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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 29: Death of the Innocents on the Wisconsin River

Editor's Note:

This letter was written by Second Lieutenant Joseph Ritner, who was charged with preventing any fleeing Sauks from taking the Wisconsin River into the Mississippi, where they could escape downriver.

After the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21, about 200 of Black Hawk's followers, too weak or ill-equipped to continue on foot, headed down the Wisconsin River. This group, composed primarily of women and children, hastily constructed birch-bark canoes and floated down the river, planning to cross into the MIssissippi and escape south.

However, Gen. Atkinson set a trap for this band of refugees, sending militia, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee warriors to patrol the river's edge. As the starving refugees neared the juncture of the two rivers, Lieutenant Ritner and his men opened fire in the dark on Indian they thought were warriors; more likely these were canoes of starving old men, women and children.

Of these refugees, Black Hawk wrote in his autobiography, "Here some of my people left me, and descended the Wisconsin, hoping to escape to the west side of the Mississippi, that they might return home. I had no objection to their leaving me, as my people were all in a desperate condition, being worn out with traveling and starving with hunger. Our only hope to save ourselves was to get across the Mississippi. But few of this party escaped. Unfortunately for them, a party of soldiers from Prairie du Chien were stationed on the Wisconsin, a short distance from its mouth, who fired upon our distressed people. Some were killed, others drowned, several taken prisoners, and the balance escaped to the woods and perished with hunger. Among this party were a great many women and children."

This killing of the defenseless foreshadowed the massacre that would soon befall the main group of Black Hawk's band at Bad Axe.

Joseph Ritner to Gustavus Loomis
Mouth of Ouisconsin river, 29th. July. 1832.

Sir: I have the honor to inform you, that at about half past two Oclock this morning, several canoes filled with indians attempted to pass our position. Some of the men say that the canoes were four in number. I saw but three myself. The indians appeared to be all naked and painted warriors.

The morning was dark, and they were close upon us, before we saw them. At the first fire, they were within a few feet of our boat, and attempting apparently to turn the bows of their canoes towards us. Three of them tumbled into the river from the canoe nearest us, at the first fire. After that, the effect could not be observed with certainty, on account of the darkness, flashes, and smoke. I am confident however, that they were nearly all killed or disabled, for after the second fire, the canoes drifted, sideways and unmanaged down the stream.

From their crippled movements, I was certain of intercepting, and capturing them, at the mouth of the north pass of the river, to the head of which, I saw that they were drifting. For this purpose I stopped the firing. But the heaviness of the only boat which we had, and the sand bars, on which she several times grounded, in the dark, detained us several minutes. We pursued them about four miles down the Mississippi river, but could not find them.

Very respectfully, Your Obedient Servant,
J. Ritner, Bvt. 2nd. Lieut. 4th. Regt. Inf. Comdg. at Mouth of Ouisconsin.
Capt G. Loomis. Comdg. Fort Crawford.

[Source: Thayer, Crawford B. Massacre at Bad Axe. (Banta Company, 1984) p. 94]

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