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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 30, Galena: The Killing of Felix St. Vrain

Editor's Note:

This account published in the New Galenian on May 30, 1832, describes the killing of Felix St. Vrain (1799-1832), Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox, and three companions at Kelloggs Grove, near present-day Pearl City, Ill. on May 24. Traveling north from Dixon's Ferry, after burying the body of William Durley they were ambushed by about 30 Ho-Chunk near modern Pearl City, Ill. Four of the whites were shot as they retreated, and three managed to elude capture over the next three days and arrive safely in Galena, Ill. Here is a map of the route that St. Vrain and his companions followed when attacked. Shortly afterwards, Col. Henry Dodge of Wisconsin was heading for the main militia encampment with a small body of troops, and they buried the bodies of St. Vrain and his companions.

This band of hostile Ho-Chunk warriors was not part of Black Hawk's force but was on its way to join him when they attacked St. Vrain's party. In his autobiography, Black Hawk describes the what happened when they came into his camp after this attack:

"...The party of Winnebagoes [Ho-Chunk] who had gone out from the head of Kish-wa-co-kee, overtook us, and told me that they had killed four men, and taken their scalps; and that one of them was Keokuk's father [the Indian agent Felix St. Vrain]. They proposed to have a dance over their scalps! I told them that I could have no dancing in my camp, in consequence of my having lost three young braves; but they might dance in their own camp - which they did."

It is important to remember that this was an exception -- nearly all the Ho-Chunk sided with the U.S. during the war. The part they played was recalled 25 years later by their chief Wakon Decorah when he headed a delegation to Washington in 1859 and made this speech.

The Ho-Chunk warriors who attacked St. Vrain's party acted on their own authority and not that of their nation. This distinction, however, was lost on white frontier settlers, who increasingly saw the war in racial terms and feared all Native Americans in the region. This article is a good example of that, misplacing the blame for the attack on the peaceful Sauk and Fox of Keokuk's band, who were nowhere near the scene and had actually volunteered to fight with the whites against Black Hawk.

War News from Galena
Galena, Illinois, May 30,

[On May 26th] ... Messrs. Thomas Kenney, Aqhuilla Floyd and Alexander Higginbottom arrived here [Galena] about 7 o'clock, A.M. They state that they left Gen. Atkinson's encampment at Dixon's ferry, on the 23d [of May], in company with Felix St. Vrain, Indian Agent, William Hale, John Fowler, and Aaron Hawley. That Mr. St. Vrain, was sent as Express with a large bundle of papers some of which were for Henry Gratiot... The next day they proceeded towards Kellogg's 'old place', and when within about a half mile from the grove, they saw an Indian, 300 yards ahead; they advanced 100 yards, and saw eight more, five in front and three on their right; they stood, for a moment, and wheeled for a retreat, only 4 of the whites being armed. They rode about 300 yards before the first gun was fired, the Indians followed, firing constantly. Mr. Hale, being on a poor horse, was shot first. In retreating down hill, St. Vrain was seen with his head turned back, as if in the act of speaking to the Indians. That was the last time he was observed. There is no doubt but he also met the same fate of Hale. Slain by the very band to which he was U.S. Agent. Fowler was shot in the ravine at the bottom of the hill; he was seen to fall, an Indian stooping to scalp him. The last that was seen of Hawley, he was 300 or 400 yards ahead of the Indians, on a fleet horse. Nothing has since been heard of him. If he met with Indians on his retreat, he also has, probably, been murdered.

Kinney, Floyd and Higginbottom, laid their course for the Mississippi; when about 10 miles they discovered four Indians on their right, who started in pursuit; the whites retreated around a point, and as they turned it, saw two others at the distance of 400 yards. They, however, made their escape, and arrived on the Mississippi bluff, here they saw two more Indians in the bottom, but were not discovered by them. Many fresh tracks were seen, and the last night of their encampment they heard guns firing between their position and the Mississippi...

It is supposed by many, that these Indians belong to Ke-o-kucks band We know nothing about it. Although Ke-o-kuck's band is supposed to be friendly, and are supplied with corn at the public expense, we acknowledge we have but little confidence in them. . . .

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.488]

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