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Clues to a Family Mystery

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

I am encouraged to say that this past month, I have been much more productive with my writing/editing. I am also looking forward to the holidays this year, as all my adult children are back in town. What a blessing it is to have our family with us!

In the previous newsletter, I talked about mining in the Black Hills in the late 19th century and shared a favorite ghost story of mine. If you missed that one, you may find it here. This month I wanted to talk about some interesting history I uncovered recently related to the Black Hawk War that took place between the United States and a mixed group of Native Americans, known at the “British Band,” led by Black Hawk in Illinois in 1832.

This “British Band” was made up of 1500 Native Americans from the Sauk, Meskwakis (Fox), Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Ottawa, and Kickapoo tribes. They got their name due to their alliance with the British during the War of 1812 and their habit of displaying the British flag in their settlements. There were only 500 warriors in this group. The rest were women and children.

On November 3, 1804, William Henry Harrison signed the Treat of St. Louis with representatives from the Sauk and Meskwakis tribes led by Quashquame. In this treaty, the tribes agreed to give up a swath of land stretching from the Wisconsin River in the north, through western Illinois between the Fox and Illinois Rivers and the Mississippi, down to the Missouri River. In exchange, the United States government agreed to pay the tribes annually $1000 worth of goods to be delivered to them in St. Louis, Missouri.

Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe and his followers did not like the treaty and argued that Quashquame did not have the authority to sign it on their behalf. This was why he sided with the British in the War of 1812 hoping to hang onto the land. After the war with the British, many of the tribes continued to use the land ceded to the U.S. for the next two decades until the government finally surveyed the land and sold it to U.S. settlers starting in 1828. Indian Agent Thomas Forsyth informed the tribes that they would have to move across the Mississippi.

At this time, most of the tribes followed Keokuk into Iowa to avoid conflict with the U.S. Black Hawk, however, refused to give up his homeland in Saukenuk, Illinois. An interesting irony here worth noting is that neither Keokuk nor Black Hawk were civil chiefs, and yet they each had many followers. Black Hawk had been a military leader during the War of 1812, while Keokuk had argued after their defeat in 1812, that the tribes should avoid war with the U.S. because they did not have the strength to win such an armed conflict.

It was common for the tribes to plant corn on the eastern side of the Mississippi in the spring and stay through the fall harvest and then to cross over to the west in the winter to hunt. In 1829 when Black Hawk and his band arrived in Saukenuk in the Spring, he discovered U.S. settlers already living on the land. After months of clashes, the Sauks left in September to recross the Mississippi. But Black Hawk returned, against the advice of Keokuk and Forsyth in the spring of 1830 and then again in 1831. On June 25th, General Edmund Gaines sent troops to confront Black Hawk. When they arrived, they discovered that the tribe had already retreated into Iowa. Then on June 30th, Black Hawk, Quashquame, and other Sauk leaders met with Gaines and signed an agreement promising to remain west of the Mississippi.

Black Hawk started the war named after him when he and his followers crossed the Mississippi River again in April of 1832. His motives were somewhat unclear, though it is thought that he was trying to regain lost land through this action. He may have been acting on the hope given to him when Neapope, a Sauk civil chief, returned from Fort Malden in late 1831 and told him that the British and other Illinois tribes were ready to support them against the United States, though there is no evidence that this was the case and the proposed help never materialized.

Initially, Black Hawk and his tribe had a victory at Stillman’s Run, when he attacked a militia group under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman causing them to retreat. Then after finding safe haven for the women, children, and older members in nearby Ho-Chunks and Potawatomis villages, his warriors began raiding U.S. settlements. This led to the reorganization of the U.S. militia into the “Army of the Frontier,” under the command of General Atkinson, which now included 629 regular army infantrymen and 3,196 mounted militia volunteers.

Many of the local tribes were opposed to Black Hawk’s raids fearing that it would lead to U.S. attacks on their villages too. However, when Black Hawk heard about the reorganized army, he sent out more raids and then on June 24, 1832, he attacked the newly build Apple River Fort where local residents were taking refuge. Women and girls defended the fort with loaded muskets and molded bullets, forcing Black Hawk to retreat after several of his men had been killed.

