Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Black Hawk War by Bo "The Old Cobbler" Parker

As to biographical information, i. e., who I am; well I'm still trying to figure that one out. For more than half a century, I've hidden behind words, first as a news and sports reporter with a BS in Journalism from UT-Knoxville, my hometown.

Following that career, a quarter century was spent writing historical non-fiction.  So, it was with a lot of naiveté and way too much self confidence that I decided some four years ago to write a novel, a mystery. I managed to get a well-known mystery writer with some forty books published to review my first manuscript. He sent me an eleven-page, single spaced letter. The first page and a half told me what I had done correctly. The other nine and a half pages listed the things I needed to learn. I am still learning.

Cobbler's Corner

The Black Hawk War by Bo Parker

Up front, a huge Thank You to Kaye who has once again graciously agreed to allow me to cobble up her space with another slice of our nation’s history.

Having moved into my eighth decade of existence in this life form, my interest in things historical is changing. This happens when one realizes he has been alive longer than the last three US Presidents, the last four US Vice-Presidents, and half the members of the US Senate.

It also explains my dwindling interest in current politics. Everything is beginning to sound like reruns. What I find more fascinating these days are the events involving individuals before they made it to the political big time and became “historical” figures.

Such is the story here. It includes four future US presidents and the future president of the Confederate States of America, all directly involved with events relating to Native American leader Black Hawk, a man who has also become recognized as a major figure in our nation’s history.

This is also a story involving Fort Monroe, an Army post within the municipal boundaries of Hampton, Virginia. A large number of events throughout American history, as well as the people involved, including five of the six individuals in this story, have ties to the fort.

Its location is near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, on a small barrier spit of land called Old Point Comfort. This piece of American soil has been a continuous English-speaking part of the nation for over four hundred years.

NOTE: The Wisconsin Historical Society (( ) has an extensive collection of material on Native American Black Hawk and the circumstances surrounding the Black Hawk War. It is said without hesitation it represents one of the best collections on a subject that this student of American history has found, on-line or elsewhere.

Those interested in learning more about Black Hawk and a fascinating period in our nation’s history can go to the WHS site, use its built-in search function, and spend hours reading documents, personal stories, and viewing collections of images of the period.

Events leading to the Black Hawk War

The series of events that culminated in Black Hawk being held in federal custody for thirty-five days, May 1-June 4,1833, at Virginia’s Fort Monroe are the type that give ironic twists to our nation’s history and serve as epilogues to future events.

Black Hawk, a member of the Sauk Nation, was born in 1767 while his tribe was camped in its summer grounds along the Rock River, near what is now Rock Island, Illinois.  He was given the name Makataimeshekiakiak, meaning, "be a large black hawk."

He had no hereditary claim to the title of chief. His role of leadership was earned through more than forty years of battle-hardened experience. He was still in his teens when he first tasted battle, and earned the right to join the Scalp Dance, a victory celebration.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Native Americans in the upper Midwest had settled many of the territorial differences among themselves and become united in the defense of their traditional homelands against the growing invasion of white settlers.

Attempts to negotiate peaceful agreements with the US government were constantly rebuffed. When the War of 1812 began, Black Hawk and other Native American leaders joined the battle on the British side, seeing the Redcoats as the lesser of two evils in their struggle for land.

After the Americans won the War of 1812, Black Hawk and other Sauk leaders refocused their efforts to settle a dispute involving a treaty dating back to 1804. During that year, Virginia born and future US President William Henry Harrison, who at the time was a territorial governor, met with two members of the Sauk tribe in St. Louis.

Harrison walked away from the meeting with a treaty stating the US government had “purchased the right to open all Sauk lands east of the Mississippi to (white) settlement for $2,500.” Sauk Chiefs, when they heard about the deal, took the position that the two men with whom Harrison had met did not have the authority to represent the entire Sauk Nation, making the treaty invalid.

This legality of the treaty remained in dispute for the next 28 years, a period that saw the Native Americans mix unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the US government, a military alliance with the British, and after that defeat, actions that today would be call isolated terrorist attacks against settlers.

Finally, in the spring of 1832, Black Hawk led some 600 Sauk and Fox warriors and their families eastward across the Mississippi River. The move was a declaration of war, a move to retake their land by sheer force.

The immediate response was a call from the territorial governor’s office for local white settlers to form a volunteer militia. Some historians have questioned the military effectiveness of this assemblage, citing this as the reason the US Army ordered five companies of soldiers stationed at Fort Monroe to be sent west to join the war.

In 1903, the New York Times reviewed a book, “The Black Hawk War,” written by Frank E. Stevens, and privately published in Chicago. Quoted in the review is the recounting of an incident that allegedly occurred after regular Army forces arrived in Illinois.

The leader of the volunteer militia was reluctant to give the order to his men, who were “tired and out of humor,” to cross a river, swimming if they found the water too deep to wade. Word of this reluctance was delivered to a US Army officer across the river, a man who had recently been promoted to colonel.

