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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 17: James Stephenson Describes the Battle at Yellow Creek

Editor's Note:

This account of a battle at Yellow Creek, written by Captain James Stephenson was published in The Galenian on June 20, 1832. It was published with an editor's note, describing how Stephenson and his company arrived at Galena on June 19, "bearing two scalps, which they had taken from the red skinned 'gentlemen.' The battle for desperation excelled any thing ever yet heard of." Although Stephenson, who was shot in the chest, had to retreat before claiming a total victory, he and his company were very proud of their fight.

Like the Battle of Horseshoe Bend the previous day, the battle at Yellow Creek was more important symbolically than militarily.

For the last month, small parties of warriors had been terrorizing the frontier, attacking helpless settlers and taking food and supplies for Black Hawk's band of 1,000 men, women and children camped in the swamps of southern Wisconsin. The Galenian was full of gruesome tales of helpless white settlers murdered and disfigured, until finally, in mid June, the battles at Horseshoe Bend and Yellow Creek showed that the militia could beat Black Hawk's raiding parties.

These battles redeemed the militia in the eyes of frontier citizens, after the disasterous defeat at Stillman's Run in mid-May. Stephenson's description of the battle shows the courage under fire that had been terribly lacking in that earlier encounter when he writes, "our boys went into the thicket under full charge like men." Their entrance into Galena bearing the scalps of their victims, a practice that terrified whites, showed that they could be just as brutal as their enemy.

With the Battle of Yellow Creek and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Black Hawk War finally had some white heroes and tales of glory - vitally important for the morale of the frightened settlers and the militia. As the only important newspaper in the region, The Galenian used these stories to built fresh support the American war effort.

From James W. Stephenson
Apple River, June 19, 1832

Dear Sir: -
The night we left Galena ten more horses were stolen from this place; some of them from the stables within 30 yards of the fort. I took the trail the next morning before sunrise with the command I then had with me, consisting of 12 men, together with some of the fort's members, and pursued them to a point beyond Yellow creek about 12 miles east of Kellogg's grove, where we overtook the gentlemen. They were about two miles off when we first saw them.

Before we could get within firing distance, they reached the woods - we kept close upon them for some miles when, perceiving they would be overtaken, they detached and entered one of the largest and most difficult thickets to pass through you have seen - we tried every possible way to drive them therefrom, but all was unsuccessful - such as charging them on horseback, then part on foot and part on horseback, then by trying to crawl upon them.

Finally I saw the only chance was to dismount and all charge on foot - our boys went into the thicket under full charge like men. We got in the midst of the Indians before one fired. Here we had a pretty close fight. Altho' the guns on both sides were discharged frequently, there was not a single fire made at the distance of more than thirty feet from the object aimed at, either from the Indians or ourselves. We got into such close quarters as to be constrained to use the bayonet and butcher's knife.

We killed five or six of the d[amne]d scoundrels, and lost three of our own men. George Eames, L.P. Howard and Michael Lovel were shot dead. There were more Indians in this brush than I had supposed there were. We got from them all the horses except one on which one of them made his escape. One of our horses was shot. Another was so sick that he could not be moved. When we commenced on these boys, we were perhaps the most perfectly drowned set you ever saw, having ridden the whole day in incessant rain. I would suggest them to bury these dead soldiers as early as possible. I will be in, in an hour or two.

Yours truly, &c. &c.
J.W. Stephenson.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.633]

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