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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 8, Galena: An Army Surgeon Describes Conditions in Galena

Editor's Note:

Galena, Illinois, where this letter was written, was the center of the lead mining country and the only city of significant size within the theater of war. Outlying farmers and miners flocked to it in late May as fear of Indian attacks spread throughout the region.

The letter's author, Horatio Newhall(1798-1870), was a Massachusetts native. He graduated from Harvard University in 1821 and moved to to Bond County, Illinois, to pursue a career as a physician. During the Black Hawk War, he served as an army surgeon, managing the government hospital set up in Galena to serve the army at Rock Island.

The alarm that Newhall describes was just a drill, and the terrible commotion that it caused was deeply resented by residents when they discovered the false alarm. It was ordered on the night of June 4 by Colonel Stode and other militia officers to test the town's defenses. The editor of Jo Daviess County (1878) writes that the next day, "when the people learned how cruelly their fears had been played upon, their indignation knew no bounds. All business was suspended, Colonel Stode and his associates fled the town, and impromptu indignation meeting was which strong denunciatory resolutions were passed and a committee appointed to investigat the matter."

Newhall's statement that either "ALL the hostile Indians" must be slain or else "thousands of Americans will be scalped" reflected the popular view that the war had to be one of racial extermination if the safety of the frontier was to be secured. This view of the war was supported by the many Indian attacks in May and June that took relatively few lives, but spread panic across the region.

The most publicized of these attacks was the abduction and ransom of the Hall sisters, which Newhall recounts here. He writes that all Galena, the biggest town in the region, felt deep sympathy for the girls. Although one of Newhall's own close friends had been killed in an Indian attack only a few weeks before [recounted in this previous entry], the story of the victimized teenage Hall sisters, forced to bear witness to their parent's death and live with the "savages," was seen as "a fate worse than death" and became a powerful symbol for white settlers. Kerry Trask, in his 2006 book on Black Hawk, explicates the sexual and racial undertones of the kidnapping of the Hall sisters quite well.

Horatio Newhall to Isaac Newhall
June 8th 1832

Dear Brother,

Having an opportunity of forwarding a letter by an Express, I take occasion to write a line, not knowing when I may have another opportunity. The Indian War has assumed an alarming character. On Monday night last we had an alarm, at midnight, that the town was attacked. The scene was horrid beyond description. Men, Women & children flying to the Stockade. I calculated seven hundred women & children were there within fifteen minuts after the alarm gun was fired. Some with dresses on, and some with none; some with shoes and some barefoot. Sick persons were transported on others shoulders. Women & children were screaming from one end of the town to the other.

It was a false alarm; had there been an Indian attack, I believe the people would have fought well - It is now ascertained here, where the main body of Indians are. In two or three weeks, an attack will be made that will be decisive. ALL the hostile Indians will be slain, or thousands of Americans will be scalped. The Indians have already taken about forty scalps, in the whole...

The two young ladies taken prisoners have been redeemed by the Winnebagoes [Ho-Chunk]. They are now at the White Oak Springs, ten miles from Galena. Poor things, they must have suffered beyond all that our imagination can conceive. Their Mothers' scalp was shewed them daily. Daily the Indians danced around it. Great sympathy is felt for them here. Their two brothers were killed, and probably their father.

Mrs N & myself are both well.

Remember me to all enquiring friends. Tell Gustavus he must not think of coming here at present; until after the war is over.

Yours truly

H Newhall

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.552]

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