Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black Hawk and 1832

I'll confess I had little knowledge of the, to quote Josiah Holden, "season of the Black Hawk War." So I thought I'd try and find out a little more about this event in the westward expansion of the United States. This is probably obvious to most, which explains why I figured it out so late in life, that our ancestors did not exist in a vacuum. They lived in communities and had the same worries we do today, a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and clothes on their backs. Political and economic factors had profound affects upon our ancestors, which reminds me of the old saw, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Josiah mentions he started for Illinois in 1834. What is significant about this, is the United States was experiencing an unprecedented round of economic expansion. The future looked bright for the United States. Rarely do things always go as they seem like they should, however. 1836 saw huge immigration to the west. A great example of this is Michigan. It has been estimated that the population of Michigan quadrupled in 1836 alone! Then 1837 arrived. The image above comes from the Library of Congress and sums up the mood of the country.

1837 saw the collapse of the banking system - sound familiar? This plunged the U. S. into a huge recession which lasted about five years. No one had money. More importantly for the developing frontiers, demand for raw products, like lumber, iron ore, and surplus agricultural goods literally evaporated over night. You may wonder why your ancestor moved in the late 1830s, it could be an economic reason. Perhaps they were escaping debt in one area, or perhaps they thought there might be more opportunities somewhere else. The same goes for those ancestors who may have gone west in 1836. You can't find them in 1840, try looking eastward. Quite a few of these early arrivals simply gave up and went back towards 'home'.

So just what was the Black Hawk War? It occurred in 1831-32 and ended up like most conflicts with Native Americans, loss of many lives and even more pain and suffering for the Indians. Black Hawk was an Indian leader, pictured at right in a McKinney and Hall lithograph done in the late 1830s. He, unfortunately, lived at a time when the Native Americans were being pushed ever westward by a sea of white settlers. Often the lands on which the white settlers located came from dubious land treaties procured with gallons of whiskey and granted by Indian leaders who may not have had the authority to cede all the lands included in the treaties. Such was the case for Black Hawk's people.

The land of Black Hawk and his people had been taken by such a method. Of course the white population didn't see it in the same light. So when Black Hawk and about 1000 other Indians returned to their ancestral home in northern Illinois, wide spread panic occurred on the part of the white settlers. The Governor of Illinois declared this an invasion of Illinois and he called up the militia. If you click on the link you can read all about the Black Hawk War. What I found amazing is all of the famous individuals who took part in the fighting, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Zachary Taylor, just to name a few.

I don't know about you, but whenever I look at my ancestors, I always think about the Native Americans who lived on the land before my ancestors arrived. It really must have been a cultural clash on a magnitude 9 scale. Obviously we cannot change the past - but we can learn from the past.


  1. As I recall, this was Lincoln's only military service, and the "war" was over before he arrived on the scene... but it is always mentioned in his bios!
    Historians, feel free to correct me, if I'm wrong...
    I enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing.
    Keep these ancestor stories coming!

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. I understand that Jefferson Davis saw little 'action' either. He had more to do with the Indian leaders after the war.

  3. I suppose if I lived in Michigan I would have heard about this war.. I will read up on it.

    The interesting thing about the recessions of long ago is that there was no support for the masses, everyone had to eke out an existence for themselves. When my grandfather died in 1921 my grandmother had to clean houses to earn a living to support two children.