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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Melancholy Marker

Nov. 3rd marks a tragic anniversary. On that day in 1804, the Fox and Sauk Indians were swindled out of 50 million acres of land in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Their later attempt to recover it ended in the bloodiest massacre perpetrated on Wisconsin soil.

In August of 1804, a Sauk warrior killed a white squatter about 40 miles from St. Louis. When Missouri authorities captured him, the tribe sent a negotiating party to ransom him. Here's how their war chief Black Hawk recalled the situation many years later:

"We held a council at our village to see what could be done for him, and determined that Quashquame, Pashepaho, Ouchequaka and Hashequarhiqua should go down to St. Louis, see our American father and do all they could to have our friend released by paying for the person killed, thus covering the blood and satisfying the relations of the murdered man. This being the only means with us for saving a person who had killed another, and we then thought it was the same way with the whites.

"The party started with the good wishes of the whole nation, who had high hopes that the emissaries would accomplish the object of their mission. The relations of the prisoner blacked their faces and fasted, hoping the Great Spirit would take pity on them and return husband and father to his sorrowing wife and weeping children. Quashquame and party remained a long time absent. They at length returned and encamped near the village, a short distance below it, and did not come up that day, nor did any one approach their camp. They appeared to be dressed in fine coats and had medals. From these circumstances we were in hopes that they had brought good news. Early the next morning the Council Lodge was crowded, Quashquame and party came up and gave us the following account of their mission:

" 'On our arrival at St. Louis we met our American father and explained to him our business, urging the release of our friend. The American chief told us he wanted land. We agreed to give him some on the west side of the Mississippi, likewise more on the Illinois side opposite the Jeffreon. When the business was all arranged we expected to have our friend released to come home with us. About the time we were ready to start our brother was let out of the prison. He started and ran a short distance when he was SHOT DEAD!'

"This was all they could remember of what had been said and done. It subsequently appeared that they had been drunk the greater part of the time while at St. Louis. This was all myself and nation knew of the treaty of 1804. It has since been explained to me. I found by that treaty, that all of the country east of the Mississippi, and south of Jeffreon was ceded to the United States for one thousand dollars a year. I will leave it to the people of the United States to say whether our nation was properly represented in this treaty? Or whether we received a fair compensation for the extent of country ceded by these four individuals?"*

The treaty was negotiated by future president William Henry Harrison and gave the U.S. an area the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey combined, which was then producing $60,000 in furs each winter, for a few thousand dollars. As a modern historian observed, if Harrison had given away a simlar-sized portion of the U.S. for the same amount of money, he'd have been considered a lunatic. The full text of the treaty is online here, and the negotations are described in in "William Henry Harrison Steals Western Illinois from the Sauk and Fox" by Herbert S. Channick (Illinois Heritage, Volume 1 Number 2; Winter 1998): 6-11, online here.

As soon as the ink was dry in St. Louis, 203 years ago this weekend, the stage was set for the greatest tragedy enacted on Wisconsin's soil, the Black Hawk War of 1832.

* [Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk... (Cincinnati: 1833), pages 27-29.]
:: Posted in Curiosities on November 1, 2007

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