The easiest way to reach the pinacles of political power in the early 1800s Upper Mississippi River region was on the back of as many Indians as you could kill. In the spring of 1832, the Governor of the new state of Illinois, John Reynolds, knew this better than anyone. The northern Mississippi region of Illinois had, for centuries, been the home of the Sauk and Fox Indians. Now, the white settlers were moving in hundreds of thousands strong and ready to make Illinois their home as well.
When the 65-year-old Sauk Chieftain Black Sparrow Hawk objected to the new white settlers and moved his peoples back to Illinois from Iowa in their normal migratory patterns, Reynolds saw his opportunity to wipe out the Sauk and increase his popularity. He called for volunteers to rid Illinois of the Sauk. This militia met up with Black Hawk in northern Illinois in May of 1832. Seeing that he was extremely outnumbered, Black Hawk sent a peace delegation under a flag of truce to discuss the terms of surrender.
The ragtag and drunken militia, under the command of Isaiah Stillman, fired on and killed some of the peace delegation. Black Hawk felt if his people were to die, they should at least die fighting; so he sent out his few warriors to take on Stillman's men. The militia's liquor-fueled confidence soon evaporated when they began to see the Sauk, weapons in hand, ready for combat. The militia panicked and fled. Black Hawk was amazed at his victory; Reynolds was equally amazed at his militia's cowardice and poor discipline. More Illinoisians would volunteer to avenge this embarassment there after known as the 'Battle' of Stillman's Run.
Black Hawk meanwhile lead his people on an escape into Michigan Territory (now southern Wisconsin). They numbered 700 and included many elderly, women, and children. Pursuing Black Hawk into this territory were two armed units. The first was a volunteer militia made up of Illinoisians and soon-to-be Wisconsinites under the command of Generals Henry Dodge and James Henry. The second was a division of regular U.S. Army troops with volunteers under the command of General Henry Atkinson.
During about a month on the run, Black Hawk's band ran out of food and the people began to starve and die. Many started to eat bark from trees and wild weeds. With Dodge and Henry close on their heels, the Sauk barely had time to bury their dead. Black Hawk knew he had to get his people home to Illinois. He planned to travel through Four Lakes (now Madison, Wisconsin) to get to the Wisconsin River. His people would then float down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi River and then down to their Homeland. Black Hawk had to avoid Dodge, Henry, and Atkinson at all costs; the lives of his people depended on it. This had been a retreat for the Indians since Stillman's Run, but history (which will be written by whites) will remember it as the Black Hawk War.