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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 17, 2003 - Issue 87


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Autobiography of Black Hawk
Part 5

Dictated to himself with Antoine LeClair, U.S. Interpreter and J. B. Patterson, Editor and Amanuensis, Rock Island, Illinois, 1833
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

     I started immediately with my party, by land, in pursuit, thinking that some to their boats might get aground, or that the Great Spirit would put them in our power, if he wished them taken and their people killed.  About half way up the rapids I had a full view of the boats sailing with a strong wind.  I discovered that one boat was badly managed, and was suffered to be drawn ashore by the wind.  They landed by running hard aground and lowered their sails.  The others passed on.  This boat the Great Spirit gave to us. All that could, hurried aboard, but they were unable to push off, being fast aground.  We advanced to the river's bank under cover, and commenced firing on the boat.  I encouraged my braves to continue firing. Several guns fired from the boat, but without effect. I prepared my bow and arrows to throw fire to the sail, which was lying on the boat.  After two or three attempts, I succeeded in setting it on fire.  The boat that had passed returned, dropped anchor and swung in close to one, which was on fire, taking off all the people except those who were killed or badly wounded.  We could distinctly see them passing from one boat to the other, and fired on them with good effect. We wounded the war chief in this way.  Another boat now came down, dropped her anchor, which did not take hold and drifted ashore.  The other boat cut her cable and drifted down the river, leaving their comrades without attempting to assist them.  We then commenced an attack on this boat firing several rounds, which was not returned.  We thought they were afraid or only had a few aboard.  I therefore ordered a rush towards the boat, but when we got near enough they fired, killing two of our braves - these being all we lost in the engagement.  Some of their men jumped out and shoved the boat off, and thus got away without losing a man.  I had a good opinion of this war chief, as he managed so much better than the others.  It would give me pleasure to shake him by the hand.

     We now put out the fire on the captured boat to save the cargo, when a skiff was seen coming down the river.  Some of our people cried out, "Here comes an express from Prairie du Chien." We hoisted the British flag, but they would not land.  They turned their little boat around and rowed up river.  We directed a few shots at them, but they were so far off that we could not hurt them.  I found several barrels of whisky of the captured boat, knocked in the heads and emptied the bad medicine into the river.  I next found a box full of small bottles and packages, which appeared to be bad medicine also, such as the medicine men kill the white people with when they are sick.  This I threw into the river.  Continuing my search for plunder, I found several gun, some large barrels filled with clothing, and a number of cloth lodges, all of which I distributed among my warriors. We now disposed of the dead, and returned to the Fox village opposite the lower end of Rock Island, where we put up our new lodges, and hoisted the British flag.  A great many of our braves were dressed in the uniform clothing which we had taken from the Americans, which gave our encampment the appearance of a regular camp of soldiers.  We placed out sentinels and commenced dancing over the scalps we had taken.  Soon after several boats passed down among them a very large one carrying big guns.  Our young men followed them some distance, but could do them no damage more than scare them.  We were now certain that the fort at Prairie du Chien had been taken, as this large boat up with the first party who built the fort.

     In the course of the day some of the British came down in a small boat. They had followed the large one, thinking it would get fast in the rapids, in which case they were sure of taking her.  They had summoned her on her way down to surrender, but she refused to do so, and now, that she had passed the rapids in safety, all hope of taking her had vanished.  The British landed a big gun and gave us three soldiers to manage it.  They complimented us for our bravery in taking the boat, and told us what they had done at Prairie du Chien.  They gave us a keg of rum, and joined us in our dancing and feasting.  We gave them some thing which we had taken from the boat particularly books and papers. They started the next morning, promising to return in a few days with a large body of soldiers.

