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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Aug. 27, Prairie du Chien: Black Hawk Surrenders

Editor's Note:

Because Black Hawk was such an important figure, many people later claimed to have been involved in his capture. The traditional version, which originated at the time and was most often repeated, is that Ho-Chunk chief One-Eyed Decorah and a warrior named Chaetar discovered Black Hawk's entourage near the modern Wisconsin Dells and escorted them to Prairie du Chien, where they surrendered on Aug. 27, 1832, to Ho-Chunk agent Joseph Street. During the 19th century, various locations were pointed out in and around Wisconsin Dells as the cave where Black Hawk supposedly hid or the bluff where he was discovered.


Everyone seemed to want to have had a hand in Black Hawk's capture. Only a few weeks after the war ended, French trader Robert Grignon claimed to have discovered Black Hawk and turned him over to authorities at Fort Winnebago -- even though it was already known that the Sauk war chief had surrendered at Fort Crawford, many miles away. The most thorough and perhaps most cited contemporary account was in John Wakefield's 1834 History of the Black Hawk War (here). In the early 1850s One-Eyed Decorah also gave this account to early Wisconsin settler George Gale.


In 1984, staff at the Milwaukee Public Museum came upon a previously unknown manuscript that prompted anthropologist Nancy Lurie to investigate all the evidence and unravel the truth. She concluded that Black Hawk was not found by the Winnebago at the Dells but more than fifty miles to the northwest, in the vicinity of the present city of Tomah, Wisconsin, and that Decorah really played no part in the surrender. You can read her article, "In Search of Chaetar: New Findings on Black Hawk's Surrender" [Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume 71, Issue 3 (1988): 162-183] here.


I started with my little party to the Winnebago village at Prairie La Cross. On my arrival there I entered the lodge of one of the chiefs, and told him that I wished him to go with me to his father, that I intended giving myself up to the American war chief and die, if the Great Spirit saw proper. He said he would go with me. I then took my medicine bag and addressed the chief. I told him that it was "the soul of the Sac nation -- that it never had been dishonored in any battle, take it, it is my life -- dearer than life -- and give it to the American chief!" He said he would keep it, and take care of it, and if I was suffered to live, he would send it to me.

During my stay at the village, the squaws made me a white dress of deer skin. I then started with several Winnebagoes, and went to their agent, at Prairie du Chien, and gave myself up...

I was now given up by the agent to the commanding officer at Fort Crawford, the White Beaver having gone down the river. We remained here a short time, and then started for Jefferson Barracks, in a steam boat, under the charge of a young war chief, [Lieut. Jefferson Davis] who treated us all with much kindness. He is a good and brave young chief, with whose conduct I was much pleased. On our way down we called at Galena and remained a short time. The people crowded to the boat to see us: but the war chief would not permit them to enter the apartment where we were -- knowing, from what his feelings would have been if he had been placed in a similar situation, that we did not wish to have a gaping crowd around us...

On our way down, I surveyed the country that had cost us so much trouble, anxiety and blood, and that now caused me to be a prisoner of war. I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites when I saw their fine houses, rich harvests and everything desirable around them; and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which I and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our graveyards from us and removed us across the Mississippi.

Source: Autobiography of Ma-Kai-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk (Oquawka? Ill. : J.B. Patterson, 1882)

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