Col. Zachary Taylor, born in Montebello, Virginia, rode in a rowboat to the opposite shore where he berated the local militia. According to a quote in Stevens’ book, Col. Taylor concluded his comments with the following.

“You are citizen soldiers and some of you may fill high offices or even be President some day, but never unless you do your duty. Forward! March!”

It can never be proven if Stevens was taking advantage of later events, which he knew, when in 1903, he gave the colonel credit for these words.

But among the volunteer militiamen that day was 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln. Standing at Colonel Taylor’s side as his aide was 24-year old Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis from Fort Monroe.

Lincoln, without experiencing the heat of battle, completed his tour as a volunteer soldier weeks later, mustered out, and returned to his home in New Salem, Illinois, to continue his first unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the state legislature.

Some three years after Colonel Taylor addressed the volunteer militiamen, his daughter, Sarah (Sallie) Knox Taylor married the man who stood by her father’s side as his aide, Jefferson Davis. Shortly after the wedding, both Davis and his wife contacted malaria. Sallie Taylor Davis died three months after the wedding.

Seventeen years later, Taylor would be elected the nation’s 12th US President. Less than a dozen years after Taylor’s brief presidency, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would be the Commander-in-Chief of their respective armies during the Civil War.

The federal troops and local militiamen continued their pursuit of Black Hawk and his followers north into what is now the state of Wisconsin. The Native Americans, hopelessly outmanned, had given up the fight for their summer home. After attempts to surrender had been rebuffed, they were trying to return to the safety of their land west of the Mississippi River.

The pursuers caught up with Black Hawk and his followers on the second day in August 1832, on the banks of the Bad Axe River near the present-day town of Victory, Wisconsin. Like many events in our government’s relationship with Native Americans, there are two perspectives on what happened that day. The official report the government’s victory during the eight-hour “battle” can read at:

The outcome of the confrontation at Bad Axe River is told from a different perspective by the State of Wisconsin. On a historical marker near the site are the words, “Driven into the water by their pursuers, Indians - warriors, old people, women, children - were shot or drowned as they tried to escape.”

Historians not on the federal government’s payroll have used the term, “The Massacre at Bad Axe River.” It was the last “Indian battle” fought in the Midwest, east of the Mississippi.

Bad Axe River marker

Black Hawk and a small number of warriors survived the ambush at Bad Axe River and fled the area, feeling certain that they would face certain death if captured.  During the next three weeks, as government troops searched the countryside, negotiations for a peaceful end to the manhunt was conducted through intermediaries.

On August 27, the Native Americans surrendered without incident to a government Indian Agent in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk Surrender marker

After their surrender, Black Hawk, along with his son Whirling Thunder, a tribal shaman, White Cloud, and several others who surrendered, were taken as prisoners to Jefferson Barracks, a federal installation near St. Louis.

The officer in charge of the federal soldiers who escorted the prisoners south to St. Louis was Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. After the end of the Civil War, Davis himself would be arrested in Georgia and taken to Fort Monroe, under the armed escort of federal troops.

The Native Americans spent the winter in Missouri before orders were issued through the military chain of command that they be released and escorted east to Washington.  In April 1833 Black Hawk was taken to the White House.

Two Old Warriors Meet At White House

It has been written that when Black Hawk was introduced to Andrew Jackson, he saluted the President of the United States, and said, “I am a man and you are another.” While we will never know all that the two old warriors talked about that day, or exactly how long the conversation lasted, the two men had a lot in common.

Andrew Jackson probably had a better understanding and appreciation of Black Hawk than he did of many of his fellow politicians in the nation’s Capitol. Both men were the same age, 66, and had grown up in the frontier areas of the nation.  Both men had spent a major portion of their lives fighting in battles over land in the westward expansion of the nation’s frontier. They also understood what the white man’s expansion meant for both sides, and the other man’s reason for fighting.

“Old Hickory,” as President Jackson was called, told Black Hawk that he and his companions would be sent to Fort Monroe until decisions were made regarding their return to the west. The president made one demand that reportedly upset Black Hawk. During their remaining time in the east, the Native Americans would be required to swap their buckskins for “white man’s” clothing.

Unlike Jefferson Davis, who spent two years locked in a cell at Fort Monroe before he was released, the Native Americans were not confined to a cell or quarters. They were allowed to wander free within the installation and given “every proper indulgence.”

The public reaction to the Native Americans’ arrival at Fort Monroe was to treat them as a major curiosity. This created a booming business for the Hygeia, a waterfront resort hotel that shared Old Point Comfort with the fort.

The number of journalists and private citizens clamoring for passage created a demand that led steamboat lines to add additional trips to Old Point Comfort. It was a rare opportunity for people in the east to see Native Americans from the western frontier in safe, civilized surroundings.

Much was written about what was observed and what Black Hawk said during his time at the fort. Since he did not speak English, a government employee was assigned as his translator. Black Hawk later complained that some of his comments were not accurately translated. They made good reading in the press.

It was reported that a lady visitor, described as “remarkable for her fine hair,” presented Black Hawk with a tomahawk. His response, reportedly said while patting her on the head, was “What a beautiful head for scalping.”

