By James Lewis, Ph.D.
The two months after the Battle of Stillman's Run (May 14, 1832) were a period of great activity and great uncertainty. In Washington, President Andrew Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass made preparations to send more federal troops to the scene. In Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Missouri, hundreds of men turned out for militia and volunteer companies that had to be organized, armed, and sent wherever they were needed. From their camp at the mouth of the Kishwaukee, Black Hawk's band of Sauks, Foxes, Kickapoos, Winnebagoes, and Potawatomis moved north into the swampy region known as the "trembling lands" around Lake Koshkonong in southern Wisconsin. There, Black Hawk hoped to find food for his starving people and at least temporary relief from the pursuit. But, from their bases at Dixon's Ferry and Galena, Illinois, respectively, Gen. Atkinson and Col. Henry Dodge continued to send out troops in search of Black Hawk's trail.
In this period of activity and uncertainty, one of the few things that neither Black Hawk nor Atkinson did, however, was to send messengers to try to resolve the crisis peacefully. After Stillman's Run, both men apparently decided that the time for negotiating would come after Black Hawk's band had returned, or been driven, back across the Mississippi.
Throughout these two months, armed groups, native and white, moved across the countryside. Many of these groups were only loosely, if at all, supervised by Black Hawk, Atkinson, or Dodge. Under these violent and chaotic conditions, conflicts between natives and whites flared up across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, often miles from the main camps of the army and Black Hawk's band. Some of these clashes involved as many as a couple of hundred men on each side, others as few as a couple of dozen.
Within a week after the Battle of Stillman's Run, a group of Potawatomis, who may not have been connected with Black Hawk's band at all, attacked a white settlement at Indian Creek. They apparently had seized upon the unsettled conditions in the region to settle old scores. In the Indian Creek Massacre (May 20), fifteen whites--men, women, and children--were killed, scalped, and mutilated. Two teenage girls, Rachel and Sylvia Hall (ages 17 and 15) were taken away, unharmed, as captives. For the next eleven days, they would remain captives, spending most of this time at Black Hawk's camp, where they were well treated by the Sauk women. With the help of the Winnebagoes and their agent Henry Gratiot, the Hall sisters were ransomed for ten horses, wampum, and corn. In 1838, they published an account of their captivity.
At the Battle of the Pecatonica (June 16) in southwestern Wisconsin, it was Kickapoos, again at best loosely under Black Hawk's supervision, involved in the fighting. Two days earlier, they had attacked a group of settlers, killing five. On June 16, they ambushed another settler. From nearby Fort Hamilton, Col. Dodge set off in pursuit and quickly trapped the Kickapoos in a bend of the Pecatonica River. All eleven of the Kickapoos were killed and scalped by Dodge's soldiers. Two days later, part of a group of about eighty Sauk warriors engaged in a battle with men from Capt. Adam Snyder's Illinois militia company at a small settlement known as Kellogg's Grove, near modern Kent, Illinois. Three militia men and six Sauks died in the fighting.
As the war chief of the band, it is hardly surprising that Black Hawk himself led attacks on two white forts in northwestern Illinois, nearly a hundred miles from his main encampment at Lake Koshkonong. On June 24, Black Hawk and roughly two hundred Sauk and Fox warriors attacked a small stockade on the Apple River near modern Elizabeth, Illinois. After besieging the fort for much of the afternoon, Black Hawk sent the warriors to gather badly needed foodstuffs, horses, livestock, and other supplies from the nearby settlers' cabins and farms.
The next day, they reached the small fort at Kellogg's Grove, where a Kickapoo war party and Capt. Snyder's militia company had fought nine days earlier. Black Hawk's warriors tried to ambush a group of soldiers as they left the fort, but instead found themselves pursued by a militia force under Major John Dement. A series of clashes ensued in which the militia fought bravely. At least nine of Black Hawk's warriors died in the fighting, including two of the leaders of the band.
In late June and early July, the government had thrown around Black Hawk's band the net that it had. On June 15, President Jackson and Secretary Cass ordered Gen. Winfield Scott to assume command of the war effort. Scott was to take another eight hundred U.S. Army officers and soldiers west via the Great Lakes to Chicago. Additional troops would travel by steamboat up the Mississippi to meet him. Ultimately, Scott and his soldiers never reached the fighting, however. On the way to Chicago, his troops were exposed to the cholera epidemic that swept the United States that year (killing many times more people than the Black Hawk War). By the time that they reached Chicago on July 10, less than a quarter of the men remained healthy and they had to be quarantined.
With Scott heading west in late June, Atkinson finally set out from Dixon's Ferry in search of the main camp of Black Hawk's band. His force consisted of about four hundred U.S. Army regulars, under Col. Zachary Taylor, and more than two thousand Illinois militiamen. Most of the men were mounted on horseback; they also had some artillery pieces. On June 25, two days before leading the main force out of camp, Atkinson had sent additional militia companies under Col. Dodge and Gen. Alexander Posey to southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois, respectively. In early July, Atkinson's scouts found an abandoned camp at Lake Koshkonong. But they could not pick up the band's trail in the surrounding swamps. In early July, Atkinson decided to discharge hundreds of his Illinois volunteers (including Abraham Lincoln) in order to reduce the strain on his limited provisions. He then dispatched the brigades of Gens. Posey, James Henry, and Milton Alexander, along with the men under Col. Dodge, to Forts Hamilton and Winnebago to procure rations for the army. Atkinson's army returned to the confluence of the Bark and Rock rivers and built Fort Koshkonong (later Fort Atkinson).
At Fort Winnebago, Dodge heard of a recent sighting of Black Hawk's band further east. While Alexander's men took provisions to Fort Koshkonong, Dodge's one-hundred-and-fifty volunteers and Henry's six hundred militiamen set off in pursuit. On July 18, two of Dodge's men and their native guide stumbled across a fresh trail. They returned to Dodge and Henry who decided to follow the trail the next morning, sending an express messenger to inform Atkinson.