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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 5, Chicago: U.S. Indian Agent Challenges Gov. Reynolds

Editor's Note:

The author of this communication, Thomas J.V. Owen (1801-1835), was a Kentucky native serving as 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 article, printed in the Illinois Herald in Springfield, Ill., Owen defends the Potawatomi against Gov. Reynold's public accusation that they were allied with Black Hawk [reproduced in this previous entry].

Throughout the war, Owen tried to convince the American leadership that the Potawatomi were friends of the United States and should not be attacked. In letters such as this one to Gov. Reynolds, he pleaded that the militia should be kept away from the friendly tribes, whom they might confuse for the enemy.

Owen's pleas to distinguish between friend and foe increasingly fell on deaf ears, as the war against Black Hawk evolved, in the minds of many soldiers and settlers, into a simple war of Native American extermination. In his autobiography, Reynolds wrote, "The Indians far and near were poisoned against the Americans by Black Hawk" and many whites shared this conviction. In this letter to the public, Owen sought to reverse this trend, to help people distinguish between friend and foe based on actions rather than race.

Owen's letter is also notable for its strong criticsm of Governor Reynolds. To many white officers, the Black Hawk War was an opportunity for political advancement. Governor Reynolds had taken considerable initiative in the war, calling up the militia and ordering the attack on Black Hawk at Stillman's Run. However, by early June, with his militia defeated and embarrassed and terror spreading throughout the countryside, public faith in him was slipping.

Thomas J. V. Owen to the Public
[Chicago, June 5, 1832]

To the Public:

Having understood, that his Excellency Governor Reynolds, has recently issued his Proclamation to the People, wherein he gratuitously gives it as his opinion, that the Pottawattamies and Winnebagoes are allied with the hostile band of Sacs and Foxes in their late movements against the frontier Settlements; I conceive it my duty so far as relates to the Pottawattamies, to contradict the assertion or opinion of the Governor, and thus disabuse the public mind upon a subject, which has created great alarm and much excitement in this section of the country; and, indeed, I am at a loss to know upon what ground Governor Reynolds could have even formed such an opinion. The whole course of their conduct from the commencement of the late Indian troubles to the present day, is completely at war with such an idea: - the reverse is the fact. They are not only friendly to our Government in feelings and disposition, but are at variance with the hostile Indians who invaded the country, and have evinced the most ardent desire to join us against them...

Governor Reynolds surely did not reflect a moment upon the evils which might have resulted to the country, from a declaration of such a character, emanating from so conspicuous and respectable a source, as that of the Chief Magistrate of the State of Illinois...

I long since understood, from sources entitled to credit, that, at the very threshhold, his Excellency ordered the militia to kill the first Indian they saw, and so continue until they had exterminated the whole race of Indians; but I look upon this as an unguarded expression, or a mere idle threat, made at a moment of unusual excitement, and therefore passed it by unnoticed; but when it comes in the shape of an official Proclamation, and thus thrown among the people, I should be wanting in duty to myself, to my country, and to the innocent people thus implicated, were I to remain silent, and permit the misrepresentation of Governor Reynolds to go to the world uncontradicted.

Th. J. V. Owen, Indian Agent.
Chicago, June 5th, 1832.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.527]

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