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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 8, St. Louis: William Clark Calls for "A War of Extermination"

Editor's Note:

In this letter, Superintendant of Indian Affairs William Clark in St. Louis updates Defense Secretary Lewis Cass in Washiington on the progress of the war. His call for a "War of Extermination" is in direct response to Cass' urging that "energetic measures" be taken against Black Hawk in his letters of May 22. Clark's demonized depiction of Black Hawk and his followers as "blood thirsty & ferocious savages" harmonized with Cass' own influential anti-Indian rhetoric. See this previous entry for more information on Lewis Cass and his implementation of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act.

The author of this letter -- William Clark (1770-1838), of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) -- was no stranger to diplomacy with tribal leaders. After crossing the continent with Lewis, in 1822 he had been appointed superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis, and although generally sympathetic to Indian issues, he nevertheless was compelled to execute the government's Indian removal policy throughout the frontier.

In 1825 he presided over a major treaty council of all the upper Mississippi Valley tribes at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where White Crow and other chiefs promised "a firm and lasting peace" with the Americans. In this previous entry, former Indian agent Thomas Forsyth blames Clark's mis-handling of affairs for causing the Black Hawk War.

"The friendly part of the Sacs & Foxes" that Clark refers to here was the faction led by Black Hawk's rival, Keokuk. They were concerned that Black Hawk and his followers would try to escape the Americans by going to their village and blending in, and fearful of the terrible consequences this could bring on their community. The neutral Sauk and Fox were also apprehensive that over-zealous white militia units might unjustly attack them. Clark here shows little concern for their worries.

William Clark to Lewis Cass
Superintendency of Ind: Affairs, St. Louis
June 8, 1832.

Sir. I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your three letters of 22nd. [Reproduced in this previous entry] ult:—one of which, accompanying a copy of the instructions to Genl. Atkinson, is highly gratifying, inasmuch as it develops the determination of the Government in relation to the war in which we are now involved with blood thirsty & ferocious savages.

The faithless and treacherous character of those at the head of our Indian enemies appears now to be so well known & understood, as to permit an expression of the hope, that their wanton cruelties will eventually result in their own destruction; and as they have afforded sufficient evidence not only of their entire disregard of Treaties, but also of their deep-rooted hostility, in shedding the blood of our women & children, a War of Extermination should be waged against them. The honor & respectability of the Government requires this: - the peace & quiet of the frontier, the lives & safety of its inhabitants demand it...

Genl. Atkinson with his Staff, lately passed across to the Illinois Rapids, with a view (in part) of meeting and organizing the militia last called out by the Governor of Illinois. The frontier settlers of that state are breaking up, -- their distress for want of clothing & provisions, is great. A portion of the settlers on the northern frontier of this State has become alarmed & are falling back. Govr. Miller has sent several companies (as I am informed) of mounted men to cover those settlements. I have no reason to believe that any of the Indians of this Superintendency is inclined to, or will join in the War. The friendly part of the Sacs & Foxes are greatly alarmed and have solicited protection in the most humiliating manner, -- it is not in my power to afford them any, otherwise than by sending them 3 or 400 miles back from the Mississippi.

Mr. Pilcher will be enabled to ascertain the real disposition & wishes of those Indians, and to devise and report in time, the best plan for their security, if absolutely necessary.

I have the honor to be with high respect
Yr most obt. Servt.

Wm Clark




[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.549]

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