The story of Blackhawk

Tom McDermott
Posted 11/16/21

About 10,000 years before the French and Spanish traders made their way into Ogle County, indigenous peoples populated the area.

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The story of Blackhawk


About 10,000 years before the French and Spanish traders made their way into Ogle County, indigenous peoples populated the area.

Rochelle was not even a dream in the minds of the Indian tribes that navigated around the large lake at the south side of what would later become our town. At 12 miles wide and 12 miles long, the lake forced the migrating tribes to follow rises of land created by glaciers and long-established trails along Kyte River, near todays South Main Street.

Members of the Winnebago, Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox tribes traveled along the trail from southern Illinois to Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin. Indian mounds can be found from Sterling to Beloit. Trails also led through the Dixon area to the Mississippi River.

One of the primary camping areas near Rochelle could be found at today’s Shangri La mobile home park. Located west of Rochelle along the Kyte River, lodge poles were still found on the location of Shangri La in 1856. Flint piles from tool and arrow head making still exist. Tree trail markers were common in the region until settlers arrived and chopped them down for fire wood.

A smalltime war chief named Black Sparrow Hawk or Blackhawk was about to rise to prominence. Born in 1767, Blackhawk was never a tribal chief. He was the military leader for portions of the Sauk tribe. Blackhawk became renowned as a warrior.

At age 15 he drew blood from his first enemy combat. This gave him the right to wear a feather in his hair. By age 16 he had his first kill. The son of the tribal medicine man, Blackhawk’s life took a turn when his father was killed by a Cherokee in battle. Upon his father’s death Blackhawk automatically became the new medicine man and served in that position for the next five years.

For Blackhawk, the prestige of being medicine man was not enough. He was a warrior. Battles with Osage, Cherokee, Chippewa and Kaskaskia tribes offered many opportunities for Blackhawk to demonstrate his skills. Within a short-time Blackhawk claimed 13 combat kills.

During the War of 1812, the Sauk and Fox sided with the British. This put Blackhawk on the wrong side when the conflict was over. Treaties signed in 1816, 1822, 1824 and 1825 all referred back to an 1804 agreement stating that the indigenous tribes had the right to their current land until settlers moved into the region. Naturally, the Indians had little understanding of the concept of owning land. They would sign anything simply to receive the trinkets that were offered.

For Blackhawk, the treaties meant nothing. How could you give away land that did not belong to you or anyone else? Illinois became a state in 1818 but with the Indian activity, settlers were slow to move toward the western portions of the state.

It was decided that the Indian problem needed to be resolved. In 1832, Blackhawk, with 400-500 warriors and over 1,000 followers once again moved through the Ogle County area.

Troops and militia were sent up the Rock River to intercept Blackhawk and his followers. The troops arrived at Prophet’s Village (todays Prophetstown). Expecting to find Blackhawk, the volunteer troops were enraged to find out that he was miles away near Stillman’s Run.

To state their bloodlust, the troops destroyed the village of White Eagle, the Winnebago Prophet. The first battle of the Blackhawk War was fought against a peaceful tribe of Winnebago Indians. The next day the triumphant militia moved to the area that is now Stillman Valley. The volunteer militia was out of control.

Majors Stillman and Bailey were having a hard time keeping order. When five Indians were spotted, everything fell apart. The militia fired on the Indians, killing two. The remaining three fled with 20 militiamen in pursuit. The 20 rode headlong into Blackhawk’s much larger forces. The sound of gunfire echoed back to the camp of the militiamen. Given the rainy weather, and unknown strength of the enemy, the officers told the troops to stay where they were. In groups of twos and threes the untrained soldiers snuck to the battle and were soundly beaten.

The militia retreated in defeat and Blackhawk fled toward the west. 4,000 soldiers caught up with Blackhawk as he neared the east bank of the Mississippi. During the Battle of Bad Axe in Aug. 1832, the Indian followers of Blackhawk were driven into the Mississippi River. As they fought to reach the west bank they were slaughtered by the troops on the bank. Women, children, elderly and warriors fell as one.

Blackhawk escaped, but the Sauk tribe was decimated. Blackhawk was pardoned in 1833 and lived amongst the white man until his death in 1838. With the end of the Blackhawk War in 1832, Illinois was open for settlers and the westward migration began in earnest all the way to the Mississippi River at St. Louis. 

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.