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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

August 1: Black Hawk Reaches the Mississippi

Editor's Note:

In this excerpt from his autobiography, Black Hawk describes the first day of fighting at the mouth of the Bad Axe River (map). When he and his his followers, now reduced to about 400 starving men, women and children, reached the MIssissippi, they immediately set to work making rafts and canoes. About 1,300 U.S. infantry and militia were only a day's journey away, and they had to cross now or be trapped on the banks of the river.

Just then, the steamboat Warrior arrived. Here Black Hawk made his third honest attempt to surrender [the first being at Stillman's Run and the second after the Battle of Wisconsin Heights]. The crew and the soldiers on the steamboat suspected it to be a trick, and the Warrior opened fire, killing 25 of Black Hawk's warriors and costing them valuable time.

As night fell on the desperate band, they were split about what to do next. Most wanted to cross the Mississippi as soon as possible, but Black Hawk and Waubakeeshik wanted to proceed north by foot, and take refuge among the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe. Despite the desire he expressed here to stand by his band at the Bad Axe, in the end Black Hawk, Wabokieshiek and their families escaped north on foot and hid near modern Tomah, Wisconsin. They remained there until discovered by a Ho-Chunk hunter who helped them surrender to the whites days after the massacre at Bad Axe. On the night of August 1st while their leader moved on, the remainder of the Sauk -- about 400 starving men, women and children -- prepared to try to cross the Mississippi the next morning.

Here is a painting of the Bad Axe Battleground from 1856

Here is an 1846 painting of the Massacre at Bad Axe on Aug. 2, depicting the Warrior

Myself and band having no means to descend the Wisconsin, I started over a rugged country, to go to the Mississippi, intending to cross it and return to my nation. Many of our people were compelled to go on foot, for want of horses, which, in consequence of their having had nothing to eat for a long time, caused our march to be very slow. At length we arrived at the Mississippi, having lost some of our old men and little children, who perished on the way with hunger.

We had been here but a little while before we saw a steamboat (the "Warrior,") coming. I told my braves not to shoot, as I intended going on board, so that we might save our women and children. I knew the captain (Throckmorton) and was determined to give myself up to him. I then sent for my white flag. While the messenger was gone, I took a small piece of white cotton and put it on a pole, and called to the captain of the boat, and told him to send his little canoe ashore and let me come aboard. The people on board asked whether we were Sacs or Winnebagoes. I told a Winnebago to tell them that we were Sacs, and wanted to give ourselves up!

A Winnebago on the boat called out to us "to run and hide, that the whites were going to shoot!" About this time one of my braves had jumped into the river, bearing a white flag to the boat -- when another sprang in after him and brought him to the shore. The firing then commenced from the boat, which was returned by my braves and continued for some time. Very few of my people were hurt after the first fire, having succeeded in getting behind old logs and trees, which shielded them from the enemy's fire.

The Winnebago on the steamboat must either have misunderstood what was told, or did not tell it to the captain correctly; because I am confident he would not have allowed the soldiers to fire upon us if he had known my wishes. I have always considered him a good man, and too great a brave to fire upon an enemy when sueing for quarters.

After the boat left us, I told my people to cross if they could, and wished; that I intended going into the Chippewa country. Some commenced crossing, and such as had determined to follow them, remained; only three lodges going with me. Next morning, at daybreak, a young man overtook me, and said that all my party had determined to cross the Mississippi -- that a number had already got over safely and that he had heard the white army last night within a few miles of them. I now began to fear that the whites would come up with my people and kill them before they could get across. I had determined to go and join the Chippewas; but reflecting that by this I could only save myself, I concluded to return, and die with my people, if the Great Spirit would not give us another victory! During our stay in the thicket, a party of whites came close by us, but passed on without discovering us.



[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography]

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