Kilbourn’s Narrative, A Reminiscence of Black Hawk

From the Soldier’s Cabinet

Much has been said both for and against the Indian character; but we doubt whether greater or nobler qualities have ever been exhibited in the conduct of civilized rulers or commanders than are shown in the incidents we are about to relate concerning Black Hawk, whose deeds upon the northwestern frontier will render his name illustrious while history exists.

Elijah Kilbourn, the subject of the great chieftain’s kindness, and to whom we are indebted for the present sketch, was a native of Pennsylvania. Just before the outbreak of the late war with Great Britain, he left the place of his birth to join the stirring scenes of adventure on the borders; and although now an old man, he still remembers, and loves to recount, the deed, and perils of his younger days, and especially those we are about to record.

“We had been,” commenced Kilbourn, in whose own language the story shall be given, “scouting through the country that lay about Fort Stephenson, when early one morning one of our number came in with the intelligence that the Fort was besieged by a combined force of British and Indians. We were very soon after in our saddles, bearing down with all speed in that direction for the express purpose of joining in the fight–but on arriving, we found that the enemy had been signally repulsed by the brave little garrison under the command of Major Crogan. Our disappointment at learning this was, however, in a measure lessened, when we learned that Black Hawk, the leader of the savages, had, soon after the termination of the battle, gone with some twenty of his warriors back to his village on Rock river, whither we instantly determined to follow him.

“At sunrise the next morning we were on his trail, and followed it with great care to the banks of a stream. Here we ascertained that the savages had separated into nearly equal parties–the one keeping straight down the banks of the stream, while the other had crossed to the other side and continued on toward Rock river. A council was now held, in which the oldest members of our party gave it as their opinion that Black Hawk had changed his intention of going to his village, and had, with the greater part of his followers, pursued his way down the stream, while the rest had been sent by him for some purpose to the town. In this opinion all coincided; but still our leader, who was a very shrewd man, had some doubts on his mind concerning the movements of the chief, and therefore, to make everything sure, he detailed four of us to follow the trail across the stream, while he with the rest, some seven or eight in number, immediately took the one down the bank.

“We soon after found ourselves alone and in the vicinity of Indian settlements, and we were therefore obliged to move with the utmost caution, which had the effect of rendering our progress extremely slow. During the course of the following morning we came across a great many different trails and by these we were so perplexed that we resolved to return to the main body; but from the signs we had already seen we knew that such a step would be attended with the greatest risk, and so it was at last decided that it would be far more safe for all hands to separate, and each man look out for himself. This resolve was no sooner made than it was put into execution, and a few minutes later found me alone in the great wilderness. I had often been so before, but never before had I been placed in a situation as dangerous as the present one, for now on all sides I was surrounded by foes, who would rejoice in the shedding of my blood. But still I was not gong to give up easily, and looking well to my weapons and redoubling my caution, I struck off at an angle from the course I had first chosen, why I hardly knew.

“I encountered nothing very formidable till some two hours before sunset, when, just as I emerged from a tangled thicket, I perceived an Indian on his knees at a clear, sparkling spring, from which he was slaking his thirst. Instinctively I placed my rifle to my shoulder, drew a bead upon the savage and pulled the trigger. Imagine, if you can, my feelings as the flint came down and was shivered to pieces while the priming remained unignited.

“The next moment the savage was up on his feet, his piece leveled directly at me and his finger pressing the trigger. There was no escape; I had left my horse in the woods some time before. The thicket behind me was too dense to permit me to enter it again quickly, and there was no tree within reach of sufficient size to protect me from the aim of my foe, who, now finding me at his mercy, advanced, his gun still in its threatening rest, and ordered me to surrender. Resistance and escape were alike out of the question, and I accordingly delivered myself up his prisoner, hoping by some means or other to escape at some future period. He now told me, in good English, to proceed in a certain direction. I obeyed him, and had not gone a stone’s throw before, just as I turned a thick clump of trees, I came suddenly upon an Indian camp, the one to which my captor undoubtedly belonged.

“As we came up all the savages, some six or eight in number, rose quickly and appeared much surprised at my appearing thus suddenly amongst their umber; but they offers d me no harm, and they behaved with most marked respect to my captor, whom, upon a close inspection, I recognized to be Black Hawk himself.

“‘The White mole digs deep, but Makataimeshekiakiak (Black Hawk) flies high and can see far off,’ said the chieftain is a deep, gutteral tone, addressing me.

“He then related to his followers the occasion of my capture, and as he did so they glared on me fiercely and handled their weapons in a threatening manner, but at the conclusion of his remarks they appeared better pleased, although I was the recipient of many a passing frown. He now informed me that he had told his young men that they were to consider me a brother, as he was going to adopt me into the tribe.

“This was to me but little better than death itself, but there was no alternative and so I was obliged to submit, with the hope of making my escape at some future time. The annunciation of Black Hawk, moreover, caused me great astonishment, and after pondering the matter I was finally forced to set down as its cause one of those unaccountable whims to which the savage temperament is often subject.

