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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Frontier Conditions Before the War

Editor's Note:

For several years prior to the war, thousands of white miners had come up the Mississippi into northern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin to prospect for lead. As these excerpts reveal, they paid scant attention to boundaries negotiated in treaties and often behaved with great disrespect toward the Native American residents.

Joseph Street (1782-1840), new Indian agent to the Ho-Chunk, arrived in Prairie du Chien late in 1827 and was immediately disturbed by the way miners and other white settlers had ignored U.S. treaties and occupied Indian lands. In letters to his friends and superiors, he described how greed, vice, racism, and ignorance had created tense conditions on the frontier in the years leading up to the Black Hawk War.

Black Hawk, like the Ho-Chunk elders quoted here, deplored the introduction of alcohol into Indian communities. "The white people brought whiskey into our village, made our people drunk and cheated them out of their homes, guns, and traps. This fraudulent system was carried to such an extent that I apprehended serious difficulties might take place unless a stop was put to it. Consequently I visited all the whites and begged them not to sell whiskey to my people. One of them continued the practice openly. I took a party of my young men, went to his home, and took his barrel and broke in the head and turned out the whiskey." (Black Hawk, Autobiography.)

After the war, Street was appointed Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox and lived among them in Iowa, much loved and respected by tribal elders, until his death.

[Joseph Street to Ninian Edwards:] The Indians had been soured by the conduct of the vast number of adventurers flocking to and working the lead mines of Fever River. Those who went by land, by far the greater part, passed through the Winnebago country. Many of them had great contempt for "naked Indians," and behaved low, gross, and like blackguards amongst them. The Agent at the mines' granted permits on the Winnebago lands, and numerous diggings were industriously pushed far east of the line between the Ottawas, Chippewas, and Pottawatomies of the Illinois, and the Winnebagoes, and great quantities of mineral procured and taken away to the smelters... The Winnebagoes complained of the trespass of the miners, and the open violation of the treaty by the permits of Mr. Thomas, the Ag't. No notice was taken of it and the diggings progressed."

[Ho-Chunk elders told Street:] "When some lead was found and it was known down the Mississippi, white men came flocking to Fever River like the Wolves in the plains to the dead Buffalo. Many crossed in our canoes at Rock R. and some did not pay for it. More came up in the Smoking Boats on the Mississippi, and there is not much land to hold them. They spread out in every direction and began to dig & fire & carry off lead on the Winnebago lands. We said, if we do not stop them soon, it will be too late. More and more are coming every day. The game and furs are leaving the country, and the Indians cannot live in it any longer, if we do not stop the white men from coming over the line into our country. Our G[reat] F[ather] has bought no land of us, and we will tell his children so. But the white men would not listen -- our chiefs were sorry, and our young men very mad... we fear when good chiefs are away, they will go amongst the whites -- get whiskey, and when drunk, murder will come. The lead mines and the Winnebago are too near. White men will carry whiskey wherever they go -- Indians will buy it when it comes near to them, -- they are maddened by it - and murder comes."

[Street to his superiors in the War Dept.:] Since my arrival at this agency, my feelings have been greatly excited whilst examining into and considering our intercourse with these poor, ignorant children of our common Father. The first view which the uncivilised man obtains of the civilized, is calculated to repress those feelings of high admiration and respect which would naturally induce the former to consider the latter as a superior race of beings. The whole of that effect, which a first impression is so calculated to produce on savage minds, is destroyed by the grovelling vices, and open misconduct, on the part of those white men who first enter their country. ... And it is deeply to be lamented that the character and conduct of many of our citizens who first go amongst the Indians cannot bear a comparison, even with uncivilized man.

[Source: Street, Joseph Montfort. "Letters about white incursions onto Indian lands in 1827." Online facsimiles at Turning Points in Wisconsin History]

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