I will tell you something about stories
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see
All we have to fight off
Illness and death.
You don’t have anything
If you don’t have the stories.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Men with muskets slung over their shoulders and women carrying infants and heavy loads of food and supplies made their way slowly to the broad brown river that lay ahead. It was early April of 1832. Spring had arrived reluctantly that year, with cold rains and scowling skies, following a hard winter in the hunting camps far up the Des Moines and Iowa rivers. But as the light of spring began to warm the frozen earth, a large band of Sauk people, warriors and women, old people and children—more than fifteen hundred of them in all—were moving toward the Mississippi.
Two days before they had gathered near the charred ruins of what had been Fort Madison, on the west side of the Mississippi about fifteen miles above the mouth of the Des Moines River. There were a few Fox and Kickapoo among them, and all headed northward together from the old fort until they were directly across from the long, sandy bluffs known as Yellow Banks, which stretched between the Pope and Henderson rivers on the Illinois side. At that place the great river made a slight bend and narrowed a little, and there the entire band crossed over to the other side.
Throughout the morning of April 9, more than a hundred canoes carried packs and people across, while at least five hundred horses, tethered on long reins, swam behind the boats. And while the people who had already landed ascended the high bluff to the flat and treeless plateau above, the small bark boats returned again and again, without mishap, until everyone and everything had been carried over.
Once everyone had regrouped above the river, their northward journey was resumed. The older members of the band, accompanied by most of the women and children, were sent off across country with nearly a hundred heavily laden packhorses. Most of the warriors—maybe as many as five hundred of them—all well armed and on horseback, made their way up the east bank of the Mississippi in battle formation, having sent flankers on ahead to reconnoiter and fast-moving messengers on to the friendly Winnebago and Potawatomi villages beyond the Rock River. The rest of the warriors and all the young men remained with the canoes and, paddling hard against the powerful, flood-swollen current, moved most of the band’s supplies and equipment upstream.
Silently witnessing the crossing was Black Hawk. He was a thin, ascetic-looking man, with a grand roach-cut crest of hair bristling down the middle of his otherwise bald head. His ears were studded with trade-silver rings, and a large round medal, bearing the likeness of the British king, hung on his chest. He was a man of small physical stature—probably no more than five feet, four or five inches tall, and weighing only about 125 pounds—and well past his prime. By his own reckoning he was sixty-five years old. And yet he was the undisputed leader of the band, even though he held no official position of authority within the Sauk tribe, being neither a chief nor a shaman. Indeed, the source of his authority was mysterious, and one of his earliest biographers indicated he was “a remarkable instance of an individual, in no wise gifted with any uncommon physical, moral, or intellectual endowments, obtaining by force of circumstances, the most extraordinary celebrity.”1
Certainly circumstances contributed to his rise to prominence, but it was mostly what he represented that made him important. As an unyielding traditionalist, he honored the old customs and ways, never wearing white people’s clothing or tasting their alcohol in any form, and in upholding the ancient virtues he often engaged in long and punishing periods of fasting and self-purification and experienced powerful dreams believed to contain messages from the supernatural forces that governed the world. And amid the great confusion and vicissitudes unleashed by the white people, he had held steady and was seen to be the very personification of the tribe’s authentic collective identity. He was, thought his followers, what a Sauk man ought to be, and for the people who crossed the river that day he represented what they had all once been and hoped to become again.
That was what they wanted, but because they believed the true Sauk way of life was inseparably connected to a particular geographic place, they were returning to Saukenuk, at the very center of their world, to regenerate what had been lost in themselves. Saukenuk was their great community near the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi rivers, in northwestern Illinois, to which all the Sauk had traditionally returned each spring. When they were all there together it had a population of more than six thousand inhabitants, making it the largest settlement of any kind in the upper Mississippi region. It was where the tribe experienced its fullest physical reality, where all the great cycles of its collective life began and ended, where they held their most important feasts and festivals, and where all their dead were laid to rest on the brow of the long ridge that arose just beyond the town. It was also there, they believed, the four cosmic layers above and below the visible world were connected, thus making it a place of extraordinary magical power. That power was manifest in the fertility of their gardens, their horses, and their women, and in the abundance of the fish they caught below the last great rumbling rapids of the Rock River. They had always had plenty there and felt safe and happy together—“as happy as the buffalo on the plains,” exclaimed Black Hawk.
But all of that had begun to change after 1822, when white people swarmed into the region looking for lead and the American Fur Company aggressively took tightfisted control of the fur trade. Their arrival set powerful, unwanted changes in motion, upsetting the old rhythms and cycles of life. It was as if some terrible curse had been cast upon the land, fouling the water and air, driving the animals and good spirits away, and corrupting even the character of the Sauk people. In less than a decade, their ancient way of life was in ruinous decline. Hunger and want had become common, as had drunkenness and debt. White people invaded their gardens and hunting grounds, even took possession of their lodges and plowed up the graves of their beloved dead. Dissension and anger divided them, and in the spring of 1831 the soldiers came and expelled them from Saukenuk itself.
It was in defiant reaction to their banishment beyond the Mississippi that Black Hawk and his followers, longing for what they had lost, recrossed the great river and headed homeward to the center of the world.
By doing so they had traversed a Rubicon of sorts from which there was no going back. Soon after they reached the eastern side, in a manner that appeared almost preordained, they were caught in what seemed an inalterable pattern of violence that had been repeated again and again with awful certainty since the very beginning of the English encounter with America. Fear of the “other,” and fear of what they themselves might become in the New World wilderness, drove Englishmen to lash out in angry violence against the native people, making Indian war a defining characteristic of the Anglo-American colonial experience, and resulting in King Philip’s War becoming, as one historian observed, “the archetype of all the wars which followed.”2 Forever after, the “metaphysics of Indian hating,” as Herman Melville called it, persisted in the very identity of white America, perpetuated and made stronger by the frequent shedding of Indian blood and the constant retelling of heroic tales about great battles amid the dark shadows of the continent’s wild regions against the monstrous savages.
