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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Early April: Forcing White Justice on the Tribes

Editor's Note:

On Apr. 1, 1832, Gen. Henry Atkinson (1782-1842) received orders to go to the Sauk and Fox villages in Iowa and demand that they surrender the warriors who had killed 28 Menominee the year before.

In the passage at left, Black Hawk describes the battle in 1831 that precipitated this order to Atkinson, when the Sauk and Fox took revenge on the Menominee. Retaliatory raids such as this were a common practice among Native American tribes, and Old Testament-style "eye-for-an-eye" justice was an accepted part of Indian society. Warfare was also a chance for young men to win honor and authority in their community.

The original attack for which the Sauk and Fox took revenge occured in May, 1830, and is described here by Elizabeth Therese Baird, who was in Prairie du Chien at the time (note: this graphic description of violence may not be appropriate for young readers).

The United States government, whom Black Hawk referred to as "our Great Father," viewed these traditional raids only as simple murders and sought to force peace by bringing them under the white system of justice. This interference in tribal affairs turned Sauk and Fox braves into hunted criminals, pushing them to join Black Hawk in the coming war.

When Atkinson reached the Sauk on April 10, 1832, to carry out his orders, he learned that Black Hawk and his followers had crossed the Mississippi into Illinois four days earlier.

A short time after this [in 1831], a party of Foxes went up to Prairie du Chien to avenge the murder of their chiefs and relations, which had been committed the summer previous, by the Menominees and Sioux. When they arrived in the vicinity of the encampment of the Menominees, they met with a Winnebago [Ho-Chunk], and inquired for the Menominee camp. They requested him to go on before them and see if there were any Winnebagoes in it, and if so, to tell them that they had better return to their own camp. He went and gave the information, not only to the Winnebagoes, but to the Menominees, that they might be prepared. The party soon followed, killed twenty-eight Menominees, and made their escape.

This retaliation, which with us is considered lawful and right, created considerable excitement among the whites! A demand was made for the Foxes to be surrendered to, and tried by, the white people! The principal men came to me during the fall and asked my advice. I conceived that they had done right, and that our Great Father acted very unjustly in demanding them, when he had suffered all their chiefs to be decoyed away, and murdered by the Menominees [in 1830], without ever having made a similar demand of them. If he had no right in the first instance he had none now, and for my part, I conceived the right very questionable, if not an act of usurpation in any case, where a difference exists between two nations, for him to interfere!

[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography. ]

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