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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Ho-Chunk Chief Spoon Decorah Describes his Nation's Predicament

Editor's Note:

This narrative is from an interview conducted in 1887, in Friendship, Wisconsin; Spoon Decorah died there two years later.

Spoon Decorah here concisely describes the difficult situation the Ho-Chunk faced during the Black Hawk War. On the one hand, they were long-time allies of the Sauk, and some families in each tribe had even inter-married over the years; for these reasons. Some Ho-Chunk warriors did join Black Hawk, either by fighting alongside the Sauk, supplying them with provisions, ro guiding them through the swamps and prairies of southern Wisconsin.

But allying themselves with Black Hawk also brought the Ho-Chunk into direct conflict with the United States, which, as Decorah and agent Joseph Street (see yesterday's entry) both illustrated, was not at all in their interest. Later in the narrative, Decorah sums up his mixed feelings towards the Sauk, saying, "...there was still among us a feeling of friendliness toward the Sacs. This feeling was of friendly pity, not a desire to help them fight."

Nevertheless, some Ho-Chunk joined the Americans as scouts against Black Hawk. Most notably, Chief White Crow served as a scout and spy. He negotiated the release of the Hall sisters (see this previous entry) and also acted as a spy for the militia (see this previous entry). Despite his crucial aid, White Crow was not trusted by the Americans, and many times had to pledge his loyalty to them.

The Ho-Chunk usually tried to stay out of the war, but as Decorah's narrative illustrates, that was not easy.

During the Black Hawk War, I lived at the Portage. When we heard of the trouble, I wanted very much to go and join the Americans. I knew the officers at Fort Winnebago, and was friendly with them. But my friends got around me and said that the Sacs were friends of the Winnebagoes. So I was persuaded not to go.

In July, ten families of us started out on our summer's hunt, on the Roche-a-Cri River. We had got as far as Friendship, when Ochpiyoka [a Menominee chief who lived near modern Mauston], one of our friends, came into camp much excited and told us what had happened down in the Illinois country, saying that the Sacs were headed our way. We had gone out on our hunt in strong numbers. Knowing that the war was going on, we feared that the Sacs might come into our territory. For there was some fear of the Sacs, all the while, although we had been told of their friendliness. They knew that some of our people were with the Americans. We felt that if the Sacs were driven into our hunting-grounds they might be revengeful, and then it would go hard with our hunting parties unless we were prepared for attack.

So when [Ochpiyoka] came and told us that the Sacs were really headed our way, we were much afraid. He told us that the center of attack would be Portage. The other hunting parties, to which runners had also been sent out, did so too. This was a few days before the battle on the Sauk bluffs [Wisconsin Heights].

[Source: Wisconsin Historical Collections, Volume XIII (1895), p. 450.]

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