It was a somewhat simple dualistic worldview of the “us” and the “others”—the good people of the light against the evil wild men of the darkness—until the Revolution greatly complicated the entire matter of identity. As a consequence of the colonists’ successful rebellion against their king, not only did they sever their ties with the “home” country, they also renounced their own historical and cultural past, and on that very first Fourth of July ceased forever to be English. With that sudden and complete rejection of the old identity, there was a compelling need to create a new one, and efforts to do so became especially intense during the decades immediately following the War of 1812.
But that was no easy undertaking. It was not a time for clear and cogent visions. The explosive growth and spread of both the economic market system and the national population were rapidly and radically changing the very nature of the society itself. The number of people increased at an astounding rate of more than 30 percent each decade, and many moved in waves of mass migration over the Appalachians and into the West so that the very size and shape and density of the country continually changed. It was a young and restless society in constant motion; by 1820, 58 percent of its inhabitants were under the age of twenty, and ten years later a full one-fourth of them lived in the sprawling territory between the old mountains and the Mississippi River. Old norms and customs were undermined and discarded as new demands and desires asserted themselves. Traditional influences of social restraint became increasingly anemic. Long-accepted roles and relationships of deference and subordination, once so essential for public order, eroded away and the authority of fathers and father figures was everywhere in decline. Public life grew ever more fragmented and chaotic, and people more self-focused and combative.
Territorial expansion, and the way it was accomplished, intensified a painful conflict that lay lodged in the very heart of the young Republic’s ideological self-image and pulled and prodded the country in contrary directions. On the one hand there were the humane and life-affirming republican values with their strong emphasis on human rights and personal freedom, all of which had been the primary justification for the Revolution. On the other there were the powerful imperialistic drives and ambitions and a seemingly insatiable appetite for new territory, usually acquired by armed aggression with little regard for the rights and interests of the continent’s indigenous people. It was a paradoxical alignment of principles and priorities, and the more Americans emphasized the importance of their own rights and goals, the less they regarded or respected the rights or even the lives of groups of people they considered to be “others.” The country was deeply divided and ambivalent about itself, being boastful, arrogant, and stridently self-righteous while, at the same time, harshly self-critical and even repentant about its collective failures to live up to its own ideals. Some preachers and intellectuals delivered scathing jeremiads, bewailing the nation’s faults and transgressions, calling the people back to the virtues of the republican covenant, while politicians, businessmen, and land speculators pointed to the promised land across the mountains and advocated the fulfillment of the nation’s “manifest destiny” and the westward course of empire.
The regional divisions within the country itself matched those inner conflicts of interest and purpose. Regionalism became quite strong, producing distinctive attitudes and subcultures, which militated against the coalescence of a truly national identity. Easterners, for example, and particularly intellectuals of the urban Northeast, looked down disparagingly upon the people of the Midwest interior, finding them a backward, ignorant, uncouth lot who lived in near barbaric conditions. Not surprisingly, westerners had a very different sense of who they were, and in psychological self-defense returned the insult by dismissing the men of the East as soft, arrogant, effeminate elitists, while regarding themselves to be hardy, courageous, and manly. The contrasting views of East and West produced fundamentally divergent images of the Indian as well. From the 1820s on, people in the East were increasingly inclined to view the native people as victimized “noble savages.” Westerners, on the other hand, regarded them as morally depraved, diabolically cruel killers of innocent white women and children, and brutish, subhuman obstacles to the advancement of republican civilization. There, in the early nineteenth century, along the violent edge of the American empire, the metaphysics of Indian hating came into full and ugly bloom.
So much of what the national identity and its regional variations consisted of was imaginary stuff—myths and metaphors and stereotype images—but a great deal of it related to deeply disturbing concerns and insecurities about gender, region, and race, which went to the very heart of America’s ambivalence about itself. And when Black Hawk and his band crossed the Mississippi River that early spring day, they were inescapably caught and eventually dragged under by the stress and storm caused by the clash of such powerful symbols. The band’s actions quite predictably provoked a hostile response from the Americans. Troops of the federal army were sent. The Illinois militia was raised. And the old pattern, which had occurred so many times before, was played out once again, ending, as it always did, with the brutal blood-sacrifice of the native people. Trapped along the east bank of the mist-covered Mississippi, just a few miles south of the Bad Axe River, the Indian fugitives were descended upon by shouting soldiers and militiamen who emerged into the early morning light from the dimness of the dense forest above. The Indian agent from Prairie du Chien watched and described how horses and Sauk men, along with defenseless women and children and old people—even infants held in the arms of terrified young mothers—“fell like grass before the scythe,” and the river changed color, “tainted with the blood of the Indians who were shot on its margin & in the stream.”3 But all of this would recur again many times, like the compulsive playing out of the pathological urges of a serial killer, down to the bloodbath in the snow along Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 and then beyond the seas. The Black Hawk War was a single manifestation of that tragically redundant pattern, but it also had special significance because it happened at the very time national consciousness was emerging and the national identity was being formed. It had direct impact on that and also dramatically revealed the origins and nature of this country’s collective character. By looking into this brief but horrific conflict, we may begin to better understand ourselves by discovering in the events of that angry, not so long ago, rain-soaked summer how we came to be who we think we are.
Copyright © 2006 by Kerry A. Trask