Illuminating study of that least-known of America’s Indian wars, which made Illinois safe for corn and industry.
As historians such as Jill Lepore and Charles Mann are ever more plainly demonstrating, white/Indian conflict was more complex than the old grand narrative has it. Trask (History/Univ. of Wisconsin-Manitowoc) adds materially to this new history with this engrossing study of the Black Hawk War of 1832, when Sauk Indians driven west by white expansion into Illinois and Iowa abruptly turned back and fought a desperate guerrilla war that briefly looked as if it might succeed. As Trask shows, the war had several proximate causes: The Sauk found themselves pressed up against the Menominee and Sioux, who pushed them back toward the pale of white settlements. The Army had been demobilized, so that the frontier was staffed by a handful of men who were satisfied with “bad food, slavish labor, harsh discipline, social isolation, and the general absence of respect granted to soldiers by the society as a whole.” The Sauk considered the militia to be just as worthless. And under the leadership of elders such as Black Hawk, the Sauk stayed off liquor and were culturally conservative, which bound them together come time to fight. Fight they did, destroying farms, mines and other settlements along the Mississippi until poor weather, illness and superior enemy arms broke them. At turns, Trask reveals characters who will turn up at other points in American history: Jefferson Davis, Philip St. George Cooke, Alexander Hamilton’s son William and Black Hawk himself, his name now preserved in that of a hockey team. He also links his unhappy narrative of war to a curious “national identity crisis” that pitted sympathetic northeastern types against frontier people who would just as soon kill Indians as look at them—an early hint of the red state/blue state division.
Lucid and accessible, even as the author tracks a multifaceted, ultimately tragic tale.