Black Hawk State Historic Site

 
  Sauk &  
  Meskwaki (Fox)

   Black Hawk

Watch Tower Amusement Park

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)

Dickson (Pioneer) Cemetery

Treaty of 1804


"I am a Sauk...I am a Warrior"

So proclaimed Black Hawk in the spring of 1831, only a few days before he and his followers were forced to leave their home along Rock River forever. Though not a chief by birth, Black Hawk was the recognized leader of a political faction within the Sauk nation that believed in the old ways, the way of life that existed before Europeans came to America. He fought hard to preserve his ancestral home, but, in the end, failed to stem the tide of cultural change brought about by the invading European-Americans.

Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Sparrow Hawk, was born about 1767 at Saukenuk. This principal Sauk city was located along the Rock River, a few miles from its mouth. Black Hawk was born into the Thunder clan. His father's name was Py-e-sa.

Black Hawk was a member of the warrior class. By the time the Sauk and their allies the Meskwaki (or Fox) had moved to the Rock River region around 1750, warfare had come to play an increasingly important role in tribal affairs. For an ambitious man the path to success was along the path to war. Black Hawk was 15 years old when he wounded his first enemy in battle. This deed earned Black Hawk the right to paint his face and wear feathers. Time and time again he proved his bravery and skill in battle. As he grew older, he came to be a trusted leader of large war parties.

During the War of 1812, Black Hawk fought on the side of the British. He was a trusted lieutenant of the great Shawnee warrior-leader Tecumseh and fought with his forces at the battle of Detroit in 1813. In this area, Black Hawk and his Sauk followers, known as the British Band, were responsible for the victories at Campbell's Island and Credit Island. Although Black Hawk signed a treaty of peace with the United States government at the end of the war, he refused to relinquish his friendship with the British. Accordingly, every year he and his British Band followed the Great Sauk Trail from Saukenuk to Fort Malden in Amberstburg, Ontario, to receive gifts from the British military officials.

Though polygamy was practiced among the Sauk, Black Hawk had only one wife, As-she-we-qua, or Singing Bird. They had five children - two girls and three boys. The eldest son and youngest daughter both died in the same year, probably before 1820. Black Hawk mourned their deaths for two years in the traditional Sauk fashion. He built a small house away from the city proper, blackened his face with ashes, and fasted by drinking only water at mid-day and eating a little boiled corn at night.

Black Hawk
is best known for the war that bears his name. The Black Hawk War of 1832 was the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River. The Indians' defeat spelled the end of 200 years of armed resistance to European-American encroachment on Indian lands.

In 1804, five Sauk and Meskwaki chiefs were tricked into signing a treaty with the United States government, selling tribal lands in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin - nearly 51 million acres - in exchange for various goods and a $1,000 annuity to be paid to the tribes annually. The treaty was clearly illegal by Sauk and Meskwaki custom. The American officials know this. The United States Senate, however, ratified the treaty in December 1804. The treaty stipulated that the Indians could remain on the ceded lands as long as they were not wanted for white settlement. And so the matter rested for 24 years.

In 1828, white settlers began to move into Saukenuk and its vicinity. They demanded that the Indians now be removed. In order to avoid bloodshed, the majority of the Sauk and Meskwaki moved to the west side of the Mississippi. Black Hawk, however, refused to go. He and his followers remained at Saukenuk, living side by side with white settlers. Many problems ensued. Finally, by June, 1831, the Governor of Illinois demanded that the army remove Black Hawk and his British Band. Troops were dispatched. Black Hawk, realizing he was badly outnumbered, slipped across the river during the night of June 25. A few days later he agreed never to return to Illinois.

Black Hawk and his followers were unhappy in the Iowa lands. Black Hawk dreamed of leading an Indian uprising to forcibly retake their lost Illinois home. In April, 1832, Black Hawk and about 1500 followers (500 warriors and 1000 women, children, and old people) crossed the Mississippi to its eastern bank. They followed the course of the Rock River for 50 miles, their objective being a Winnebago town, now called Prophetstown. This move threw the frontier into a panic. The ensuing war, named the Black Hawk War, lasted just 15 weeks. It ended August 2, 1832, at the Battle of Bad Axe, Wisconsin. By the end of the war approximately two-thirds of Black Hawk's followers were dead - some in battle, most of starvation, deprivation, and exhaustion.

Though Black Hawk escaped before the Battle of Bad Axe, he was captured six weeks later and turned over to American authorities. He and his five closest advisors, including his eldest son, were imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, until April, 1833. The group was then taken to Washington DC where Black Hawk met with President Andrew Jackson. He was then sent to Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

Black Hawk and his party were released on May 30, 1833. Prior to their return to Rock Island, they were taken on a tour of large cities on the East Coast, where they were a media sensation. People turned out in droves to see the famous Black Hawk and his warriors. It was during this time that Black Hawk was erroneously tagged a "chief." This was due to a lack of understanding of Sauk politics. The American public reasoned that anyone powerful enough to wage war against the United States must be a chief. The misnomer continues to this day. Though a great warrior and military tactician, Black Hawk was never a chief.

Black Hawk returned to Rock Island in August, 1833. Keokuck, Black Hawk's arch political rival, met the party at Fort Armstrong, where Black Hawk was released into Keokuck's custody. It was here made plain that United States recognized Keokuck as chief of the Sauk. Black Hawk was directed to follow Keokuck's counsel and advice. Black Hawk's humiliation was complete.

Black Hawk was a tired, broken old man. The war had been a disaster and more than 1,000 of his people had died. Through his attempt to save his people's traditions and homeland, he had brought only dishonor upon himself. In the treaty that ended the war, the Sauk and Meskwaki were forced to cede still more land to the United States as war reparation.

Shortly after his return, Black Hawk dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter living at Fort Armstrong. The Life of Black Hawk was published in 1833. It sold well. Though disgraced among his own people, Black Hawk had achieved fame and admiration among the European-Americans, his former enemies. Such was the tragedy and irony of his final years.

For the next five years Black Hawk lived along the Iowa River with his wife and children. They moved to a new home along the Des Moines River in 1838. It was here that he died on October 3, 1838, of a respiratory illness. He was 71 years old.

Black Hawk was buried sitting up inside a small mausoleum of logs. His grave was soon robbed, but eventually his remains were deposited in a museum at Burlington, Iowa. The museum and its contents were destroyed by fire in 1855.

Black Hawk fought hard to preserve the ancestral home of his people, as well as their time-honored customs and traditions. Unfortunately, he was born at a time when the ancient ways of his people were fast crumbling before the cultural pressure of the New Americans. The fate of Black Hawk and his nation was a tragic outcome of the clash of two divergent cultures.