“The next morning my captors forced me to go with them to their village on Rock river, where, after going through a tedious ceremony, I was dressed and painted, and thus turned from a white man into an Indian.

“For nearly three years ensuing it was my constant study to give my adopted brothers the slip, but during the whole of that time I was so carefully watched and guarded that I never found an opportunity to escape.

“However, it is a long lane that has no turning, and so it proves in my case. Pretending to be well satisfied with my new mode of life, I at last gained upon the confidence of the savages, and one day when their vigilance was considerably relaxed, I made my escape and returned in safety to my friends, who had mourned for me as dead.

“Many years after this I was a participant in the battle at Sycamore Creek, which, as you know, is a tributary of Rock river. I was employed by the government as a scout, in which capacity it was acknowledged that I had no superior; but I felt no pride in hearing myself praised, for I knew I was working against Black Hawk, who, although he was an Indian, had once spared my life, and I was one never to forget a kindness. And besides this I had taken a great liking to him, for there was something noble and generous in his nature. However, my first duty was to my country, and I did my duty at all hazards.

“Now you must know that Black Hawk, after moving west of the Mississippi, had recrossed, contrary to his agreement, not, however, from any hostile motive, but to raise a crop of corn and beans with the Pottawattomie and Winnebago, of which his own people stood in the utmost need. With this intention he had gone some distance up Rock river, when an express from General Atkinson ordered him peremptorily to return. This order the old chief refused to obey, saying that the General had no right to issue it. A second express from Atkinson threatened Black Hawk that if he did not return peaceably, force would be resorted to. The aged warrior became incensed at this and utterly refused to obey the mandate, but at the same time sent word to the General that he would not be the first one to commence hostilities.

“The movement of the renowned warrior was immediately trumpeted abroad as an invasion of the State, and with more rashness thin wisdom, Governor Reynolds ordered the Illinois militia to take the field, and these were joined by the regulars, under General Atkinson, at Rock Island. Major Stillman, having under his command two hundred and seventy-five mounted men, the chief part of whom were volunteers, while a few like myself were regular scouts, obtained leave of General Whitesides, then lying at Dixon’s Ferry, to go on a scouting expedition.

“I knew well what would follow; but still, as I was under orders, I was obliged to obey, and together with the rest proceeded some thirty miles up Rock river to where Sycamore creek empties into it. This brought us to within six or eight miles of the camp of Black Hawk, who, on that day–May 14th-was engaged in preparing a dog feast for the purpose of fitly celebrating a contemplated visit of some Pottawattomie chiefs.

“Soon after preparing to camp we saw three Indians approach us bearing a white flag; and these, upon coming up, were made prisoners. A second deputation of five were pursued by some twenty of our mounted militia, and two of them killed, while the other three escaped. One of the party that bore the white flag was, out of the most cowardly vindictiveness, shot down while standing a prisoner in camp. The whole detachment, after these atrocities, now bore down upon the camp of Black Hawk, whose braves, with the exception of some forty or fifty, were away at a distance.

“As we rode up, a galling and destructive fire was poured in upon us by the savages, who, after discharging their guns, sprung from their coverts on either side, with their usual horrible yells, and continued the attack with their tomahawks and knives. My comrades fell around me like leaves; and happening to cast my eyes behind me, I beheld the whole detachment of militia flying from the field. Some four or five of us were left unsupported in the very midst of the foe, who, renewing their yells, rushed down upon us in a body. Gideon Munson and myself were taken prisoners, while others were instantly tomahawked and scalped. Munson, during the afternoon, seeing, as he supposed, a good opportunity to escape, recklessly attempted to do so, but was immediately shot down by his captor. And I now began to wish that they would serve me in the same manner, for I knew that if recognized by the savages, I should be put to death by the most horrible tortures. Nothing occurred, however, to give me any real uneasiness upon this point till tile following morning, when Black Hawk, passing by me, turned and eyed me keenly for a moment or so. Then, stepping close to me, he said in a low tone: “Does the mole think that Black Hawk forgets?”

“Stepping away with a dignified air, he now left me, as you may well suppose, bordering in despair, for I knew too well the Indian character to imagine for a single instant that my life would be spared under the circumstances. I had been adopted into the tribe by Black Hawk, had lived nearly three years among them, and by escaping had incurred their displeasure, which could only be appeased with my blood. Added to this, I was now taken prisoner at the very time that the passions of the savages were most highly wrought upon by tile mean and cowardly conduct of the whites. I therefore gave up all hope, and doggedly determined to meet stoically my fate.

“Although the Indians passed and repassed me many times during the day, often bestowing on me a buffet or a kick, yet not one of them seemed to remember me as having formerly been one of the tribe. At times this infused me with a faint hope, which was always immediately after extinguished, as I recalled to mind my recognition by Black Hawk himself.

