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Battle of Bad Axe

Painting of the site of the Battle of Bad Axe (From Wisconsin Historical Society)

The Battle of Bad Axe was the culmination of the Black Hawk War.  The Black Hawk war was a military conflict between the Sauk, Meskwaki (Fox), and the United States Military, led by General Atkinson.  The conflict began in 1832 and took place in northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.  The Native Americans, led by Black Hawk, crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois.  The Native Americans moved across the Mississippi in order to settle land that their tribes used to settle.

The  Battle of Bad Axe, also known as the Bad Axe Massacre, was the final fight in the Black Hawk War.  It was a two day encounter.  The reason this battle is also known as a massacre is due to the fact that the United States Army and the steamboat Warrior slaughtered the Sauk and Fox tribes that were trying to retreat across the Mississippi River and surrender.

The Black Hawk War was fought throughout Southern Wisconsin between the Sauk and Fox Native Americans, called the British Band, and the United States Military.  The fighting took place between May and August 1832.  The Native Americans were led by Chief Black Hawk and the United States Military in the area was under the direction of Brigadier General Henry Atkinson.  The war was caused over land dispute between the government and the Native Americans.

After losing the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21, 1832, near present day Sauk City, Wisconsin,  the Native Americans retreated to the west.  They made it to the east bank of the Mississippi River near present day Victory, WI on August 1, 1832, and this was the first day of the Battle of Bad Axe.  The name of the battle comes from the close proximity to the mouth of the Bad Axe River.

On the first day of the battle, the steamboat Warrior was on the Mississippi River just off shore of the fleeing Native Americans.  The Native Americans, seeking to surrender, raised the white flag to the steamboat.  After some miscommunication, the Warrior opened fire on the Natives on shore.  After several hours of fighting, 23 Sauk were killed.  That night, Black Hawk made a move to meet up with Chippewa in the north.  Instead, realizing the United States Military was much closer than they thought, he took a small band of troops and set up a rear guard to distract the military.

August 2, 1832 was the second day of the Battle of Bad Axe.  This day is where the name the Bad Axe Massacre comes from.  The first attack of the day was the United States Military spies encountering Chief Black Hawk and his rear guard.  Fourteen Sauk were lost while one spy suffered critical wounds.  The rear guard moved towards the mouth of the Bad Axe River in a diversion attempt to lead the military away from the rest of the Sauk and Fox people.  This diversion was partially successful.  It took three fifths of the military with them.  The remaining two fifths found the rest of the Sauk and Fox people.  These two fifths pushed the Native Americans closer to the river where the steamboat Warrior was waiting.  The Native Americans were forced into the water and were caught between the Warrior and the military.  Only seventy of the four hundred Native Americans made it across the river.  The rest were killed in the water or on the banks of the Mississippi.  These seventy were captured or killed by the Sioux, long time enemies of the Sauk and who had sided with the United States.

Black Hawk was not looking for violence or bloodshed when he crossed the river.  Several attempts were made at peaceful talks on his part.  One was made before any conflict had officially begun.  Black Hawk recalled the first attempt in his autobiography.  “I received news that three or four hundred white men on horse-back had been seen about eight miles off. I immediately started three young men with a white flag to meet them and conduct them to our camp, that we might hold a council with them and descend Rock river again. I also directed them, in case the whites had encamped, to return, and I would go and see them. After this party had started I sent five young men to see what might take place. The first party went to the camp of the whites, and were taken prisoners. The last party had not proceeded far before they saw about twenty men coming toward them at full gallop. They stopped, and, finding that the whites were coming toward them in such a warlike attitude, they turned and retreated, but were pursued, and two of them overtaken and killed. The others made their escape.”[1]   This was the very early beginnings of the Black Hawk war.  The conflict occurred at Dixon’s Ferry and is known as the Battle of Stillman’s Run or the Battle of Sycamore Creek.  Even though Black Hawks goal wasn’t met, this battle is still considered a win for him and the first of the Black Hawk war.  Although Black Hawk lost his messengers, his braves managed to make Major Stillman retreat.