Meanwhile President Andrew Jackson had dispatched General Winfield Scott with 950 troops west to take command of Atkinson’s forces. Atkinson stepped up his campaigns hoping to defeat Black Hawk before Scott arrived. From this point on, Black Hawk was on the run. On July 21, 1832, the militiamen caught up to the British Band near present-day Sauk City, Wisconsin. Black Hawk and Neapope attacked the militia’s rear guard hoping to slow them down so that the women and children could cross the Wisconsin River. They were desperately outnumbered and lost 68 warriors, over half their remaining number, to only one American militiaman. The women and children were able to get across the river.

At this point, Black Hawk yelled across the river that he would not fight anymore and said that they would retreat across the Mississippi, but there was no one on the American side to translate what he said. The result was the tragic defeat of Black Hawk at the Battle Axe River. The British Band had been reduced to 500 members of which only 150 were warriors. Of this number 260 were killed or drowned trying to cross the river to safety.

When General Scott arrived late to the battle, he sent 100 soldiers along with 150 Dakota volunteers, and some additional Ho-Chunks after the fleeing British Band. The Dakotas killed 68 and took another 22 prisoners. The Ho-Chunk also returned with an additional 50 – 60 scalps. It is estimated that of the original 1,100 members of the British Band, 450 to 600 were killed and 77 American settlers, militiamen, and soldiers were casualties of the war. Black Hawk was eventually captures and imprisoned, during which time he and several other captured Native American leaders became celebrities for the American public eager to see the legendary warriors. This historical background was necessary to perhaps help shed light on what follows.

My 4x great-grandfather, Jacob Heater, is my great-grandmother Betha’s great-grandfather (Bertha was the Pioneer woman discussed in my September newsletter). His is pictured left. He was born on 11 May 1808 in Pickaway, Ohio, and then moved to Vermillion County Illinois, with his pioneer family when he was fifteen years old. He married Catherine Ganoe (Etienne Gayneau, who is featured in my books Thrown to the Wind and A Home in the Wilderness, is her 2x great-grandfather) on Christmas Day in 1828 in Vermillion County, Illinois, four years before the Black Hawk War began.

Catherine, born in 1807, was the daughter of Elijah John Ganoe, born in 1781 in Ohio and who fought in the War of 1812, and a woman, who according to family oral history was from the Meswakis (Fox) tribe. Her name is unknown. Many other sources claim that Catherine’s mother was Ellender (Evans) Ganoe, but it is clear that she was his second wife, as they did not marry until 1828.

There is no official record of Elijah’s first wife, but I did find a note in an old family genealogy record that claims that confirms that Jackson Heater’s grandmother was from the Fox Tribe. Jackson Heater is Jacob and Catherine’s son, and the ancestor from which my family descends. It would make sense that if Catherine’s mother was in fact a Native American that there would not be any official records of it, especially since the region in which they lived was still a sparsely populated wilderness territory at the time. This region is also known to be inhabited by the Meswakis tribe at this time.

It seems that Jacob Heater, husband to a half-Meswakis, fought in the Black Hawk War and was granted forty acres of land for his service. This land was the first he owned in his own right and may be a reason why he joined the militia. Presumably, Catherine’s mother had died by this time, since her father remarried Ellender Evans in 1828. It does make me wonder what Catherine may have thought about her husband fighting in this conflict, though as stated in the historical background above, many Native American peoples in the area did not support Black Hawk’s war, some even joining the Americans against him. Additionally, many of the Meswakis had already settled in Iowa and did not participate in the conflict.

Catherine and Jacob had ten children, the first of which was Jackson, born in 1831, a year before the Black Hawk War broke out. There second son, William, was born in 1832, so it is also possible that since Black Hawk was raiding settlements in 1832, Jacob decided to fight against Black Hawk to protect his young family.

Catherine died on 23 September 1852, a month after her last child, Sarah Elizabeth, died as an infant. It is presumed they both may have died from complications from childbirth. A year later he remarried and had four more children with his new wife, Sarah A. McElroy. The family moved to the “Old Home Place” just south of Old Rippey, Iowa in the fall of 1855 where he was a successful farmer rapidly accumulating 1400 acres of land. He traveled around buying livestock and on one stay at Fort Dodge, he contracted smallpox, from which he died on 18 June 1864.

I hope you have enjoyed this bit of family intrigue. It is stories like these that keep me digging into the archives to discover what other mysteries I might find there!

My next newsletter will come out the first Friday of January, though I haven’t decided what I will shar with you at that time. If anyone has a topic you are interested in learning more about, or a question from a previous newsletter you would like explored more, please reply to this email and let me know!

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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