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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 23: Laying Blame for the Black Hawk War

Editor's Note:

The author of this letter, Thomas Forsyth (1771-1833), had been stationed at Rock Island, Ill., as Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox from 1818-1830. Although he was a superb agent and had solid relationships with both Black Hawk and Keokuk, he did not get along with his boss, William Clark (Superintendent of Indian Affairs), who fired him in 1830 for disobedience. In 1827, Forsyth prepared a long, detailed report on the Sauk and Fox which is given online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Forsyth sent this letter to his friend George Davenport (1783-1845), a fur trader who had lived among the Sauk and Fox near Saukenuk for as long as Forsyth himself had. The two aging friends probably had more knowledge of the Sauk and Fox than any other white settlers, but both were outside the official chain of command. Forsyth here writes a cutting critique of the American conduct, colored by his personal bitterness towards William Clark.

The Prophet was Ho-Chunk leader White Cloud ("Wabokieshiek"), whose village was near that of Black Hawk on the Rock River; he was a close advisor to Black Hawk in 1832 who encouraged and harbored the dispossessed Sauk but failed to contribute much to their military campaign. Major John Bliss had threatened The Prophet on April 6 (see the entry here for that meeting between the two).

Thomas Forsyth to George Davenport
St. Louis
23d. May 1832

Dear Sir
Your letter of the 19th. Inst. in answer to mine of the 25th. Ult. came to hand yesterday, and thank you for its contents. The information by express from the army, and which has been published in the papers of this place, are nearly the same as you state.

I have no doubt, that Governor Reynolds & General Atkinson would not believe that the Indians would fight. I give it as my opinion more than a month ago, that blood would be shed, if the two parties met, and that the Indians would not be the first to fire; all this has turned out as I supposed, and through bad management on the part of General Clark, an Indian war is commenced.

You may rely on it, that the Black Hawk has now very little to say or do in the affairs of those hostile Indians. The Prophet now is the man, and he above all aught to have been always treated with civility; what business had H. Gratiot to quarrel with the Prophet, what business had Major Bliss to be interrogating and threatening him, what had the Prophet done to be abused and threatened by any person? I know he is a very enfluencial Indian among the Winnebagoes, and rising among the Sauks; he above all aught to have been attended to...

It is said here that very many of the volunteers are returning home and are already sick of the Campaigning; what will be the consequence when the flies and musquitoes arrive in next month, how are the horses & men to stand flies, musquitoes, heat, rain, thunder, lightning and God knows what all which occasionally happen in Swamps & marshes on or near Rocky River?...

I am told that all the settlers from northern parts of the State of Illinois are breaking up and coming into the more settled parts of the State. I would like very much to have time to go up to Rocky Island, for it stricks me very forcibly, that there is more at the bottom of all this affair of war, than you or I are aware of, and it appears to me, if I was ten or fifteen days among the Indians, I would find out the whole plan, if any exists.

The weather in this Country is very much against planting corn; I have planted twice, and expect to be compelled to plant the third time; but in northern parts of Illinois the people are compelled to fly from their homes, and no crops will be made there this year.

My Compliments to all
And Remain as Usual
your friend

Thomas Forsyth

Let me hear from you by every opportunity

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.413]

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