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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Remembering the Black Hawk War

Editor's Note:

Although the Black Hawk War only lasted a few months and most white soldiers never even saw an Indian, it had lasting effects on the collective memory of the Midwest. Long after 1832, recollections of the war were published in local newspapers and magazines. These reminiscences cannot give us accurate details about the war - memories fade over time and become embellished - but they do tell us how people reconstructed the war in later decades,.

This excerpt is from an article written by Colonel Albert G Brackett, probably written in the 1880s about a major with whom he served. Far from glorifying or dramatizing its subject in heroic terms, the account is full of light-hearted anecdotes about everyday life. However, at the end of the article the author describes a skirmish between the major's battalion and a small band of Sauk. After the battle two Sauk are held prisoner, and one of them gives a moving speech to his white captors. Brackett quotes him:

"We know that we are in your power. Our nation is only fighting to retain its own lands and the lodge-fires of our people. You have no right to invade our country with your men. Go away and leave us; give us our liberty and return to your own wives and children. Let us pursue our own course undisturbed by you. We have done you no harm, and all we ask of you is to go away..."

Although this particular anecdote is either embellished (or entirely fictional), it vividly illustrates how the author perceived the Black Hawk War in the late 19th century. In Brackett's memory, the Sauk & Fox are portrayed as victims of white western expansion; their resistance is noble, but their decline inevitable. The militia in this article are gently mocked as "a half-savage race of men... almost as wild as the Indians themselves." Although it became popular to bemoan the tragic fate of a "vanishing race" of Native Americans in the late 19th century, few white people suggested that anything should be done to help them. American policy continued to try to dispossess Native Americans as it had before, and not just of their lands but also their languages, customs, religious beliefs, and ways of life.

Here is another article with reminiscences of the Black Hawk War by militia veterans at their reunion in 1891.

In traveling over the prairies this officer sometimes halted for the night a long distance from water, much to the inconvenience of the men, who soon found a way to break him of this habit. As soon as he halted, if the place was not satisfactory, his escort would commence beating the ground with their whips, poles, clubs, or anything else they could lay their hands on, as if trying to kill something. The Major would call out:

"What is it - ha - Sergeant? What is the matter outside there?"
"Rattlesnakes, Major! The ground is covered with the biggest kind of rattlesnakes!"
Instantly he would give the order,
"Drive on, driver - ha; get out of this place as soon as you can!"

And on he would travel until the Sergeant reached a camping-place where there was good wood and water, when he would report to the Major that they were now in a place which was free from rattlesnakes, and in every way desirable. Then the Major would halt for the night, and relate to his visitors in the evening his remarkable escape from rattlesnakes during the day, - he averring that he "had seen one massasauga as large around as his thigh - ha, - and as long - ha - as a fence-rail."

These camps, or rather bivouacs, at night were really pleasant, the soldiers being free to do as the wished; discipline being relaxed, except in the one thing of maintaining a vigilant guard - they having learned in the school of experience that the safety in an Indian country is to keep a strict and unflagging watch over everything inside and outside of camp.

[Source:Brackett, Albert G. "The Major.: Reminiscences of the Black Hawk War." (newspaper article preserved in a scrapbook of clippings about the war, in the Library of the Wisconsin Historical Society)]

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