“Some two hours before sunset Black Hawk again came to where I was bound, and having loosened the cords with which I was fastened to a tree, my arms still remaining confined, bade me follow him. I immediately obeyed him, not knowing what was to be my doom, though I expected none other than death by torture. In silence we left the encampment, not one of the savages interfering with us or offering me the slightest harm or indignity. For nearly an hour we strode on through the gloomy forest, now and then starting from its retreat some wild animal that fled upon our approach. Arriving at a bend of the river my guide halted, and turning toward the sun, which was rapidly setting, he said, after a short pause:

“‘I am going to send you back to your chief, though I ought to kill you for running away a long time ago, after I had adopted you as a son–but Black Hawk can forgive as well as fight. When you return to your chief I want you to tell him all my words. Tell him that Black Hawk’s eyes have looked upon many sum, but they shall not see many more; and that his back is no longer straight, as in his youth, but is beginning to bend with age. The Great Spirit has whispered among the tree tops in the morning and evening and says that Black Hawk’s days are few, and that he is wanted in the spirit land. He is half dead, his arm shakes and is no longer strong, and his feet are slow on the war path. Tell him all this, and tell him, too,’ continued the untutored hero of the forest, with trembling emotion and marked emphasis, ‘that Black Hawk would have been a friend to the whites, but they would not let him, and that the hatchet was dug up by themselves and not by the Indians. Tell your chief that Black Hawk meant no harm to the pale faces when he came across the Mississippi, but came peaceably to raise corn for his starving women and children, and that even then he would have gone back, but when he sent his white flag the braves who carried it were treated like squaws and one of them inhumanly shot. Tell him too,’ he concluded with terrible force, while his eyes fairly flashed fire, “that Black Hawk will have revenge,” and that he will never stop until the Great Spirit shall say to him, “come away.”

“Thus saying he loosened the cord that bound my arms, and after giving me particular directions as to the best course to pursue to my own camp, bade me farewell and struck off into the trackless forest, to commence that final struggle which was decided against the Indians.

“After the war was over, and the renowned Black Hawk had been taken prisoner, he was sent to Washington and the largest cities of the seaboard, that he might be convinced how utterly useless it was for him to contend against fate. It was enough, and the terrible warrior returned to the seclusion of his wilderness home, while the scepter of his chieftainship was given to the celebrated Keokuk.

“On the occasion of the ceremony by which Black Hawk was shorn of his power, and which took place on Rock Island, in the Mississippi, I shook the hand of the great chief, who appeared highly pleased to meet me once more; and upon parting with me he said with mournful dignity, as he cast above him a glance of seeming regret: ‘My children think I am too old to lead them any more!’

“This was the last time I ever saw him; and the next I learned of him was that he had left his old hunting grounds forever, and his spirit had gone to that bar where the balance will be rightly adjusted between the child of the forest and his pale face brethren.”

Although the Winnebago and the Pottawattomie had resolved to take no part in the war, a few young men from each of these tribes, being emboldened by Black Hawk’s victory in the engagement with Stillman’s regiment, concluded to join him. As the party moved up the river, war parties were sent out, in one of which the Winnebago joined, whilst the Pottawattomie, some twenty-five or thirty, went alone on the war path into a settlement that had been made on Indian creek, not far from its entrance into Fox river, and killed fifteen men, women and children, and took two young ladies prisoners, the Misses Hall, whom two young Sacs, who had just rode up, took upon their horses and carried them to a Winnebago camp, with a request that they be delivered to the whites. They were returned soon after, and to the writer said they had been well treated by the Winnebago.

On the 19th of Jane a message came into Galena from Kellogg’s Grove, with a report that a party of Indians had been seen in that neighborhood and that they had stolen some horses. Captain James Stephenson, with twelve picked men from his company, started immediately in pursuit of the Indians. On seeing him approach they took to the brush, when the Captain and his men dismounted. Leaving one to hold the horses, the balance entered the thicket, and two of them were killed at the first fire of the Indians, while three of the enemy were laid prostrate. For the purpose of re-loading, Capt. Stephenson ordered a retreat, which was a bad move, as it gave the Indians time to re-load and seek trees for safety. Capt. Stephenson1 and party again advanced, both parties firing simultaneously, each losing a man, when an Indian who had been secreted behind a tree rushed forward with his knife, but was suddenly checked by one of the soldiers running his bayonet through him. While in this position he seized the bayonet with both hands and had almost succeeded in pushing it out, when another soldier rushed forward, and with one stroke of his knife almost severed the head from his body. In this engagement Capt. S. lost three of the best men of his company and the Indians five, just one-half of their number.

1On the return of Capt. Stephenson and party the news of his loss of three men, who were well known and highly respected, soon spread over town and caused much sorrow among their many friends. After learning the mode of attack, military men generally criticized it severely.

1 Capt. Stephenson was held in high estimation as a brave and accomplished gentleman, and at the organization of Rock Island county the county commissioners honored his name by calling the county seat Stephenson, which name it retained until after his death, when that of Rock Island was adopted.


Kilbourn, Stephenson,

Black Hawk, Patterson, J. B., editor, Leclair, Atoine, interpreter  Autobiography of Black Hawk or Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, Self Published by J. B. Patterson, 1882.

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