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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

April 13: "The Frontier is in Great Danger"

Editor's Note:

In this letter, General Henry Atkinson finally recognizes the gravity of the situation and the possibility of war. He remains cautious, however, and tells Illinois governor John Reynolds to wait a few days before calling out the Illinois militia. Black Hawk and his followers, at the time, were still making their way on foot through northern Illinois.

Atkinson and Reynolds were in charge, respectively, of the two separate military forces that pursued Black Hawk. Atkinson was a professional soldier who commanded disciplined U.S. Army units. Reynolds was a frontier politician who led a rag-tag militia of volunteers -- traders, farmers, hunters, miners, and hangers-on -- that generally lacked the knowledge, skills and discipline possessed by Atkinson's troops.

John Reynolds (1788-1865) was governor of Illinois 1830-1834. After studying law, he served as an Indian scout in Illinois during the War of 1812. As Governor and commander of the Illinois militia, Reynolds made crucial military decisions and negotiated treaties with the Native Americans during the Black Hawk War. He would go on to serve in the US House of Representatives 1834-1837 and 1839-1843.


Reynolds' account of the Black Hawk War in his autobigraphy, My Own Times: Embracing also the History of my Life is often quoted but contains many assertions that were debated at the time it appeared and that have been questioned by modern scholars. His account of the war begins in chapter LXXI.

Here's a short biography of Reynolds in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Henry Atkinson to John Reynolds
Fort Armstrong 13th. April 1832


Dear Sir The Band of Sacs, under Black Hawk, joined by about One hundred Kickapoos, and a few Pottawattimies amounting in all to about five hundred men have assumed a hostile attitude. They crossed the Mississippi at the Yellow Banks on the 5th. Inst: and are now moving up on the east side by Rock river, towards the Prophet's village. They have not yet committed any act of hostility, and they profess, I understand, not to intend to strike the first blow, but to resist any attempt to remove them again from the Rock river Country...


The regular force under my command is too small to justify me in pursuing the hostile party. To make an unsuccessful attempt to coerce them would only irritate them to acts of hostility on the frontier, sooner than they probably contemplate. Your own knowledge of the character of these Indians, with the information herewith submitted, will enable you to judge of the course proper to be pursued.


I think the frontier is in great danger, and I will use all the means at my disposal to cooperate with you in its protection and defence. Two or three days will more fully develope the intentions of the Indians, when I will again write to you, and should I think it necessary I will return immediately to St Louis to confer with you upon the course to be pursued.


Genl. Atkinson to Gov: Reynolds.



[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.245]

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