The Black Hawk War

Published on April 24, 2012 by Amy

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Black Hawk War
Black Hawk War

As a consequence of an 1804 treaty between the Governor of Indiana Territory and a group of Sauk and Fox leaders regarding land settlement, the Sauk and Fox tribes ceded their lands in Illinois and moved west of the Mississippi in 1828. Black Hawk and other tribal members disputed the treaty, claiming that the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands. Angered by the loss of his birthplace, between 1830 and 1831 Black Hawk led a number of incursions across the Mississippi River. He was persuaded to return west each time without bloodshed. In April 1832, encouraged by promises of alliance with other tribes and the British, he moved his so-called “British Band” of more than 1500 people, both warriors and non-combatants into Illinois. Finding no allies, he attempted to return to Iowa, but the undisciplined Illinois militia’s actions led to the Battle of Stillman’s Run. A number of other engagements followed, and the militias of Michigan Territory and Illinois were mobilized to hunt down Black Hawk’s Band. The conflict became known as the Black Hawk War.

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Black Hawk’s British Band was composed of about 500 warriors and 1,000 old men, women and children when they crossed the Mississippi on April 5. The group included members of the Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo Tribes. They crossed the river near the mouth of the Iowa River and followed the Rock River northeast. Along the way, they passed the ruins of Saukenuk and headed for the village of Ho-Chunk prophet White Cloud.

As the war progressed, factions of other tribes joined, or attempted to join Black Hawk. Other Native Americans carried out acts of violence for personal reasons amidst the chaos of the war. In one example, a band of hostile Ho-Chunk intent on joining Black Hawk’s Band attacked and killed the party of Felix St. Vrain after the outbreak of war; European Americans called it the St. Vrain massacre. This act was, however, an exception as most Ho-Chunk sided with the United States during the Black Hawk War. The warriors who attacked St. Vrain’s party acted independently of the Ho-Chunk nation. From April to August, Potawatomi warriors also joined with Black Hawk’s Band.

The war stretched from April to August 1832, with a number of battles, skirmishes and massacres on both sides. When the Illinois Militia and Michigan Territory Militia caught up with Black Hawk’s “British Band” following the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, they had a conclusive confrontation at Bad Axe. At the mouth of the Bad Axe River, pursuing soldiers, their Indian allies, and a U.S. gunboat killed hundreds of Sauk and Potawatomi men, women and children.

Tour of the East

Following the Black Hawk War, with most of the British Band killed and the rest captured or disbanded, the defeated Black Hawk was held in captivity at Jefferson Barracks with Neapope, White Cloud, and eight other leaders. After eight months, in April 1833, they were taken east, as ordered by U.S. President Andrew Jackson. The men traveled by steamboat, carriage, and railroad, and met with large crowds wherever they went. Once in Washington, D.C., they met with Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass. Afterward, they were delivered to their final destination, prison at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. They were held only a few weeks at the prison, during which they posed for portraits by different artists. On June 5, 1833, the men were sent west by steamboat on a circuitous route that took them through many large cities. Again, the men were a spectacle everywhere they went, and were greeted by huge crowds of people in cities such as New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In the west, closer to the battle sites and history of conflict, the reception was much different. For instance, in Detroit, a crowd burned and hanged effigies of the prisoners.

Near the end of his captivity in 1833, Black Hawk told his life story to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter. Edited by the local reporter J.B. Patterson, Black Hawk’s account was the first Native American autobiography published in the United States. The Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation, Various Wars In Which He Has Been Engaged, and His Account of the Cause and General History of the Black Hawk War of 1832, His Surrender, and Travels Through the United States. Also Life, Death and Burial of the Old Chief, Together with a History of the Black Hawk War was published in 1833 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The book immediately became a best seller.

As Sauk leader

Sauk homeland in 1804 to the United States, including the main village Saukenuk, he was viewed as ineffective. Black Hawk wrote in his autobiography:

It subsequently appeared that they had been drunk the greater part of the time while at St. Louis. This was all myself and nation knew of the treaty of 1804. It has since been explained to me. I found by that treaty, that all of the country east of the Mississippi, and south of Jeffreon was ceded to the United States for one thousand dollars a year. I will leave it to the people of the United States to say whether our nation was properly represented in this treaty? Or whether we received a fair compensation for the extent of country ceded by these four individuals? I could say much more respecting this treaty, but I will not at this time. It has been the origin of all our serious difficulties with the whites.

Because of his role in the disputed 1804 treaty, the tribe reduced their support of Quashquame and made him a minor chief. “Quasquawma, was chief of this tribe once, but being cheated out of the mineral country, as the Indians allege, he was denigrated from his rank and his son-in-law Taimah elected in his stead.” Although Quashquame and Black Hawk were at odds, Black Hawk did not directly challenge the civil chief. They apparently remained on good terms as Black Hawk rose in importance and Quashquame faded. Quashquame avoided confrontation with the U.S., while Black Hawk did not. After Black Hawk led an aborted takeover of Fort Madison in the Spring of 1809, Quashquame worked to restore relations with the United States Army the next day.