     We went to work under the direction of the men left with us, and dug up the ground in two places to put the big gun in, that the men might remain in with it and be safe.  We then sent spies down the river to reconnoiter, who sent word by runner that several boats were coming up filled with men.  I marshaled my forces and was soon ready for their arrival.  I resolved to fight, as we had not yet had a fair fight with the Americans during the war.  The boats arrived in the evening, stopping at a small willow island, nearly opposite of us.  During the night we removed our big gun further down, and at daylight next morning commenced firing.  We were pleased to see that almost every shot took effect.  The British being good gunners, rarely missed.  They pushed off as quickly as possible, although I had expected they would land and give us battle. I was fully prepared to meet them but wits sadly disappointed by the boats all sailing down the river. A party of braves followed to watch where they landed, but they did not stop until they got below the Des Moines rapids, where they came ashore and commenced building a fort.  I did not want a fort in our country, as we wished to go down to the Two River country in the fall and hunt, it being our choice hunting ground, and we concluded that if this fort were built, it would prevent us from going there.  We arrived in the vicinity in the evening encamped on a high bluff for the night. We made no fire for fear of being observed, and our young men kept watch by turns while others slept. I was very tired and soon asleep.  The Great Spirit, during my slumbers, told me to go down the bluff to a creek, that I would there find a hollow tree cut down, and by looking in at the top of it, I would see a large snake with head erect - to observe the direction he was looking, and I would see the enemy close by and unarmed.  In the morning I communicated to my braves what the Great Spirit said to me, took one of them and went down a ravine that led to the creek.  I soon came in sight of the place where they were building the fort, which was on a hill at the opposite side of the creek.  A saw a great many men.  We crawled cautiously on our hands and knees until we reached the bank of the creek.  Here I found a tree that had been cut down; I looked in at the top of it and saw a large snake, with his head raised looking across a creek. I raised myself cautiously and discovered nearly opposite to me, two war chiefs walking arm in arm, without guns.  They turned and walked back towards the place the men were working at the fort.  In a little while they returned, walking directly towards the spot where we lay concealed, but did not come so near as before.  If they had they would have been killed, for each of us had a good rifle.  We crossed the creek and crawled into a cluster of bushes.  I again raised myself up to see if they were coming; but they went into the fort and by this they saved their lives.

     We crossed the creek and returned alone, going up the same ravine I came down.  My brave went down the creek, and I, on the raising brow of the hill to the left of the one we came down, could plainly see the men at work.  I saw a sentinel walking in the bottom near the mouth of the creek.  A watched him attentively, to see if he perceived my companion, who had gone towards him.  The sentinel stopped for some time and looked toward where my brave was concealed.  He walked first one way and then the other.

     I observed my brave creeping towards him, at last he lay still for a while, not even moving the grass, and as the sentinel turned to walk away, my brave fired and he fell.  I looked towards the fort, and saw the whites were in great confusion, running wildly in every direction, some down the steep bank toward a boat.  My comrade joined me, we returned to the rest of the party and all hurried back to Rock River where we arrived in safety at our village.  I hung up my medicine bag, put away my rifle and spear, feeling as if I should want them no more, as I had no desire to raise other war parties against the whites unless they gave me provocation. Nothing happened worthy of note until spring, except that the fort below the rapids had been abandoned and burned by the Americans.

     Soon after I returned from my wintering ground we received information that peace had been made between the British and the Americans, and that we were required to make peace also, and were invited to go down to Portage des Sioux, for that purpose.  Some advised that we should go down, others that we should not. Nomite, our principal chief, said he would go, as soon as the Foxes came down from the mines.

     They came and we all started from Rock River, but we had gone far before our chief was taken sick and we stopped with him at the village on Henderson River.  The Foxes went on and we were to follow as soon as our chief got better, but he rapidly became worse and soon died.  His brother now became the principal chief.  He refused to go down, saying, that if he had started, he would be taken sick and die as his brother had done.  This seemed to be reasonable, so we concluded that none of us would go at this time.  The Foxes returned.  They said. "We have smoked the pipe of peace with our enemies, and expect that the Americans will send a war party against you if you do not go down." This I did not believe, as the Americans had always lost by their armies that were sent against us.  La Gutrie and other British traders arrived at our village in the fall. La Gutrie told us that we must go down and make peace, as this was the wish of our English father.  He said he wished us to go to the Two River country in the winter, where game was plenty, as there had been no hunting there for several years.

     Having heard the principal war chief had come up with a number of troops, and commenced the erection of a fort near the Rapid des Moines, we consented to go down with the traders to visit the American chief, and tell him the reason why we had not been down sooner.  When we arrived at the head of the rapid, the traders left their goods, and all of their boats with on exception, in which they accompanied us to see the Americans.  We visited the war chief on board his boat, telling him what we had to say, and explaining why we had not been down sooner.  He appeared angry and talked to La Gutrie for some time.  I inquired of him what the war chief said.  He told me that he was treating to hang him up to the yardarm of his boat. "But" said he, "I am not afraid of what he says.  He dare not put his treats into execution.  I have done no more than I had the right to do as a British subject.

     I then addressed the chief, asking permission for ourselves and some Menomonees, to go down to the Two River country for the purpose of hunting.  He said we might go down but must return before the ice came, as he did not intend that we should winter below the fort.  "But," he inquired, "What do you want the Menomonees to go with you for?"

     I did not know at first what reply to make, but told him that they had a great many pretty squaws with them, and he wished them to go with us on that account.  He consented.  We all went down the river and remained all winter, as we had no intention of returning before spring when we asked leave to go.  We made a good hunt.  Having loaded our trader's boats with furs and peltries, they stared to Mackinac, and we returned to our village.

