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Odd Wisconsin Archive

(Un)Lucky Break

On this day in 1832, two express riders inadvertently changed the course of the Black Hawk War. Because of this, after months of ineptitude and frustration, U.S. troops began the final pursuit of their enemy. Sauk war chief Black Hawk, his warriors, and the hundreds of non-combatants whom they were protecting began a tragic slide toward their doom.

In early April, Black Hawk and his followers had tried to reclaim their homeland in northern Illinois only to be repulsed by its white settlers. Black Hawk headed east, up the Rock River, in search of allies among the neighboring Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi. On May 13th, when he stopped and tried to negotiate with the militia, soldiers spurned his white flag, opened fire on his emissaries, and attacked his camp. Much to his surprise, Black Hawk's much smaller force of warriors routed the militia at Stillman's Run. The soldiers fled, regrouped, and spent the next two months vainly searching for their adversary. Much to their surprise and consternation, Black Hawk and his 1,000 followers seemed to have evaporated into thin air.

In fact, Black Hawk knew that the U.S. troops were riding horses, hauling cannons, and pulling supply wagons, so he retreated through the soft marshlands of the Rock River valley, where the heavily laden troops could barely pass. Led by Ho-Chunk guides, he and his community meandered through swamps and wetlands all the way north to the edge of Horicon Marsh, near modern Hustisford, in Dodge Co., far ahead of the frustrated soldiers. Without any provisions, the Sauk were reduced to digging for roots and eating the bark of young trees, and by mid-July many of the elderly Indians and children had begun to die of starvation and exposure.

At nearby Fort Winnebago, in Portage, a rumor started in mid-July that Black Hawk's warriors were going to attack the fort in hope of securing supplies. On July 17, militia Col. Henry Dodge and U.S. Army Gen. James Henry went out to reconnoiter the Hustisford vicinity, without finding any enemy warriors. But when they sent their assistants to carry this news to headquarters, the two express riders accidentally stumbled across the fresh trail of hundreds of Indians eight or nine miles south of Hustisford. They were headed west, toward the future site of Madison.

"This new information entirely changed our plan of operation," recalled militia soldier Peter Parkinson. Dodge, Henry, and their 300 troops immediately dashed toward the Four Lakes region, sending a message to the main force to join them as quickly as possible.

In another 72 hours, after months of searching in vain, they would finally catch up with the Sauk warriors. It was a very lucky break for the troops, and a very unlucky one for Black Hawk and his community.

Follow the concluding events of the war day-by-day at our Historic Diaries site, where we're publishing a different eyewitness account of the Black Hawk War every morning through early August. You can also see other original documents about this crucial event at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 17, 2007

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