Quashquame attempted to placate the U.S., telling Gen. William Clark during a meeting in 1810 or 1811:

My father, I left my home to see my great-grandfather, the president of the United States, but as I cannot proceed to see him, I give you my hand as to himself. I have no father to whom I have paid any attention but yourself. If you hear anything, I hope that you will let me know, and I will do the same. I have been advised several times to raise the tomahawk. Since the last war we have looked upon the Americans as friends, and I shall hold you fast by the hand. The Great Spirit has not put us on the earth to war with the whites. We have never struck a white man. If we go to war it is with the red flesh. Other nations send belts among us, and urge us to war. They say that if we do not, the Americans will encroach upon us, and drive us off our lands.

During the run up to the War of 1812, the US viewed Quashquame as loyal, or at least neutral, while Black Hawk was considered the leader of the British-allied Sauk. Quashquame led all Sauk non-combatants during the war. Black Hawk thought this was an ideal arrangement:

… all the children and old men and women belonging to the warriors who had joined the British were left with them to provide for. A council had been called which agreed that Quashquame, the Lance, and other chiefs, with the old men, women and children, and such others as chose to accompany them, should descend the Mississippi to St. Louis, and place themselves under the American chief stationed there. They accordingly went down to St. Louis, were received as the friendly band of our nation, were sent up the Missouri and provided for, while their friends were assisting the British!

A rift appeared within the Sauk after the war. In 1815 Quashquame was part of a large delegation that signed a treaty confirming a split between the Sauk along the Missouri River and the Sauk who lived along the Rock River at Saukenuk. The Rock River group of Sauk was commonly known as the British Band; they formed the core of warriors who participated in the Black Hawk War. About 1824 Quashquame sold a large Sauk village in Illinois to a trader Captain James White. White gave Quashquame “a little sku-ti-apo and two thousand bushels of corn” for the land, which later became Nauvoo, Illinois. This sale likely aggravated Black Hawk and other Sauk who wanted to maintain their claim on Illinois.

As Quashquame was eclipsed by his son-in-law Taimah as the Sauk chief favored by the U.S., his voice of compromise could no longer compete with Black Hawk’s resistance. When Caleb Atwater wrote about his visit to Quashquame in 1829, he depicted the leader as feeble, more interested in art and leisure than politics, but still advocating diplomacy over conflict. In the summer of 1830, Black Hawk began his incursions into the disputed territory of Illinois, eventually leading to the Black Hawk War.

Black Hawk’s frequent rival was Keokuk, a Sauk war chief held in high esteem by the U.S. government, which viewed him as a calm and reasonable Sauk leader willing to negotiate, unlike Black Hawk. Black Hawk despised Keokuk, and viewed him as cowardly and self-serving, at one point threatening to kill him for not defending Saukenuk. After the Black Hawk War Keokuk was designated the main Sauk leader by the U.S.

Last days

After his tour of the east, Black Hawk lived with the Sauk along the Iowa River and later the Des Moines River near Iowaville in what is now southeast Iowa. At the end of his life he attemted reconciliation with both the whites he had fought and with his Sauk rivals, including Keokuk.

It has pleased the Great Spirit that I am here today— I have eaten with my white friends. The earth is our mother— we are now on it, with the Great spirit above us; it is good. I hope we are all friends here. A few winters ago I was fighting against you. I did wrong, perhaps, but that is past—it is buried—let it be forgotten.

Rock River was a beautiful country. I liked my towns, my cornfields and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did— it will produce you good crops.

I thank the Great Spirit that I am now friendly with my white brethren. We are here together, we have eaten together; we are friends; it is his wish and mine. I thank you for your friendship.

I was once a great warrior; I am now poor. Keokuk has been the cause of my present situation; but I do not attach blame to him. I am now old. I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now. I shake hands with you, and as it is my wish, I hope you are my friends.

Address by Black Hawk, July 4, 1838, at Fort Madison.
Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838 after two weeks of illness, and was buried on the farm of his friend James Jordan on the north bank of the Des Moines River in Davis County.

In July 1839, his remains were stolen by James Turner, who prepared his skeleton for exhibition. Black Hawk’s sons Nashashuk and Gamesett went to Governor Robert Lucas of Iowa Territory, who used his influence to bring the bones to security in his offices in Burlington. With the permission of Black Hawk’s sons, the remains were held by the Burlington Geological and Historical Society. When the Society’s building burned down in 1855, Black Hawk’s remains were destroyed.

An alternative story is that Lucas passed Black Hawk’s bones to a Burlington physician, Enos Lowe, who left them to his partner, Dr. McLaurens. Eventually workers found the bones left by McLaurens after he moved to California. They buried the remains in a potter’s grave in Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington.

There is a marker for him in the Iowaville Cemetery on the hill over the river, although it is unknown if any of his remains are there.


A sculpture by Lorado Taft overlooks the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois. Entitled The Eternal Indian, this statue is commonly known as the Black Hawk Statue. In modern times Black Hawk is considered a tragic hero and numerous commemorations exist. These are mostly in the form of eponyms; many roads, sports teams and schools are named after Black Hawk. Among the numerous wars in United States history, however; the Black Hawk War is one of few named for a person.

According to a widespread myth, the Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Jim Thorpe was said to be descended from Black Hawk.

Black Hawk was one of the major spirit guides venerated by the Wisconsin born African American Spiritualist and trance medium Leafy Anderson. His guidance and protection are sought by the members of many churches within the loosely allied Spiritual Church Movement which she founded. Special “Black Hawk services” are held to invoke his assistance, and busts or statues representing him are kept on home and church altars by his devotees.

Black Hawk also wrote an autobiography titled Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak.

Source: wikipedia Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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