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 DeKalb County History

Land of the Giant Trees

by Mac McIntyre
copyrightę 1998

Once there was a time when the banks of the Kishwaukee River, a name that is believed to be a French mispronunciation of the Potawatomi (Algonquin dialect) word for kshe'mtugw'nIn or "giant trees," were lined with the huge Sycamore trees. Tall, flowing prairie grasses grew wild, providing cover for deer, rabbits, and prairie dogs protecting them from the coyotes, wolves, wildcats and bears that roamed the country.

Mankind was not absent. For a much time older than the United States, the Native Americans were thriving in an almost harmonious relationship with the elements of nature. The land which is now DeKalb County was the favorite hunting grounds of the Potawatomi, Sac, Fox and Kickapoo people.

A rather large Potawatomi village was located just a few miles west of present-day Sycamore. It was here that the legendary war chief of the Sac, Blackhawk, learned in the summer of 1832 that his "army" of less than 200 weary warriors was on its own in a war against the United States of America. Blackhawk came to the village for a dog feast, a ceremony held when tribes were contemplating joining forces.

Blackhawk had been warned by the Potawatomi chief, Shabbona, in a meeting near what was Sauk-e-nuk (near Rock Island) that he (Blackhawk) was doomed if he chose to try to return to Illinois. "Join me," Blackhawk said, "and our warriors will be as numerous as the trees in the forests."

"Yes," said Shabbona, who had fought alongside Tecumseh during the War of 1812, "but the whites are like the leaves on those trees." He effectively prevented most of the Potawatomi from entering a war that would be doomed from the start.

The dog feast held at the village was Blackhawk's last opportunity to try to convince others to unite with him. Although the feast did provide much needed nourishment for the women and children who were with him, Blackhawk was unsuccessful in his attempt to get assistance.

The U.S. soldiers were in hot pursuit and little did the Sac war chief know that among those soldiers would be three future presidents, two U.S. presidents:  Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor, and one Confederate: Jefferson Davis. All the old chief knew was he should surrender. On May 14, 1832 he sent most of his warriors out on a hunting party and sent four scouts to find the Americans to arrange for a treaty.

The four scouts ran into a rag tag army of drunken volunteers, led by the inexperienced Major Isaiah Stillman. The "troops" killed two of the scouts and the remaining two returned to warn Blackhawk who was on the move of the impending danger. What ensued, about a half hour northwest of what is now Sycamore was the "battle" of Stillman's Run. About 600 want-to-be "injun fighters" were routed by as few as ten Sac warriors who yelled and screamed the frightened soldiers into a panic-stricken retreat. One "soldier" knocked from his horse and his eyeglasses, believing he saw an imposing warrior in front of him, surrendered his sword to a tree.

Although victorious in that skirmish, Blackhawk was thoroughly defeated. The Blackhawk war ended in a massacre, with disregard for the white flag of surrender, at Bad Axe in Wisconsin, and signaled the end of Native American presence in Illinois.

Shabbona contributed much to the defeat of Blackhawk. His speech at Sauk-e-nuk convinced others not to join forces with the Sac. He even made a "Paul Revere-ish" ride to warn settlers to get out of harm's way. He served as a scout for General Whiteside's army. The possibility that Shabbona met Abraham Lincoln during this time is enhanced by the fact that later Lincoln invited Shabbona to Ottawa as a guest of honor in one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The name of Shabbona also appears on several documents at the DeKalb County Courthouse and in the Joiner History Room. Shabbona tried to stay in his homeland as long as he could. He was "given" land at what is now the state park that bears his name as payment of services to the United States. Some settlers thought they could take advantage of the "old injun" and help themselves to some of his trees. They found themselves in court being sued. Shabbona had indeed learned the white man's ways.