Native American Relations
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Unfortunately, none of the foreign settlers consulted the indigenous residents before carving up the land. The United States practiced a heavy-handed patriarchal policy toward the Native Americans, insisting that they be relocated west—away from white settlers on the eastern seaboard—for the betterment of both sides. Simultaneously, the new government instituted a loony system designed to reprogram the Natives to become happy Christian farmers. Land cessions, begun around the turn of the 19th century, continued regularly until the first general concourse of most western Indian tribes took place, in 1825, at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, at which time the first of the more draconian treaties was drawn up. The first New York Indians—the Oneida, Stockbridge, Munsee, and Brothertown— were moved to Wisconsin beginning in 1823. The cocktail of misguided U.S. patronization and helplessly naive Native negotiations turned lethal when many tribes came to realize what had been done to them.
The first skirmish, the so-called Winnebago War of 1827, was nothing more than a frustrated attempt at vengeance by a Winnebago chieftain, Red Bird, who killed two settlers before being convinced to surrender to avert war. The second was more serious—and more legendary.
The Black Hawk War
In 1804, William Henry Harrison, a ruthless longtime foe of Indians in the west, rammed through a treaty with Native Americans in St. Louis that effectively extinguished the tribes’ title to most of their land. Part of this land was in southwestern Wisconsin, newly dubbed the “lead region.”
Mining operations—wildcatters, mostly—proliferated but ebbed when the miners began to fear the Natives more and more. The ire and paranoia of the federal government, which had assumed carte blanche in the region, was piqued in 1832, when a militant band of Fox-Sauk Indians refused to recognize treaties, including the one that had forcibly moved them out of the southern part of Wisconsin.
Their leader was Black Sparrow Hawk, better known as Black Hawk, a warrior not so much pro-British as fiercely anti-American. With blind faith in the British, obdurate pride, and urging from other Indian tribes (who would later double-cross him), Black Hawk initiated a quixotic stand against the United States, which culminated in tragic battles staged in Wisconsin.
Black Hawk and his group of about 1,000 recalcitrant natives, dubbed “the British Band,” balked at U.S. demands that the tribe relocate across the Mississippi. Insisting that they were exempt because Black Hawk had been blacklisted from treaty negotiations, in April 1832 the band began moving up the Rock River to what they deemed their rightful lands. Other tribes had promised support along the way, in both provisions and firepower. Instead, Black Hawk found his erstwhile exhorters—the Potawatomi, Sioux, and Winnebago—turning on him. Worse, news of Black Hawk’s actions was sweeping the region with grotesque frontier embellishment, and the U.S. military, private militias, and frontiersmen under their control were all itching for a fight.
His people lacking provisions (one reason for the band’s initial decampment was a lack of corn in the area after the settlers squeezed in) and soon tiring, Black Hawk wisely realized his folly and in May sent a truce contingent. Jumpy soldiers under Major Isaiah Stillman instead overreacted and attacked. Black Hawk naturally counterattacked and, although seriously outnumbered, his warriors chased the whites away—an event that became known as Stillman’s Run. Nevertheless, the fuse was lit.
The band then crossed into Wisconsin near Lake Koshkonong and began a slow, difficult journey west, back toward the Mississippi River. Two commanders led their forces in pursuit of the hapless Indians, engaging in a war of attrition along the way. They cornered Black Hawk and fought the quick but furious Battle of Wisconsin Heights along the Wisconsin River. The tribe escaped in the darkness, with the soldiers pursuing hungrily. One large group of mostly women, children, and old men tried to float down the Wisconsin toward the Mississippi but were intercepted by soldiers and Indians; most were drowned or killed.
What followed is perhaps the most tragic chapter in Wisconsin history, the Battle of Bad Axe, an episode that garnered shocked national attention and made Black Hawk as well known as the president. On August 1, 1832, Black Hawk made it to the Mississippi River. Hastily throwing together rafts, the band tried to cross but was intercepted by a U.S. gunboat. The U.S. forces opened fire mercilessly for two hours, despite a white flag from the Indians. Black Hawk and a group of 50 escaped, assuming the other group—300 women, children, and elderly—would be left alone. Instead, this group was butchered by General Henry Atkinson’s men and their Sioux cohorts when they reached the opposite shore.
Black Hawk and the 50 warriors were pursued by legions of soldiers and Indian accomplices. Black Hawk was eventually brought in alive to St. Louis (guarded by Jefferson Davis) and later imprisoned on the East Coast, where he found himself in the media spotlight. He later wrote a compelling autobiography, one of the first documents offering a glimpse of the baffled, frustrated Native American point of view. Black Hawk was eventually sent back to Wisconsin.
In truth, Black Hawk was likely never half as belligerent as he’s been characterized. By the 1830s he was well into his 60s and weary of protracted and unbalanced negotiations and battles with the whites. The Black Hawk War marked a watershed of Native presence in Wisconsin: By 1833, the few cessions the United States had gained to Native lands below the Fox-Wisconsin Rivers had been extracted. However, in 1837 the northern Wisconsin tribes signed away for a pittance more than half of the land area north of the Fox River, giving free reign to the rapacious lumbermen. Perhaps directly because of Black Hawk’s sad grasp for legitimacy, the U.S. government began playing hardball with the Native Americans.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition