A memoir of the Black Hawk War and the Founding of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin (1833)

A memoir of the Black Hawk War and the Founding of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin (1833)

Smith, Henry (1798 – 1847), Indian Campaign of 1832. Holograph manuscript, 1833. 18 pp. 10 x 8 inches, approximately 4500 words. Authorial corrections throughout. Near Fine.

     Henry Smith’s memoir has long been recognized as one of the major sources chronicling the Black Hawk War and the founding of Fort Koshkonong (later, Fort Atkinson, WI). The conflict against the Sauk and Fox tribes lasted only a few months, from April to August 1832, but it had an enormous impact on the U.S. Government’s Indian policy, inspiring the practice of removing people from their lands to reservations west of the Mississippi.


Portrait of Henry Smith from Talcott Enoch Wing, History of Monroe County, Michigan (New York: Munsell & Co., 1890), opp. p. 297.

     Smith was born in Stillwater, New York, and attended West Point, where he graduated in 1815 (Cullum’s Register 139). He served in a series of administrative posts in the 2nd Infantry, including a brief stint in 1823 as Aide-de-Camp to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, after whom Smith would name his son. Transferred to the 6th Infantry, he was promoted to Captain in 1826. He was on frontier duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, when the Black Hawk War broke out, and served in the “Army of the Frontier” organized by Gen. Henry Atkinson to pursue the Indian warriors across Michigan Territory (now Wisconsin). Smith fought in the Bad Axe Massacre of August 1-2, 1832, which provided a decisive end to the conflict. When the war was over, Smith served on engineer duty until 1836, when he resigned and entered civilian life. He salted his work as a Civil Engineer supervising harbor improvements on Lake Erie and as a Major General in the Michigan Militia with several political positions, including two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives and one as mayor of Monroe, MI. With the outbreak of the War with Mexico in 1847, Smith was reappointed in the Army at the rank of Major. He was killed in action in Veracruz on July 24, 1847.
     Smith’s memoir of the war against Black Hawk’s forces is lengthy and richly detailed. He was among the men of the 6th Infantry under Gen. Atkinson who left Jefferson Barracks on 8 April 1832 and arrived at Rock Island on 12 April to demand retribution from “the war party who had committed the murders at Prairie des Chiens.” Although he acknowledges that the Saux and Fox Indians were “almost always "more sinned against than sinning,” Smith blames them wholly for perpetuating the conflict:

Up to this time, it appeared to have been the general belief of the officers of the army, as it certainly was of the writer of this, that the Indians … would under the forbearing, dignified and determined course pursued by the General be brought to a sense of their conduct  situation, and induced to comply with the demands of the Government. But we were soon to be undeceived: the messengers returned, greatly alarmed after having been abused and insulted; and compelled to escape at the risk of their lives. They brought from the Indians the most insolent and bullying replies to the General's message --- generally, in amount, laughing at his demands and challenging the Americans to come against them.

Smith recounts the journey to the village of the Prophet Wabokieshiek, where he learns of the defeat of the battalion of militia under the command of Maj. Isaiah Stillman. “Among the sufferers,” he writes, “the fate of no one excited more sympathy than that of Felix St. Vrain, Esq., Indian agent for the Sauks & Foxes, who had accompanied the army to Dixon's ferry, where he had obtained leave to return and secure his family at Rock Island. On his way to
Galena, with a party of seven, they were attacked by a large party of Indians under command of the Prophet, and Mr. St. Vrain and three others most barbarously murdered --- the others made their escape.”


An map of the territory covered by Henry Smith during the Black Hawk War, with Lake Koshkonong prominently featured. From Rufus Blanchard, The discovery and conquests of the Northwest: including the early history of Chicago, Detroit, Vincennes, St. Louis, Ft. Wayne, Prairie du Chien, Marietta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, etc... (Chicago : Cushing, Thomas & Co., 1890), opposite p. 384.

     Smith recounts the hardships of their trek through a swampy and unfamiliar wilderness, describing geographical features recognizable today:

After a perplexing march of twelve or fifteen miles we arrived, when the Indians assured the General with one voice that further advance was impossible, having arrived as they said at a wilderness of that description of morass called by the French Terre tremblant.


He is more circumspect when it comes to the details of engagement. Of the decisive battle at Bad Axe River he writes, “Suffice it to say, that quarters were in no instance asked or granted.” Smith recounts also the cholera that swept through the camps, then under the command of Gen. Scott, in late August 1832. The memoir ends with the demobilization of the troops on September 28th.


A revised version of the present manuscript was published in 1833.

     Smith published his memoir of the Black Hawk War in the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States (vol. 1, no. 6, August 1833, pp. 321-33). The present manuscript hews closely to the published version, but there are some differences between the two. The editors dropped the opening paragraph of the manuscript, and some other phrases and passages, and appear to have made some other emendations for publication. In addition to being an extraordinary relic of the US government’s war with the Sauk and Fox Indians, the manuscript should also offer opportunities for research.


Historical marker at the site of Fort Koshkonong, Smith's base during the period covered in this memoir. Photo by the Daily Jefferson County Union.

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    A memoir of the Black Hawk War and the Founding of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin (1833)