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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 24, Elizabeth, Ill.: Black Hawk Attacks the Apple River Fort

Editor's Note:

In this excerpt from his autobiography, Black Hawk recounts his attack on the Apple River Fort, at modern Elizabeth, Illinois, on June 24.

Black Hawk's and his roughly 1,000 men, women and children were safely camped in the swamps above modern Beloit, Wisconsin, and from there they led attacks on the Illinois frontier settlements in May and June. As was the custom before a large war outing, Black Hawk held a large feast and made an inspirational speech to his warriors. The medicine bags he commanded them to protect and honor were sacred relics that had been passed down by his forefathers to Black Hawk, and represented "the soul of the Sauk nation." As was customary in Sauk society, Black Hawk's dream, which he considered a sign from a higher power, inspired his leadership in the attack, which he accurately describes here.

Black Hawk's party of about 200 braves surrounded and besieged the fort for 45 minutes, while the panic-stricken men, women and children inside all worked together to defend the fort. One white was killed and one wounded, but Black Hawk lost nine men and failed to take the fort. The war party only made off with food, supplies and horses, all of which were desperately needed at their inhospitable camp in the Wisconsin swamps.

Although this attack was relatively unsuccessful, it was a major show of force by Black Hawk, being the largest number of warriors he had deployed in a single battle so far. This showed to whites that despite the heroic efforts of Henry Dodge, the frontier was still extremely vulnerable -- even their towns and forts. However, the successful defense of the fort by less than twenty men, and the women and children who cast bullets and reloaded their guns, made an inspiring story of civilian heroism.

The Apple River Fort has recently been reconstructed, and hosts many events and exhibits about the history of the fort, this battle, and the history of the state.

Finding that all was safe, I made a dog feast, preparatory to leaving my camp with a large party, (as the enemy were stationed so far off). Before my braves commenced feasting, I took my medicine bags, and addressed them in the following language:

"BRAVES AND WARRIORS: These are the medicine bags of our forefather, Mukataquet, who was the father of the Sac nation. They were handed down to the great war chief of our nation, Nanamakee, who has been at war with all the nations of the plains, and have never yet been disgraced! I expect you all to protect them!"

After the ceremony was over and our feasting done I started, with about two hundred warriors following my great medicine bags. I directed my course toward sunset and dreamed, the second night after we started, that there would be a great feast prepared for us after one day's travel. I told my warriors my dream in the morning and we started for Moscohocoynak, (Apple river). When we arrived in the vicinity of a fort the white people had built there we saw four men on horseback. One of my braves fired and wounded a man when the others set up a yell as if a large force were near and ready to come against us. We concealed ourselves and remained in this position for some time watching to see the enemy approach, but none came. The four men, in the mean time, ran to the fort and gave the alarm. We followed them and attacked their fort. One of their braves, who seemed more valiant than the rest, raised his head above the picketing to fire at us when one of my braves, with a well-directed shot, put an end to his bravery. Finding that these people could not be killed without setting fire to their houses and fort I thought it more prudent to be content with what flour, provisions, cattle and horses we could find than to set fire to their buildings, as the light would be seen at a distance and the army might suppose we were in the neighborhood and come upon us with a strong force. Accordingly we opened a house and filled our bags with flour and provisions, took several horses and drove off some of their cattle...

During this attack we killed several men and about forty horses and lost two young chiefs and seven warriors. My braves were anxious to pursue them to the fort, attack and burn it, but I told them it was useless to waste our powder as there was no possible chance of success if we did attack them, and that as we had ran the bear into his hole we would there leave him and return to our camp.

[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography]

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