Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War
May 12: The Militia Is Warned Against Attacking Friendly Tribes
The author of this letter, Thomas J.V. Owen (1801-1835), a Kentucky native, was appointed Indian Agent in Chicago in 1831. Indian agents were the government-appointed officials in charge of relations with the tribes in a specific locality; they settled disputes, paid annuities, and enforced treaty obligations.
In this letter, the Indian agent urges the Governor, as leader of the militia, to make sure that the soldiers won’t harm innocent members of neutral tribes. As we’ve seen, contrary to Black Hawk’s hopes, most of the Great Lakes tribes did not join his resistance but rather did everything they could to stay out of the war. Many Sioux and Menomonee braves, seeking revenge on the Sauk and Fox for previous attacks, even joined the Americans against Black Hawk.
But Reynolds’ militia, known for its excess of ’Indian ill-will’ , could not be counted on to distinguish between friend and foe. Owen was afraid that attacks on friendly tribes could turn them against the Americans, and so realize white fears of a region-wide Native American rebellion.
Owen also informs Reynolds that Black Hawk’s Band was "in a state of Starvation and are anxious to recross the Mississippi." This could have been taken by the militia commander as a chance to settle the conflict quickly and without blood-shed. However, Reynolds’ (and America’s) true aim was not merely to force the Sauk west of the Mississippi again or to protect white settlers, but rather to punish Black Hawk for defying his ’great Father’ in Washington.
Thomas J. V. Owen to John Reynolds
Indian Agency Chicago May. 12, 1832 To His Excellency—John Reynolds Gov. of the State of Illinois
Sir A deputation, from the United Tribes of Potawatimies, Ottowas & Chippeways waited on me this morning, and has given me assurances of the Strongest Character, of their determination to remain on terms of the most perfect peace and amity with our Government; they inform me that the Sacs are approaching towards the neighborhood of the Potowatimie reservation on Fox River & they fear that if the Militia pursue, that the Sacs will endeavor to mingle with the Potawatamies, in order to save them-selves from the fury of the militia, and thereby involve them (the Potawatimies) indiscriminately in the same difficulties with themselves.
Mr. Kerchival, Sub Indian Agent, together with Mr. Caldwell (Interpreter) & Mr. Robinson an influential man among the Indians (& the bearer of this) will proceed this morning towards Rock River with a view of directing the Indians of my Agency to remove on the East side of Fox River of the Illinois, in order that they may be out of the reach of the exasperated Militia.
This deputation also informs me, that some of the principal men engaged in the Menominee massacre have been delivered over to our Government— that the Sacs are on Rock River about 30 miles above Ogee’s ferry, in a state of Starvation and are anxious to recross the Mississippi but dare not descend Rock River for fear of being intercepted by the Militia & indiscriminately slaughtered without affording them an opportunity of explaining the cause of their recent movements. They aver most positively to the Potowatimies that they have no design of committing any wrong whatever towards the people of their great Father.
Of the friendship of my Indians, the United Tribes alluded to, you may rest perfectly satisfied, & it would be, not only a source of deep regret to me, but productive of the worst of consequences, should any of them unfortunately fall a sacrifice to the Militia under your command, they are now much alarmed and will endeavor to keep themselves distinct & separate, from the Sac Indians, and will afford them neither aid or protection knowingly. It would be advisable for those having command of the Militia, to proceed with great caution and endeavour to discriminate between the friendly & disaffected Indians before they strike. Your knowledge of the Indian Character will enable you to see at a glance the consequences which would inevitably result from a too hasty & precipitate act of violence towards a band of friendly Indians.
With great respect I have the honor to be Your obdt Servt Th. J. V. Owen Indn. Agent
[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.365]