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Shabbona's Ride:

A Flag Creek Ballad

By Thomas C. MacMillan


Shabbona, a portrait taken in Ottawa in 1859, the last year of his life. Courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Editor's Note: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere and his "midnight ride" for generations of young Americans. Thomas C. MacMillan of LaGrange wanted Illinoisans to remember another patriot: Shabbona, Chief of the Pottawatomies, whose selfless and daring ride across northern Illinois in 1832 warned prairie settlers of Black Hawk's advancing war parties and saved dozens of lives. Shabbona (1775-1859) was an Indian of the Ottawa tribe, born in Ohio. Although allied with British during the War of 1812, he became a loyal friend to the American settlers in later years. After the war Shabbona came to Illinois, married the daughter of a Pottawatomie chief, and became a chief of that tribe. In 1831-'32, when Black Hawk led his Fox and Sac warriors against the immigrants, committing atrocities at various settlements, Shabbona took to his horse and rode day and night, warning the settlers of their peril. For this act of kindness he endured personal hardship and his life was often threatened. In retaliation for warning the settlers, two of Shabbona's sons were killed by Black Hawk's warriors, and Shabbona was cursed thereafter as "the white man's friend."

Shabbona's sacrifice saved the lives of many early Illinoisans, who found shelter at Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago) until the Black Hawk War ended. But Shabbona's friendship with whites was not often reciprocated. The small tract of land deeded to "him, his heirs, and assigns forever" for his services Shabbona Grove in present day DeKalb County was settled by squatters and sold out from under him in 1849.

But one man, George Armstrong, the former sheriff of Ottawa and a citizen of Morris, did not forget his debt, and promised Shabbona that "while I have a bed and home you shall share them with me." In 1858, Armstrong took Shabbona to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Ottawa and arranged for the old chief to sit as a guest of honor on the platform with the speakers. According to published accounts, only once did Shabbona show emotion during the debates, when Stephen A. Douglas stated that he was "in favor of citizenship for white men, men of European birth and descent, and not conferring it upon Negroes, Indians, and other inferior races."

Shabbona eventually settled near Morris, Illinois, and died there in July 1859. A marker with his name was unveiled in 1903.

Thomas C. MacMillan of LaGrange, Illinois, wrote the following poem in 1927 and sent it to the Illinois State Historical Society with this note:

"Inclosed (sic) please find m.s. containing an historical note and some verse which I wrote based upon it. I have called it "A Flag Creek Ballad; The Pottawatomies' Last Camp and Shabbona's Ride.' "I have endeavored to be strictly and historically correct. I do not recall that 'Shabbona's Ride'has been told in verse before. I have written it so as to make it local, but all the rest is history. I thought that by so recording it, it would be remembered better."

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The Pottawatomies' Last Camp and Shabbona's Ride:
A Flag Creek Ballad

From the church road westward the highway bends, Like an Indian hunter's bow,
Through the sloping grove,
Where the meek herds rove, To the Flag Creek bridge below.

The trees love the banks of these prairie streams, As red-wing his reedy swing,
The lark her low nest
On the meadow's breast, Or robins the voice of spring.

Many summers ago worn pilgrims paused In this sheltered nook to rest,
Ere they struck the trail,
Over hill and dale, To their new home in the west.

Between wood and rill their tall wigwams stood, Like shocks of the golden corn
In the autumn days
When wild sunflowers blaze, And fields of their crops are shorn.

In their sides were painted the tribal gods, The Sun, and the Moon, his wife,
The totem of clan,
Beast, bird, and man, And the symbol of all life.

Beside the brook where the cottonwoods droop, And the peaceful pastures are,
The lads shot their darts,
Learned the huntsman's arts, And played games of mimic war.

The youths and maids dreamed the ever-new dreams, To the rivulet's sweet strains,
The braves of War's spoils,
The women their toils, And sires of the Sunset Plains.

In the evening the council fire was lit, And round in its pillared glow
The sachems were set,
And with calumet Offered prayers to Manito.

The old men spoke of the Lake they had left, Of their nation's hard fought wars,
Of their hunting grounds,
Of their burial mounds, And their warriors' honored scars.

They told of brave Shabhona's daring ride, When he warned the pioneers
Of Chief Black Hawk's plans,
With his hostile clans, To ravage the wide frontiers.

How he spurred by day, and sped in the dark On prairie, past treacherous swamp,
Where lurked the grim bear,
Near the fox's lair, And the ravening wolf-pack's camp.

He startled the deer in their noonday shades; The witch owl at twilight's hour,
And the feathered world
Caught the signals hurled From the keen crow's conning tower.

The cottontail scurried across his path, The squirrel to its hollow tree,
And the blackbirds fled
At his horse's tread, As leaves on a wind-swept lea.

He escaped prowling bands of savage hordes, Eluded their crafty spies,
And braved the bivouac
Of the Fox and Sac, In search of their enterprise.

He swam rushing floods with never a halt, Brushed poisonous vines aside,
By the spreading thorn
He was sorely torn, And he rode where serpents hide.

He awakened the settler from his sleep, At midnight and early dawn,
To the awful fate
Of the red man's hate, And like morning mist was gone.

The hailed fleets of prairie-schooners adrilt On the pathless, emerald waves,
And he steered them back,
On the eastern tack, To the port the Croat Lake laves.*

He called to the herder guarding the range, On his quest the trapper stayed,
To the woodman cried,
As his axe he plied, The news of the Indian raid.

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He hurried the farmer home from his plow, To flee with children and wife,
While the mother pressed
Her babe to her breast, At thoughts of the scalping knife.

Wrapped in night and silence he safely led The fugitives from Wars blast,
Till the race was run,
And the goal was won, In Fort Dearborn's walls at last.

The Sac and Fox raid the border no more, With tomahawk, blade, and fire,
For far from his haunts
In chains Black Hawk chants The death of his heart's desire.

Frail and brief was the white man's gratitude For our chieftain's gallant deed;
He must leave his home,
When the strangers come, With the guns and heartless greed.

He sleeps in the bosom of fair Illinois, And fields bear billowing grain,
Where arrows once sung,
And muskets once rung, To the warhoop's shrill refrain.

May the story of this bold soul survive In the annals of our state,
Place Shabbona's name
On its roll of fame With the brave, and true, and great!

His people are gone as the bison hosts, Or rivers that disappear,
And nothing remains
Of their trail to the plains, Save tales of a long-lost year.

But the spirit of Shabbona lives on To warn and to shield our Land,
In each trying hour,
From the wanton power, Of the Red foes' ruthless hand.

*Laves. Flows, or washes against.

Editor's note: For more about Chief Shabbona, see "Shabbona: Friend of the Whites," a monograph by Wayne C. Temple, published in 1957 by the Illinois State Museum. The Illinois State Historical Society and the Illinois Department of Transportation erected a marker to Shabbona in 1937. Tire marker, located near Shabbona Grove in DeKalb County, was replaced in 1987 and is presently being restored.

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