     There is one circumstance that I did not relate at the proper place.  It has no reference to people, or myself but to my friend Gomo, the Pottowattomie chief.  He came to the Rock River to pay me a visit, and during his stay he related to me the following story:

     "The war chief at Peoria is a very good man.  He always speaks the truth and treats our people well.  He sent for me one day, told me he was nearly out of provisions, and wished me to send my young men hunting to supply his fort.  I promised to do so, immediately returned to my camp and told my young men the wishes and wants of the war chief.  They readily agreed to do so and hunt for our friends and returned with plenty of deer.  They carried them to the fort, laid them down at the gate and returned to our camp.  A few days afterward I went again to the fort to see if they wanted any more meat.  The chief gave me powder and lead and said he wanted me to send my hunters out again.  When I returned to camp, I told one of my principle braves, and he said he would take a party and go across the Illinois, about one day's travel, where game was plenty, and make a good hunt for our friend the war chief. He took eight hunters with him, and his wife and several other squaws went with them.  They had traveled about half the day in the prairie when they discovered a party of white men coming towards them with a drove of cattle.  Our hunters apprehended no danger or they would have kept out of the way of the whites, who had not yet perceived them.  Matatah changed his course, as he wished to meet and speak to the whites.  As soon as the whites saw our party, some of them put off at full speed, and came up to our hunters.  Matatah gave up his gun to them, and endeavored to explain to them that he was friendly and was hunting for the war chief.  They were not satisfied with this but fired at and wounded him.  He got into the branches of a tree that had blown down, to keep the horses from running over him.  He was again fired on several times, and mortally wounded already, sprang at the man nearest him, seized his gun and shot him from his horse.  He then fell, covered with blood from his wounds, and immediately expired.  The other hunters being in the rear of Matatah attempted to escape, after seeing their leader so basely murdered by the whites.  They were pursued and nearly all of the party killed.  My youngest brother brought me the news in the night, he having been with the party and was slightly wounded.  He said the whites had abandoned their cattle and gone back towards the settlement.  The rest of the night was spent mourning for our friends.  At daylight I blacked my face and started for the fort to see the chief.  I met him at the gate and told him what had happened. His countenance changed and I could see sorrow depicted in it for the death of my people.  He tried to persuade me that I was mistaken, as he could not believe that the whites would act so cruelly. But when I convinced him, he said to me, 'those cowards who murdered your people shall be punished.' I told him that my people would have revenge, that they would not trouble any of his people at the fort, as we did not blame him or any of his soldiers, but that a party of my braves would go towards the Wabash to avenge the death of our friends and relations.  The next day I took a party of hunters, killed several deer, and left them at the fort gate as I passed"

     Here Gomo ended his story.  I could relate many similar ones that have come within my own knowledge and observation, but I dislike to look back and bring on sorrows afresh.  I will resume my narrative.

     The great chief at St. Louis having sent word for us to come down and confirm the treaty, we did not hesitate, but started immediately that we might smoke the peace pipe with him. On our arrival we met the great chiefs in council. They explained to us the words of our Great Father at Washington, accusing us of heinous crimes and many misdemeanors, particularly in not coming down when first invited. We knew very well that our Great Father had deceived us and thereby forced us to join the British, and could not believe that he had put this speech into the mouths of those chiefs to deliver to us. I was not a civil chief and consequently made no reply, but our civil chiefs told the commissioners that, "What you say is a lie. Our Great Father sent us no such speech, he knew that the situation in which we had been placed was caused by him." The white chiefs appeared very angry at this reply and said, "We will break off the treaty and make war against you, as you have grossly insulted us."

          Our chiefs had no intention of insulting them and told them so, saying, "we merely wish to explain that you have told us a lie, without any desire to make you angry, in the same manner that you whites do when you do not believe what is told you." The council then proceeded and the pipe of peace was smoked.

     Here for the first time, I touched the goose quill to the treaty, not knowing, however, that, by the act I consented to give away my village. Had that been explained to me I should have opposed it and never would have signed their treaty, as my recent conduct will clearly prove.

     What do we know of the manners, the laws, and the customs of the white people? They might buy our bodies for dissection, and we would touch the goose quill to confirm it and not know what we were doing. This was the case with me and my people in touching the goose quill the first time.

     We can only judge of what is proper and right by our standard of what is right and wrong, which differs widely from the whites, if I have been correctly informed. The whites may do wrong all their lives, and then if they are sorry for it when about to die, all is well, but with us it is different. We must continue to do good throughout our lives. If we have corn and meat, and know of a family that have none, we divide with them. If we have more blankets than we absolutely need, and others have not enough, we must give to those who are in want. But I will presently explain our customs and the manner in which we live.

Part 4


Part 6

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