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180 years ago Illinois Indians went to war and history changed forever : Reflections : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
180 years ago Illinois Indians went to war and history changed forever
by Roger Matile


It was exactly 180 years ago today that Illinois' last Indian war began. By the time it was over, the Black Hawk War had claimed hundreds of lives-mostly those of Native Americans-and laid the groundwork for the removal of all the tribes from Illinois.

In April 1832, a band of more than 1,000 men, women and children of the Sauk Tribe decided to cross the Mississippi River back to their homes in Illinois. The band's leader, the respected Sauk warrior Black Sparrow Hawk (called Black Hawk by his white adversaries), was determined to travel from the group's winter hunting grounds in Iowa to the Rock River Country so his people could plant corn and live among familiar surroundings.

Unfortunately, the journey was seen as an invasion by white settlers, politicians and military leaders in Illinois, and it led to the virtual annihilation of Black Hawk's band, and to the disruption of the lives of thousands of new settlers all over northern Illinois, including those living here in Kendall County.

While Black Hawk was an esteemed Sauk war leader, he was never a chief. He was respected in his own tribe, as well as the closely related Fox Tribe, for his integrity, leadership and combat skill and experience.

His anger and distrust of the U.S. Government dated to the Treaty of St. Louis of 1804, negotiated with a few Sauk and Fox chiefs by William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory-which at that time included Illinois. Although Harrison was pleased with what he persuaded the Indians to do, the treaty was a fraud that led to Sauk participation in two wars against the United States.

That story began early in 1804, when a group of Sauk hunters killed some whites who were trespassing on lands claimed by the tribe. The whites were reportedly killed due to their friendship with the Osage tribe, mortal Sauk enemies. On Oct. 27, 1804, a Sauk and Fox deputation of five low-level chiefs arrived at St. Louis to settle the resulting dispute. Harrison seized the opportunity to persuade the deputation to cede a huge swath of Sauk lands to the U.S. Government, something they had no authority to discuss, much less do.

When they found out what had happened, many members of the Sauk tribe, especially Black Hawk, were furious, announcing they would not honor the treaty. Anger over the treaty led to Sauk participation on the British side during the War of 1812, a conflict in which Black Hawk played a prominent part in the decisive defeat of a U.S. force sent to attack the Sauk's home at Rock Island.

After the war, however, Black Hawk apparently tried to live in peace with the American squatters who moved into western Illinois. But in 1817, a group of them severely beat him, furthering his anger. During the next several years, Black Hawk was in constant trouble with Sauk tribal leaders and U.S. officials.

Every fall, the Sauk and Fox tribes crossed the Mississippi River to hunt, and moved back east in the spring and summer to plant crops at their villages. In the spring of 1828, the U.S. decided to use the terms of the Treaty of 1804 to prevent the Indians from moving back to Illinois to plant their crops.

The tribes angrily protested they had never agreed to cede the land in the first place, further charging the treaty stated the Indians were entitled to full use of the land until it was officially sold by the government. Nevertheless, they were ordered away, American squatters seized Indian homes and fields, and Illinois Gov. Ninian Edwards threatened to use force against the tribes if the government refused to act.

Matters remained strained that summer. Although there were no deaths, whites beat Indians and fought with each other; while Indians tore down whites' fences and sheds, and smashed their whiskey barrels.

Another treaty was signed in 1830 to address Sauk and Fox concerns. But the ferocious winter of 1830-1831 convinced the disaffected Indians they'd made a bad bargain. Called "The Winter of the Deep Snow" ever afterwards, it killed settlers and Indians alike. By the spring of 1831, the Sauk and Fox straggled back across the Mississippi with the aim of feeding their starving wives and children. But trouble quickly broke out again, and Black Hawk became the spokesman for the anti-U.S. faction.

When Black Hawk's band crossed the Mississippi in 1831 they were determined to plant corn at their old village of Saukanuk, and their arrival sowed general consternation. But U.S. Army Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, an experienced frontier officer, diffused the crisis. Although forcing the Indians to leave before their corn could be harvested, Gaines nevertheless offered to provide Black Hawk's band with corn so they could survive the coming winter, and most reluctantly agreed to re-cross the Mississippi, especially given the threat of force by the U.S. Army and the Illinois Militia. Although once again thwarted, Black Hawk vowed to return, setting the stage for a conflict in 1832 between the old Sauk warrior and the U.S. Government.

The winter of 1831-1832 was not nearly as bad on the Sauk and Fox as had been the Winter of the Deep Snow, but Black Hawk and his people were determined to move back to their old homes in the rich Rock River Valley. In the spring of 1832, the situation became more complicated when the Winnebago Prophet invited Black Hawk and his band to live in the Prophet's village. The Prophet, reportedly half Sauk and half Winnebago, led a small village about 40 miles upstream from the mouth of the Rock River, where they operated a ferry used by whites traveling to the lead mines on the Fever River near modern Galena.

Hearing of Black Hawk's plans, Atkinson loaded soldiers aboard steamboats at St. Louis and hurried north to stop the old warrior. But unfortunately, Black Hawk's band had crossed the Mississippi on April 5, 1832 near the mouth of the Iowa River at a place called the Upper Yellow Banks, well before Atkinson's arrival. And that set the stage for the start of the war that would have such an impact on the history and settlement of northern Illinois.

We'll rejoin the story in a couple weeks...

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