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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 14, Old Man's Creek: The Militia Ignore Black Hawk's White Flag

Editor's Note:

In this extract from his autobiography, Black Hawk describes the moments leading up to the first military encounter of the war, the Battle of Stillman's Run (at the site of present day Stillman Valley). Realizing that war would be futile, Black Hawk was resigned to surrendering to the Americans, and on the evening May 14, he held a final ceremonial dog feast for his band. Hoping to avoid bloodshed, he sent emissaries bearing white flags, a universal sign of peace, to negotiate with the Americans. Unsure of how they would be received, he sent a second party to observe from a safe distance.

While the flag-bearers were being interrogated, a militiaman saw the small party of observers and chaos broke loose. Within minutes, the undisciplined militia, disorganized and without leadership, galloped across the prairie to attack the small band of Sauk warriors.

The militia's utter disregard for Black Hawk's attempt to surrender is one of the tragedies of this war. Had more cautious, disciplined regular troops been on the scene, it is likely that they would have negotiated with Black Hawk's emissaries, avoided combat, and ended the war before it began. However, caution and discipline were not even in the militia vocabulary. This would lead to their embarrasing defeat at "Stillman's Run," but for Black Hawk and his people the cost would be much, much higher.

Here is a site about the Stillman's Run Battle and Monument.

I had a dog killed, and made a feast. When it was ready, I spread my medicine bags, and the chiefs began to eat. When the ceremony was about ending, I received news that three or four hundred white men on horse-back had been seen about eight miles off. I immediately started three young men with a white flag to meet them and conduct them to our camp, that we might hold a council with them and descend Rock river again. I also directed them, in case the whites had encamped, to return, and I would go and see them. After this party had started I sent five young men to see what might take place...

[After the battle, two of the surviving white flag bearers described their experience to Black Hawk.]

"When we arrived near the encampment of the whites, a number of them rushed out to meet us, bringing their guns with them. They took us into their camp, where an American who spoke the Sac language a little told us that his chief wanted to know how we were, where we were going, where our camp was, and where was Black Hawk? We told him that we had come to see his chief, that our chief had directed us to conduct him to our camp, in case he had not encamped, and in that event to tell him that he, Black Hawk, would come to see him; he wished to hold a council with him, as he had given up all intention of going to war.

"At the conclusion of this talk a party of white men came in on horseback. We saw by their countenances that something had happened. A general tumult arose. They looked at us with indignation, talked among themselves for a moment, when several of them cocked their guns and fired at us in the crowd; our companion fell dead! We rushed through the crowd and made our escape."

[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography]

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