The Black Hawk War, one of the so-called Indian Wars, was fought in northwest Illinois and what is now southwest Wisconsin. The war was brief, lasting only from April 6, 1832 to August 27, 1832. Black Hawk led a band of about 500 warriors against the Illinois militia, U.S. Army, and American civilians. The conflict began with the controversial Treaty of St. Louis in 1804, in which the Sauk and Fox tribes ceded 50 million acres to the United States for $2,234.50 plus a $1,000 per year annuity.
The discovery of lead in Galena during the 1820’s brought many miners and settlers to the area, forming small communities and pushing out the Sauk and Fox tribes. One such community was the Apple River settlement, which would become Elizabeth, IL. By 1827, several families and a general store made up the settlement. At the time, President Andrew Jackson was in office, and supported a number of actions against the Native Americans, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Between the various laws and treaties, and the rising number of American settlers, Sauk and Fox tribes found themselves pushed across the Mississippi River into Iowa.
Black Hawk, a Sauk warrior who allied with the British against the United States in earlier conflicts, was determined to reclaim his people’s land. In April 1832, he brought 500 warriors and as many as 700 women, children, and elderly up the Rock River. Governor Reynolds immediately called up the Illinois militia. Black Hawk saw early success against the Illinois militia in the Battle of Stillman’s Run. He continued north, raiding and burning various settlements along the way.
Many settlers left the area entirely. Others, including the people of the Apple River settlement, built forts and other defenses. The Apple River Fort began as a small collection of structures on a hill, to which the settlers added the second floor of the blockhouse as well as a palisade wall. During the day, settlers went about their daily lives, albeit always on guard, and retreated to the Fort at night or at the first sign of danger.
On June 24, 1832, a calm Sunday afternoon, four men (Frederick Dixon, George W. Harkleroad, Edmund Welch, and J. Kirkpatrick) rode from Galena to deliver dispatches for Henry Atkinson. They stopped for refreshments at the Fort before continuing on. About 500 yards away, they were fired upon by Black Hawk’s warriors, with one taking a bullet to the thigh. They hastily returned to the Fort, alerting the settlers to the incoming assault.
Black Hawk himself and 200 of his braves attacked the Apple River Fort for about 45 minutes. Inside the Fort, the men kept a constant stream of fire, with women reloading the rifles and children molding musket balls and rolling cartridges. The women, especially Elizabeth Armstrong, were reportedly very brave and played a big role in the successful defense of the Fort. The village is said to be named in honor of the multiple Elizabeths at the Fort that day. Black Hawk, not expecting the Fort to be so well defended, raided nearby cabins for supplies and moved on.
Of the 45 or so people inside the Fort, there was only one death and two wounded; Black Hawk’s suffered no losses. The Fort saw no more battles and was torn down by 1847, the lumber used for other purposes. The Black Hawk War ended weeks later, with the Battle (or Massacre) of Bad Axe.
In 1995, the Apple River Fort Historic Foundation set out to locate the Apple River Fort. They were successful, and the following archaeological dig revealed the Fort’s complete footprint and a multitude of artifacts. In 1996, the Fort was reconstructed near the original foundations of the original fort. An Interpretive Center was later built to display exhibits, an interpretive film, and other materials to help tell the history of the Black Hawk War, the Apple River Fort, and the local history of Jo Daviess County and Elizabeth, IL.