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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 24, Elizabeth, Ill.: Women Save the Apple River Fort

Editor's Note:

This anonymous reminiscence, published under the name "Emilie" 27 years after the attack, describes Black Hawk's siege of the Apple River Fort at modern Elizabeth, Illinois on June 24, 1832.

The fort was hastily built at the outset of the war to protect local miners from the Indian attacks that terrorized the frontier. At the time of the attack, there were about forty settlers in the fort; because the regualar garrison of soldiers was gone, there were only about twenty men with guns and ammunition to defend against ca. 200 assailants. Black Hawk's own description of the battle in his autobiography [in this previous entry] shows the attacker's perspective on this battle.

The battle began when an express party, on their way to Dixon, stumbled upon Black Hawk's war party, who had surrounded the fort. One of the soldiers was immediately shot, and warrios were about to kill him when Captain Dixon rescued the wounded man and rode back to the fort to warn of the attack. Without this warning, the inhabitants, outside the fort picking berries, would undoubtedly have been killed by Black Hawk's force.

The hero of this dramatic story is a woman, Elizabeth Armstrong, who demonstrated the type of leadership and bravery that the militia had sorely lacked during the first two months of the war. Her actions in this battle gave Black Hawk the false immpression that there were many people defending the fort and that attacking it more directly would have been futile. Instead of a frontal assault on what appeared to be a sizable force inside the stockade, he and his warriors made off with the fort's supplies. This article goes on to praise her highly, concluding "that the Fort would have been taken had it not been for the exertions of Mrs. ARMSTRONG."

The Apple River Fort stood at the site of modern Elizabeth, Illinois, and this battle is a critical part of the town's history. It has been suggested that the town was named after the hero of this story, Elizabeth Armstrong. This site describes the history of the town of Elizabeth and its part in the Black Hawk War.

[An express party of five men led by Capt. Fredric Dixon] proceeded on their route, and reached Apple River Fort about noon. They found it in a very defenseless situation. Some of the inmates were out gathering berries, others sleeping, and some walking about in quest of amusement. The express halted a few moments and then passed on. When about 400 or 500 yards east of the Fort, some Indians secreted in the high grass fired on the foremost man of the guard, wounding him in the hip. He was thrown from his horse, and the savages rushed upon him with the tomahawk. Captain DIXON charged upon them with his empty gun and rescued the wounded man. They then returned to the Fort, and raised the alarm. Scarcely had the inhabitants reached it, and closed the gates, when 270 Indians surrounded the Fort, and raising the most demonic yells, mingled with the Indian war-hoop, commenced an indiscriminate fire...

The Indians kept a hot fire for two or three hours, while concealed behind the stumps or out-buildings. Capt. Stone's company were mostly absent, and the fort numbered only some fifteen effective men. The women and children were panic-stricken, crying and wringing their hands. At this stage of affairs, Mrs. ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG, wife of JOHN ARMSTRONG, of Sand Prairie, in this county, finding the Fort but poorly supplied with balls, divided the women into parties; the first , who could load fire arms, constituting the first division; the second were to run bullets. Mrs. ARMSTRONG delivered to them a short effective address, telling them that it was but worse than folly to give up to fear in such an emergency as the present one - that they could expect no sympathy from the Indians, and to go to work immediately and do their best to save the Fort. They obeyed, and under her direction performed miracles.

The second division supplied the balls, while the first received the empty guns from the loop-holes and returned them loaded. While passing around the Fort, Mrs. ARMSTRONG discovered a man who, to escape the flying bullets, had snugly stowed himself away in an empty flour barrel. Quickly ejecting him from his retreat, she ordered him to take a gun and do service. Trembling with fear, he obeyed, dreading our heroine within, almost as much as the enemies without. After a siege of two or three hours, the Indians retired, shooting all the stock, robbing the cabins, and carrying off their dead and wounded. On our side, one man named HARKELRHODES was killed, and several wounded. He was buried near the Fort, but no trace remains of his resting place...

[Source: "Emilie", "A reminiscence of the Black Hawk War", Galena Advertiser, April, 1859.]

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