Left Justified: The true history of the theft of Rockford

Left Justified: The true history of the theft of Rockford

By Stanley Campbell

This is the 150th anniversary of the founding of Rockford as a town, and there will be a lot of hoopla commemorating its long and glorious history.

During the 100th anniversary in 1952 (yes, programs are still available in the antique malls), Rockford celebrated its history with a number of theatrical performances, one of which included how we acquired the land from the Indians. The natives apparently granted the whites free reign. Some people know that the Native Americans who inhabited this land (the Sauk and Fox tribes) were none too happy when farmers moved in and took over their cornfields. The natives farmed along the Rock River all the way up into Wisconsin, raising corn, squash and a myriad variety of herbs. During the winter, they’d move into Iowa and return in the spring, but by 1830, the Sauk/Fox found their better tillable land taken by the whites.

No one knows how it was done, but in 1804 before Illinois became a state, some young bucks signed a treaty in St. Louis granting the United States access to the land in 10 years. The tribal leaders were appalled when they heard about it, but few had the courage to stand up to the Americans and their firepower. Already, gunships were steaming up and down the Mississippi, and militia units were being formed among the settlers. Black Hawk (not a chief but truly a warrior) wanted to protest the treaty and talked about 200 tribesmen, women and children into returning to their farmlands. In spring of 1832, they crossed the Mississippi and approached Rock Island at the mouth of the Rock River. The villagers quickly fled, sounding the alarm north, east and south. It didn’t take long for the Illinois governor to call out the militia. Soldiers who volunteered were paid a per diem amount, provided a horse and ammunition, and all the whiskey they could drink.

Their first meeting came after Black Hawk’s force moved past Dixon’s outpost. At a small stream called Old Man’s Creek, or, as it was quickly renamed, “Stillman’s Run,” Major Isaiah Stillman with a force of 275 men, attacked a group of Indians under a white flag. Black Hawk had just finished talking to other tribes he was trying to rally and heard that a large force of Americans was just up the creek. He decided to capitulate and sent three young men with a white flag to meet them. At first, Major Stillman’s men thought they were settlers, but when they realized the color of the visitors’ skin, they began shooting. That so angered Black Hawk that he ordered a charge, expecting, he later confessed, “that we would all be killed.” The result was an absolute surprise. The American forces retreated in confusion before 25 braves. The Sauks overran the American camp, and in the resulting melee, at least 11 Americans died. At least 40 militiamen not accounted for had deserted. This put the fear of God in the state government, and Governor John Reynolds called for the U.S. Army. Black Hawk knew the whites would come gunning for him and his small tribe, so he made plans to move them to the headwaters of the Rock: Horicon Marsh. His people were massacred as they tried to make it across the Mississippi, back to their home in Iowa.

Since then, we haven’t seen too many of those uppity Indians, but we’ve got more than enough drunk militiamen.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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