After several months and other engagements, Black Hawk was pressed by the military into a retreat from Wisconsin Heights.  They made their retreat to the Mississippi River at a stream called Bad Axe.  This is where the Black Hawk war ultimately ended.  Another attempt at peace was made just before the Battle of Bad Axe occurred.  Black Hawk went for his white flag with all intention of surrendering.  “We had been here but a little while before we saw a steamboat (“Warrior”) coming. I told my braves not to shoot, as I intended going on board, so that we might save our women and children. I knew the captain (Throckmorton) and was determined to give myself up to him. I then sent for my white flag. While the messenger was gone, I took a small piece of white cotton and put it on a pole, and called to the captain of the boat, and told him to send his little canoe ashore and let me come aboard. The people, on board asked whether we were Sacs or Winnebago’s. I told a Winnebago to tell them that we were Sacs, and wanted to give ourselves up! A Winnebago on the boat called out to us “to run a/id hide, that the whites were going to shoot!” About this time one of my braves had jumped into the river, bearing a white flag to the boat, when another sprang in after him and brought him to the shore. The firing then commenced from the boat, which was returned by my braves and continued for some time. Very few of my people were hurt after the first fire, having succeeded in getting behind old logs and trees, which shielded them from the enemy’s fire.”[1].  As seen by these two excerpts, the military was not looking for any form a peaceful ending to this.  They wanted the complete destruction of the Sauk that had crossed the Mississippi.  Even though the Sauk were trying to flee back across the Mississippi River.  “Early in the morning a party of whites being in advance of the army, came upon our people, who were attempting to cross the Mississippi. They tried to give themselves up; the whites paid no attention to their entreaties, but commenced slaughtering them. In a little while the whole army arrived. Our braves, but few in number, finding that the enemy paid no regard to age or sex, and seeing that they were murdering helpless women and little children, determined to fight until they were killed. As many women as could, commenced swimming the Mississippi, with their children on their backs. A number of them were drowned, and some shot before they could reach the opposite shore.”[1]  In order to try to protect his people,  Black Hawk made an attempt to lead General Atkinson away from where his the Sauk were crossing the Mississippi.  “Black Hawk, it will be remembered, with about twenty braves had been endeavoring to lead the army of Gen. Atkinson up the river, and had succeeded.  Hence, he was several miles up the Mississippi during the real engagement, and heard of it through the Indians who had escaped, as before stated.  He very justly termed this so-called battle of the Bad Axe, (because it occurred near the mouth of that small stream), a massacre.  Gov. Ford estimated the Indian loss at 150 killed and as many drowned in the river, and fifty prisoners.”[2]  This massacre on the east side of the Mississippi as well as a band of Sioux that slaughtered and of Black Hawks people that made it across the Mississippi meant the end of the Black Hawk war.

Colonel Joseph Dickson recounted his experiences of the Black Hawk war in a personal narrative.  The bulk of his writing tells about the Battle of Wisconsin Heights and the Battle of Bad Axe.  The final two battles in the war.  “In the month of May, when on the first intelligence of hostilities by the Indians, I joined a mounted company of volunteers raised at Platteville. At the organization [of the company] I was elected orderly sergeant, John H. Rountree, captain; and in that capacity I served one month, when in consequence of the absence of the captain, I was chosen to command the company and then served about one month. Then, by the order of Colonel Dodge, I took command of a spy company, and was in front of the army during the chases to Rock River, Fort Winnebago, and to the Wisconsin Heights; and at the Wisconsin Heights I with my spy company commenced the attack on a band of Indians who were kept in the rear of the retreating Indian army and chased them to the main body of Indians, when we were fired at several times, but without injury, and I returned to the advancing army without loss or injury to my command.  After the battle of the Wisconsin Heights, and the army was supplied with provisions, we again pursued the Indian trail, and I took the lead with my company and followed to the Bad Ax by command of General Atkinson. At the Battle of Bad Ax, I discovered, the evening before the battle, the trail of Black Hawk with a party of about forty Indians, to have left the main trail and gone up the river, which fact I reported to the Commanding General.   On the next morning, I with my command encountered and engaged a company of Indians at a place near to where I had the evening before discovered the trail of Black Hawk and his party. During the battle that ensued, my command killed fourteen Indians and after a short time, say half an hour’s engagement, General Dodge, with his command, and General Atkinson with his regular army, arrived at the place where I had engaged this party consisting of about forty Indians; and about the time of their arrival, we had killed and dispersed this band of Indians. The main body of the enemy had gone down the river after they entered the river bottom. I pursued with my command, passing General Henry with his command formed on the Mississippi Bottom; I crossed the slough, and engaged a squad of Indians, who were making preparations to cross the river; after which we were fired upon and returned the fire of several bands or squads of Indians, before the army arrived. After the battle was over, I was taken with others on board of a steamer which came along soon after, to Prairie du Chien, where I was properly cared for, and my wounds received suitable attention. Since which, I have spent a short period in Illinois, and the balance of the time to the present I have devoted myself to agricultural pursuits on my farm, four miles southwest of Platteville.” [3].  This manuscript gives a military soldiers perspective of the war.  It shows the enthusiasm of some of the military personal in the war.

Primary Sources

  1. J. B. Patterson, Autobiography of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk embracing the traditions of his nation, various wars in which he has been engaged, and his account of the cause and general history of the Black Hawk war of 1832, his surrender, and travels through. St. Louis: Press of Continental Print. Co., 1882.
  2. P. A. Armstrong, The Sauks and the Black Hawk war, with biographical sketches, etc. Springfield [sic] Ill.: H.W. Rokker, printer, 1887.
  3. Dickson, Joseph. “Personal narrative of the Black Hawk War, 1855.” Original manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (SC 1816).

Secondary Sources

  1. The Black Hawk War,”  Wisconsin Historical Society  
  2. Battle at Bad Axe,”  St. Paul District History
  3. The Black Hawk War of 1832,” The Black Hawk War
  4. Janson, Theresa.  “2-25 Bad Axe Massacre – Battle Isle,” Black Hawk – The Journey Home