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Reflections: Fox Valley's last Indian War a study in miscalculation

Major Isaiah Stillman, militia commander at the Battle of Stillman's Run, the first confrontation in the Black Hawk War which began 185 years ago this month.
Major Isaiah Stillman, militia commander at the Battle of Stillman's Run, the first confrontation in the Black Hawk War which began 185 years ago this month.

This month marks the 185th anniversary of the last war fought in the state of Illinois. If World War I was “The War to End All Wars,” then the Black Hawk War of 1832 was “The Miscalculation Conflict.”

In April 1832, Black Hawk, a respected, elderly warrior of the Sauk Tribe, seriously miscalculated when he thought he could lead more than 1,000 men, women and children of his tribe across the Mississippi to live once again in Illinois.

U.S. Army Gen. Henry Atkinson miscalculated his ability to control the impetuous Illinois governor, John Reynolds. Reynolds miscalculated when he thought he could stage a major political and military victory by attacking Black Hawk and ending the war to his own advantage.

And Illinois Militia Maj. Isaiah Stillman gravely miscalculated the military ability of his force to subdue even a small group of armed Indians.

The result of these miscalculations was the Black Hawk War, the hostilities of which were kicked off by the short and bloody Battle of Stillman’s Run on May 14, 1832.

After being attacked, despite attempting to parlay under a flag of truce at Old Man’s Creek in western Illinois, fewer than two dozen angry Sauk and Fox warriors under Black Hawk were astonished when they routed Stillman’s 240 militia. Many of the militia soldiers were drunk, and the entire battalion was badly led by Stillman. In the running fight, the Sauk killed 11 and sent the rest fleeing the battlefield.

After the battle, the U.S. Army and the militia decided they faced all-out war. But Black Hawk and the head men of his band had by then decided that retreat back to the west bank of the Mississippi was the only sensible course open to them.

Their supposed Indian allies – local Winnebago, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal bands – and the British in Canada all made it plain they would not participate in a war. Chief Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Potawatomi in northern Illinois, told Black Hawk that his people would not fight the whites no matter what.

However, Black Hawk’s stunning defeat of Stillman’s militia force did embolden some local Native People who used the confusion to settle personal scores. Waubonsee and Chief Shabbona both realized the dangers the situation created.

Shabbona, an experienced military leader who had been a chief aide of the great Chief Tecumseh, decided he had to warn as many local settlers as he could, and so the old chief and his young nephew spread the alarm up and down the Fox Valley.

Settlers in what is now Kendall County (it was then part of LaSalle County) were not the hard-bitten frontiersmen normally associated with pioneer life. In a letter to the Secretary of War, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were.

“These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines wrote. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

In fact, the settlers’ best mode of defense was to run away, which they did as quickly as possible. Settlers in the northern part of what’s now Kendall County fled to Walker’s Grove (now Plainfield), while those farther south made their way to Ottawa as quickly as they could travel.

Late in his life, Ansel Reed, who in 1832 was the young hired hand of Big Grove Township pioneer Moses Booth, recalled the fear and confusion the outbreak of war caused: “In going to work in the afternoon I met two Frenchmen, half-breeds, riding each a mare with a colt following. They said they lived in Kankakee and were going north for seed corn. ... They talked a little while longer, and passed on toward Newark. ... Mr. Booth came out and had made two or three turns to furrowing out the potato land when the Frenchmen returned in a great fright and told Mr. Booth what they had seen. He sent them on to alarm Anthony Litsey and beckoned to me to hurry, saying as I came near, ‘I don’t know but we shall all be killed.’”

The Booth family joined several other pioneer families after arriving at the Rev. Stephen Beggs’ home, where they tore down some rail fences and out-buildings to build a rickety fortification they dubbed Fort Beggs.

About 125 thoroughly frightened settlers crowded into Fort Beggs, the Rev. Beggs later confirming Gen. Gaines’ estimate of the pioneers’ defensive capabilities when wrote that the settlers had only four firearms among them and that “some of them” didn’t work.

The settlers huddled in Fort Beggs eventually were escorted to Chicago by militia troops. After a few brief but violent incidents – chief among them the Indian Creek Massacre just south of the Kendall County line where 15 men, women and children were killed by Indians in revenge for the harsh way they’d been treated by the owner of the claim – the settlers slowly returned to the Fox Valley, spurred on by a cholera outbreak in Chicago.

The Black Hawk War itself eventually ended when the bedraggled and starving remnants of Black Hawk’s band were trapped and most were massacred as they tried to cross the Mississippi during the Battle of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin.

Ironically, the war would have ended much sooner had the army had interpreters with them – Black Hawk’s tribesmen reportedly attempted to surrender several times but none of the whites in the army could understand them.

While the war was a tragedy for the Indians involved and for the small number of whites killed, it did give many militia volunteers a chance to see the rich lands in the Fox Valley for the first time, spurring a flood of settlement in 1833. It also marked the beginning of the end of Indian occupation of the Fox Valley, and by 1836, all the Native Americans had been forcibly removed west of the Mississippi River.

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