise. After marching a considerable time I discovered some white men coming towards us. I told my braves that we would go into the woods and kill them when they approached. We concealed ourselves until they came near enough and then commenced yelling and firing and made a rush upon them. About this time their chief, with a party of men, rushed up to rescue the men we had fired upon. In a little while they commenced retreating and left their chief and a few braves who seemed willing and anxious to fight. They acted like men, but were forced to give way when I rushed upon them with my braves. In a short time the chief returned with a larger party. He seemed determined to fight, and anxious for a battle.
When he came near enough I raised the yell and firing commenced from both sides. The chief, who seemed to be a small man, addressed his warriors in a loud voice, but they soon retreated, leaving him and a few braves on the battlefield. A great number of my warriors pursued the retreating party and killed a number of their horses as they ran.
The chief and his few braves were unwilling to leave the field. I ordered my braves to rush upon them, and had the mortification of seeing two of my chiefs killed before the enemy retreated.
This young chief deserves great praise for his courage and bravery, but fortunately for us, his army was not all composed of such brave men.
During this attack we killed several men and about forty horses and lost two young chiefs and seven warriors. My braves were anxious to pursue them to the fort, attack and burn it, but I told them it was useless to waste our powder as there was no possible chance of success if we did attack them, and that as we had ran the bear into his hole we would there leave him and return to our camp.
On arriving at our encampment we found that several of our spies had returned, bringing intelligence that the army had commenced moving. Another party of five came in and said they had been pursued for several hours, and were attacked by twenty-five or thirty whites in the woods; that the whites rushed in upon them as they lay concealed and received their fire without seeing them. They immediately retreated whilst we reloaded. They entered the thicket again and as soon as they came near enough we fired. Again they retreated and again they rushed into the thicket and fired. We returned their fire and a skirmish ensued between two of their men and one of ours, who was killed by having his throat cut. This was the only man we lost, the enemy having had three killed; they again retreated.
Another party of three Sacs had come in and brought two young white squaws, whom they had given to the Winnebagoes to take to the whites. They said they had joined a party of Pottowattomies and went with them as a war party against the settlers of Illinois.
The leader of this party, a Pottowattomie, had been severely whipped by this settler, some time before, and was anxious to avenge the insult and injury. While the party was preparing to start, a young Pottowattomie went to the settler’s house and told him to leave it, that a war party was coming to murder them. They started, but soon returned again, as it appeared that they were all there when the war party arrived. The Pottowattomies killed the whole family, except two young squaws, whom the Sacs took up on their horses and carried off, to save their lives. They were brought to our encampment, and a messenger sent to the Winnebagoes, as they were friendly on both sides, to come and get them, and carry them to the whites. If these young men, belonging to my band, had not gone with the Pottowattomies, the two young squaws would have shared the same fate as their friends.
During our encampment at the Four Lakes we were hard pressed to obtain enough to eat to support nature. Situated in a swampy, marshy country, (which had been selected in consequence of the great difficulty required to gain access thereto,) there was but little game of any sort to be found, and fish were equally scarce. The great distance to any settlement, and the impossibility of bringing supplies therefrom, if any could have been obtained, deterred our young men from making further attempts. We were forced to dig roots and bark trees, to obtain something to satisfy hunger and keep us alive. Several of our old people became so reduced, as to actually die with hunger! Learning that the army had commenced moving, and fearing that they might come upon and surround our encampment, I concluded to remove our women and children across the Mississippi, that they might return to the Sac nation again. Accordingly, on the next day we commenced moving, with five Winnebagoes acting as our guides, intending to descend the Wisconsin.
Neapope, with a party of twenty, remained in our rear, to watch for the enemy, whilst we were proceeding to the Wisconsin, with our women and children. We arrived, and had commenced crossing over to an island, when we discovered a large body of the enemy coming towards us. We were now compelled to fight, or sacrifice our wives and children to the fury of the whites. I met them with fifty warriors, (having left the balance to assist our women and children in crossing) about a mile from the river, When an attack immediately commenced, I was mounted on a fine horse, and was pleased to see my warriors so brave. I addressed them in a load voice, telling them to stand their ground and never yield it to the enemy. At this time I was on the rise of a hill, where I wished to form my warriors, that we might have some advantage over the whites.
But the enemy succeeded in gaining this point, which compelled us to fall into a deep ravine, from which we continued firing at them and they at us, until it began to grow dark. My horse having been wounded twice during this engagement, and fearing from his loss of blood that he would soon give out, and finding that the enemy would not come near enough to receive our fire, in the dusk of the evening, and knowing that our women and children had had sufficient time to reach the island in the Wisconsin, I ordered my warriors to return, by different routes, and meet me at the Wisconsin, and was astonished to find that the enemy were not disposed to pursue us.
In this skirmish with fifty braves, I defended and accomplished my passage over the Wisconsin, with a loss of only six men, though opposed by a host of mounted militia. I would not have fought there, but to gain time for our women and children to cross to an island. A warrior will duly appreciate the embarrassments I laboured under—and whatever may be the sentiments of the white people in relation to this battle, my nation, though fallen, will award to me the reputation of a great brave in conducting it.