North of Monroe Missouri, about a mile, occurred a rather unusual strategy, employed be the defenders of the fort that was once there. Here was shed the last blood of the War of 1812.
Black Hawk (or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) was born in the Sauk village of Saukenuk (located near Rock Island, Illinois) in 1767. The Sauk (also spelled Sac) were both a nomadic nation (during the winter season) and a farming society (during the warm season). They maintained this duel existence and allied with other tribes to establish dominance in Illinois by the late 1700s. Among allies were the Fox and the Kickapoo. During the warm seasons, the Sauk lived in communities along the Rock River. In 1804, the Sauk and Fox nations were forced to leave their homelands in Illinois pursuant to a treaty signed in St. Louis. The treaty was negotiated by Indiana governor William Henry Harrison. Harrison demanded that the assembled chiefs turn over a Sauk warrior who had been accused of murdering three settlers in a border skirmish the previous year. The governor informed them that the accused warrior would be released just as soon as the tribe compensated the victims’ families, as was Sauk custom. However, Harrison then added the provision that the tribes cede all land claims in Illinois and Wisconsin. Plying the leaders with alcohol and promising that they would be allowed to continue to use the land until settlement, Harrison won the day. In exchange for just over $2,000, the Sauk and Fox nations had surrendered their homeland. The warrior that was held as bond for this treaty was shot while trying to escape. Many of the Sauk and Fox moved west to avoid the influx of white settlers. Some would not be moved.
Black Hawk did not believe that the treaty had any bearing on his people. In his own words, “the land cannot be sold…the Great Spirit gave it to his children to live on.” This is in keeping with the belief among native groups that no one has a claim to the land; so long as it is occupied it belongs to those who work it. Furthermore, on legal grounds, Black Hawk insisted that the chiefs who signed the treaty were not empowered to do so. In response to constant demands that his remaining tribesman leave the region, Black Hawk and a dedicated group of warriors took up arms against what they viewed as an illegal occupation of their homeland. Seeing the presence of American military forces as a danger to his people, Black Hawk organized coordinated but unsuccessful attacks on Fort Madison in 1808 and again in 1811. Unable to expel the Whites, he remained steadfast in his insistence that the disputed territory was Sauk land.
Black Hawk rejected the introduction of Christianity into native communities. He also had witnessed the negative impacts of alcohol, particularly with respect to the treaty of 1804, and advocated an abandonment of it. He continued to exert his belief that the treaty was illegal and sought a means to guarantee his people’s claim on the territory in question. The War of 1812 presented an opportunity to achieve that goal. Allying with Tecumseh and the British, Black Hawk led the Sauk against the United States. Refusing to give up even after the British capitulation, he led an attack on Fort Howard in 1815. Having sided with the British, he was armed with British guns and supplies, with which he had raided along the Mississippi. Learning of his adopted son’s death, he launched a well planned attack on Fort Howard. Black Hawk led about 30 warriors to attack the fort, occupied by the Missouri Rangers. He was enraged over the torture and murder of his adopted son. He used canoes on the Cuivre River to come ashore near the Fort, on May 24. A group of whites was caught away from the fort and were fired upon by the warriors, leaving three dead and one wounded.
Black Hawk ordered his men into a firing line and waited for the attack sure to come. The soldiers came at a run on horseback and ran into a fusillade of Indian fire, losing one soldier. The men dismounted and charged the Indians on foot, forcing them back into a large sinkhole, where they held off the soldiers. (The sinkhole is there yet today.) Again, the soldiers rushed the Indian line. Again they were beaten back, this time retiring to the fort.
Then, the Indians saw something that defied imagination. The whites had built a large boxlike structure and put axles and wheels under it. Walking within its walls, the soldiers began to fire upon the Indians with much more confidence in their rolling fort than they had ought. They did well at first, until the Indians, lying on the ground, in the sinkhole, realized that the eighteen inch gap from the box front and sides, because of it sitting on the axles, afforded a great shot up into the structure. Lt. Spear received a bullet in the forehead and the soldiers retreated. (Ed. Note: This is the first recorded use of reverse in a land vehicle.) Retreating to the fort again for the night, they soldiers called it a day.
Black Hawk figured that his son’s honor had been served and they returned home. Fifteen dead and wounded whites and several braves were victims of the last battle of the War of 1812. Tragically, the war had ended five months earlier, but word had not yet reached the area.
Mark C Carnes, Ed, U.S. History. (New York: MacMillan Library Reference, 1996).
Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About History. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003).
John Shaw, Indian Chiefs and Pioneers of the Northwest.