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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 6-7: The Son of William Clark Writes Home

Editor's Note:

This letter was written by Meriwether Lewis Clark, son of famed explorer William Clark, who was U.S. Superintendant of Indian Affairs during the Black Hawk War. Meriwether, in his twenties, served in the militia during the war, and here describes the campaign to find Black Hawk in the swamps of southern Wisconsin. The letter was written from a camp a few miles east of Fort Atkinson, Wis.

This letter reveals both the hardships and the enthusiasm of the militia in early July. Finally, after two months of inaction, they followed Black Hawk's trail through the inhospitable, mosquito-infested marshland of Wisconsin. As they travelled they came across the abandoned remains of the Sauk camps, but the only Indian they found was the old, starving man whom Clark describes here (for the story of his interrogation, see this previous entry).

Black Hawk had deliberately taken this path to hamper the militia, who had to push their horses, supply wagons and heavy artillery through the swamps. Although the campaign was very hard on the militia, it was also the first organized American effort to conclude the war, and raised the troops' anticipation for a final engagement with Black Hawk's warriors. Three months of Indian attacks, American military failures, and daily terror and hardship had spread hatred and a desire for revenge among them.

Meriwether Lewis Clark to William Clark

Head Qrs Army of the Frontier July 6 [-7] 1832.

My Dear Father,

We are now about 5 miles above the mouth of White Water creek [modern Bark River] upon which we are now encamped & ready to break into the swamps of what is called "The Shaking Ground" situated between this creek and Rock River.

7th Early in the morning - The Indians are near us for they have just shot but not killed a man of Capt T Smith's company of the 1st. Infantry, we have had some firing near the creek, in a thick fog, and where the horses were grazing, my horse cannot be found & I fear the poor fellow is sacrificed. well, it will only make me add one to the few scalps I am going to take from Black Hawk, Napope &c.

We passed the Coshkononk Lake [Lake Koshkonong] above, 10 miles, and are up white water about 5. the Lake is about 20 miles above turtle village [moderrn Beloit, Wisconsin], 20 from the lower of the 4 lakes, 17 above the northern line of Illinois, & about 100 from Dixon's ferry, 90 from Chicago, 50 from Hamilton's diggings, and forty to Winnebago Fort. The Lake is an expansion of the Rock River, about 4 miles wide & 6 or 8 long, having two strong positions in it, but not so strong as I supposed, the map on the other side will show best.

Black Hawk camped a little above Turtle Village [modern Beloit], & then danced the scalp dance around a pole surrounded with straw which looks like it had been burnt, at a tree. near there was a dance around the two young women [the Hall sisters], we saw where it appeared they had been tied, at another tree the young white dog was hung up and tobacco &c tied to his tail we saw his carcase &c. at the mouth of the lake we found an ancient entrenched camp a very strong position indeed, even for any kind of soldiers This Camp Black Hawk had taken advantage of and camped in it.

There an old decripid prisoner was taken. he could give no information however & we turned him loose, he was foolish, blind, and a skeleton. We are now with the Regulars about 500, and two Brigades of Ma. Genl Dodge with one Brigade is on the other side of the Rock River to prevent the enemy escaping us. We have just heard that the Government has ordered out 21 Companies of Regular Troops, to rendezvous at Chicago, under Genl Scott to cooperate with Genl A[tkinson].

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.745]

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