One newspaper, The New York Courier, reported an incident as proof that he “loved to take naps.” A young lady visiting Old Point Comfort observed that Black Hawk looked bored. She decided to cheer him up.

“She sat down at the piano and played for two hours and a half, some of the most admired Italian arias. She was delighted at the charmed attention exhibited by the illustrious red man, who neither moved or uttered a syllable, and on finishing looked around for his applause, but found him fast asleep as a church.”

As enlightening and entertaining as these stories may be, artist Robert Matthew Sully, a native of Petersburg, Virginia, and the nephew of the renowned portrait painter Thomas Sully, produced more lasting impressions of the Native Americans at Fort Monroe.

The younger Sully, age 30 at the time, painted several portraits of Black Hawk,his son, Loud Thunder, and White Cloud, a Sauk medicine man. Today these paintings hang in respected museums across the country. However, some have criticized the portraits for both what they present and why they were painted.

Critics said Sully failed to “capture the image of the Noble Savage.” They pointed to fellow artist George Catlin, whose extensive sketches, including Black Hawk and others while they were at Jefferson Barracks, portray a more “realistic” image of Native Americans in their natural habitat and dress.

As to intent, it has been suggested Sully was part of the government’s “propaganda” plan designed to show Black Hawk’s transformation from “savage” to “civilized man.” They point as proof to the fact that the Army gave Sully free room and board while he worked at the post.

Regardless of intent or motivation, Robert Sully (1803-1865) left future generations detailed images of a man who is recognized today as a major figure in American history, by both Native Americans and those who attempted to eradicate them from the country.

Several of Sully’s portraits of the Native Americans, as well as a sketch done by George Catlin during Black Hawk’s imprisonment at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri can be found at

This site also includes commentary on the different methods used by Sully and Catlin to preserve images of Native Americans  -  sketches vs. oil paintings.

Black Hawk After Fort Monroe

Within the body of writing devoted to Black Hawk and his years-long involvement in the battles during the nation’s expansion westward, there are two books worth noting. After settling in Iowa after his release from Fort Monroe, Black Hawk dictated his autobiography to a U. S. interpreter. The subsequently published book (1833), came under criticism by those who suggested it reflected the words and thinking of the interpreter and editor more than those of Black Hawk.

The University of Illinois Press republished this book in 1955 after it was “edited” by Donald Jackson, a member of the university press’ staff.

Dr. Kerry A. Task, a professor and early American history scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc, wrote “BLACK HAWK: The Battle For The Heart Of America.”  This book, published in 2007, received very favorable reviews from fellow American history scholars.

Fort Monroe; It’s Beginning and End

Black Hawk was only one of a vast number of prominent men in the nation’s history to walk the grounds of Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe. Members of the Virginia Company, the founders of Jamestown, left the first “white man’s footprints” on May 14, 1607 when they came ashore.  Two years later, the colonists built the nation’s first coastal defense post on the site.

In 1823, the first US troops arrived at still-under-construction Fort Monroe.  This marked the beginning of the fort’s claim as the oldest, continuously occupied military post in the United States. However, this distinction will come to an end in 2011 when the US Army abandons the fort.

What happens to this historical site when military forces leave after 188 years of occupancy is still being debated. Whichever path future development of the site may take, the “footprints” left by Black Hawk and hundreds of prominent men like him give Old Point Comfort a unique place in our nation’s history that cannot be swept away.


jenny milchman said...

I never knew a fraction of this, and it sounds like your book really brings the past to life, Bo. But in addition to educative (possibly even more than educative) I found this post really poignant. The whole sweep of history thing. How individual blips become just that once you've seen a wide array of them. Thank you for that perspective.

Mason Canyon said...

History like this should be taught more in high schools. When I was in school there was barely any mention of the Native Americans and their story. Wonderful post. Very insightful.

Vicki Lane said...

What a tempting subject for historical fiction! Are you thinking about this, Bo?

Bo Parker said...

Jenny and Mason, a very small percentage of the events in our nation's history has found its way into the curriculums of our educational system. It was not until the early 1900s that the debate among higher education scholars was settled as to how our "history" should be taught. The best description that can be given to to the final decision is the "Big Events" approach--teach the big whats and ignore the little whens, wheres, and whys. It's what I call the "skipping rocks across the water" approach.

I was fortunate during the early part of my ten-year higher education adventure. I managed a double major, American history and American literature. And I learned as much, if not more, about our nation's history in the literature courses as I did in the official history courses.

And Vicki, during the many years I spent mucking about, digging up untaught pieces of our history, I found them so fascinating that the idea of casting them in a cloak of creativity never crossed my mind. However, the more I cobble away in the creative world,using this area as a setting, the more I am coming to realize that we wear our "history" as part of our present-day existence.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Bo, thanks for this - it's fascinating! I always look forward to your pieces, and this one was every bit as interesting as I knew it would be.

You're a good friend to me and to Meanderings and Muses. thank you.