2.11.06

DIFFERENT NORTH WEST FRONTIER, SAME GREAT GAME. Earlier this year, I kept coming across relics and monuments of the 1832 Black Hawk War, a brief summer campaign in which Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln all fought on the same side. At the visitor center of the Apple River Fort in Elizabeth, Illinois, I picked up Kerry Trask's Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, which is Book Review No. 36. The book focuses on the 1832 war, although it provides a bit of historical context. I will argue that the unstated background information might be of greater interest than the war itself, although the war offers some insights into methods of counter-insurgency that I hope our current military professionals are keeping in mind. Black Hawk is better described as a holy man than as a warrior chief, although he was not averse to fighting. The cassus belli, as far as Black Hawk and his tribe were concerned, was their ejection from winter quarters including a burial ground and summer cornfields near Rock Island, Illinois. The expectation that a shipment of British weapons would be sent to the natives by way of Milwaukee appears to have played some role in subsequent events.

Illinois and Wisconsin militias and Federal troops participated in the war. Much of the early action took place in the mining districts of northwest Illinois, where many of the early white settlers were from Appalachia. The militia did not distinguish themselves. In the battle now known as Stillman's Run, many militia members appear to have gotten themselves liquored up and headed out with the expectation of shooting a few Indians. (Their descendants get liquored up and cheer for Chicago sports teams.) Things did not turn out the way either side expected. Sauk accounts of the battle claim the militia fired on a party carrying a flag of truce, which militia accounts either deny or suggest was a ruse. (Gratuitious mutilations of bodies and allegations of dirty fighting abound on both sides.) Black Hawk was not impressed with British or American fighting methods, and one of his lieutenants concluded after Stillman's Run that the settlers had no stomach for a fight.

The fighting continued, nonetheless. Additional militia and Federal troops were enroute from forts elsewhere in Illinois, and the Wisconsin militia commanded by future Governor Henry Dodge would prove to be instrumental in trapping Black Hawk's remaining forces. First, though, came the indecisive battle at the Apple River Fort (Black Hawk opting to take some provisions rather than risk large losses investing the fort), and a few days later, an engagement at Kellogg's Grove, southeast of Kent. The monument, which is also a battlefield cemetery, treats this engagement as decisive. Professor Trask's treatment is less certain. But the Sauk band resumed its trek in the general direction of Milwaukee and that anticipated shipment of weapons.


The right of way of the Chicago Great Western is somewhere in the low ground to the rear. It was my pursuit of Chicago Great Western relics that led me to these battlefields.

The North West Frontier is rugged country. The record does not mention any major tribe or troop movements through the Apple River Canyon, but such movements might have occurred.


The war ultimately ended with what can only be characterized as a massacre of the remnants of Black Hawk's tribe north of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. But no sooner was the last Indian war east of the Mississippi settled than popular opinion began to romanticize Black Hawk and a few other, now tamed, tribal leaders. There are numerous references to Black Hawk in the area, including an Illinois Central train, the food court at Northern Illinois University (which kept that name when the Pow Wow snack bar became the Center Cafe) and a large stylized Chief Black Hawk, sculpted by Lorado Taft, just north of Oregon, Illinois, on the Rock River.


Black Hawk also suggests that differences of opinion between the coastal and interior populations are nothing new. I wish, however, that Professor Trask would have resisted the reflexive relativism that allows him to condemn the machismo of the militia members but not the propensity of Woodlands tribes to engage in spontaneous wars against rival tribes. President Jackson was able to contain the Sauk and Fox insurrection in part by making alliances with Chippewa and Sioux who had their own disagreements with the Sauk and Fox. (Some of the stories of grand tribal summit conferences bring contemporary nation-building efforts to mind.) Likewise, he writes somewhat disapprovingly of the rape fears allegedly rampant in the territories, where Native Americans (in a fashion parallel to freed or escaped slaves) appeared as virile rivals to the white settlers, but he makes no mention of parallel fears among the tribes, in which intermarriage with Indian agents of the European powers was common.

The role of those European powers is one relatively undocumented back-story that requires further study. Apparently the British and French were engaged in a North American version of the Great Game, in which various tribes were cultivated as proxies in service of goals beyond their immediate local aims. Black Hawk served as a British proxy during the War of 1812, and he went into battle with a medallion of King George III and a British flag. Perhaps his affinity for the British stems from the Sauk's forced migration out of what is now Quebec into the upper Mississippi Valley.

The inter-tribal conflicts, of which there were many, most limited in scope and duration, also call for further study. Apparently North America was a vast battleground in which a few warriors of a rival tribe were there to be sneaked up upon and killed, and horses and crops fair game for the taking. Although Professor Trask characterizes United States efforts at managing these conflicts as ham-handed, the U.S. government was able to enlist the help of the Sioux to deal with the Sauk and Fox; the coming of the railroad changed the government's and the settler's view of Sioux roaming freely west of the Mississippi.

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