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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 4, Lake Koshkonong, Wis.: Gen. Atkinson Interrogates a Dying Sauk

Editor's Note:

This is an account of the capture and interrogation of an abandoned member of Black Hawk's band, on July 4 at Lake Koshkonong.

The army had been marching through the swamps of southern Wisconsin for a week to arrive at this lake, where they expected to find and fight Black Hawk's warriors. To their dismay, the Saulk and their allies had already escaped further north, on their way toward the site of modern Madison, Wisconsin. This elderly man, abandoned and starving, was the only Indian they came across, and he gave them no credible information about Black Hawk's whereabouts. Although Atkinson intended to spare his life, members of the militia killed him two days later.

The encounter with the elderly Sauk man revealed the dire conditions of Black Hawk's followers. Living on the run for more than a month had left them exahusted and starving. In another version of this incident, the old Sauk man was reported to have said, "that their only food was roots, bark of trees, some little fish, with now and then a bird they killed." As always, the first to suffer from the shortages were the young and elderly. The condition of this man shows how desperate their situation was.

On the 4th of July, some of our scouts had taken an old Sac Indian a prisoner, which in their flight, the rest of the Indians had run off and left. He was nearly starved to death, and literally blind. After feeding him, General Atkinson had him examined, telling him at the same time that if he caught him in a lie he would have him put to death. The old fellow told all that he knew, which was not very much. He stated that Black Hawk had passed on up the river, on the east side, the same that they were then on. He stated that he was so old that they never thought it worth while to tell him anything about their movements; that in marching, he frequently did not get up to their camp till late in the night, and sometimes not until the next morning. So our prisoner was not of much benefit to us. He had few days to live, and to shorten his days we concluded the best plan would be to give him plenty to eat, and leave him to kill himself in that pleasant way...

But we learnt afterwards that he was denied this satisfaction, for some of General Posey's men came upon him and he soon became an easy prey to their deadly rifles [on July 6].

[Source: Thayer, Crawford Beecher, Hunting a Shadow (USA: Banta Press, 1981), p. 48]

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