Chief Blackhawk and the Blackhawk War

Black Hawk, who's full name was Black Sparrow Hawk, was born in 1767, at Saukenauk an area three to five miles north of where the Rock River in Illinois meets the Mississippi River located near present day Rock Island, Illinois. . This location is near present-day Rock Island, Illinois. In his native tongue, his name was Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak.  Contrary to popular belief, Black Hawk was never a chief. He was a warrior and a recognized leader among the Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox) nations, but he never achieved the rank of chief. Black Hawk was married to a woman named Singing Bird. Together they had two daughters and three sons. Among Black Hawk's descendants was legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was Black Hawk's great-grandson.


In the early 1800s the Sauk and Fox Indians lived along the Mississippi River from northwestern Illinois to southwestern Wisconsin. Black Hawk fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812. He and his followers, known as the British Band, were responsible for the victories at Campbell's Island and Credit Island. Black Hawk had done his best to force American settlers off the western frontier.

In 1830, seeking to make way for settlers moving into Illinois, the United States required the Sauk to move and accept new lands in present-day Iowa. There they struggled to prepare enough acreage for their crops. The winter of 1831-1832 was extremely difficult. In April 1832, Black Hawk led about one thousand Sauk and Fox people back to northern Illinois. Black Hawk hoped to forge a military alliance with the Winnebago and other tribes. They intended to plant corn on their ancestral farmland were they had been forcibly removed to the year before. Fearing the Sauk, Illinois settlers promptly organized a militia.

Observing the military forces organizing against him, Black Hawk reconsidered his actions and decided to surrender. Yet an undisciplined militia ignored a peace flag and attacked the Sauk. The Indian warriors promptly returned fire. The militia retreated in a panic, many forgetting their firearms. The Sauk collected the weapons and retreated northward along the Rock River into Wisconsin. The Black Hawk War had just begun. General Henry Atkinson was in charge of U.S. Army forces, assisted by four thousand militiamen led by Henry Dodge and James Henry. Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Zachary Taylor all served in the war as young army officers.  

Traveling with small children and elderly members of the tribe, the Sauk and Fox were unable to move as rapidly as the soldiers. In an effort to distract the Americans, Sauk warriors raided frontier farms and villages. On July 21, 1832, soldiers led by Henry Dodge caught up with Black Hawk's band near the Wisconsin River, outside of present-day Sauk City. Although greatly outnumbered, Sauk warriors turned the attack on American troops, allowing the Indian women and children to flee across the Wisconsin River. The next morning, the American troops discovered that the Sauk warriors had vanished, having quietly forded the river in darkness. Dodge subsequently fell back, journeying north to Fort Winnebago (near present-day Portage) to obtain supplies. At Fort Winnebago, Dodge joined forces with Atkinson and set out in pursuit of the Sauk and Fox. Most members of the starving band had fled west, hoping to find sanctuary among tribes beyond the Mississippi River.

On August 2, U.S. soldiers attacked the Sauk and Fox as they attempted to ford the Mississippi River, near what is now Victory in Vernon County. Ignoring a truce flag, the troops aboard a river steamboat fired cannons and rifles, killing hundreds, including many children. For the next eight hours the volunteer militias used axes, guns, cannon, and clubs to cut down the Indian warriors while women and children who succeeded in swimming the river were slaughtered on the other side. Around 90% of Black Hawk's people were slaughtered and the Mississippi ran red with their blood.  Many of those who made it across the river were slain by the Eastern Sioux, allies of the Americans in 1832. Only 150 of the one thousand members of Black Hawk's band survived the events of the summer of 1832. Survivors rejoined the Sauk and Fox who had remained in Iowa.

The war lasted just 15 weeks, ending on August 1, 1832, at the Battle of Bad Axe, Wisconsin. Black Hawk surrendered to officials at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. The defeated warrior was imprisoned and sent east to meet with President Andrew Jackson and other government officials. Eventually the U. S. government sent him to live with surviving members of the Sauk and Fox nation. 

Black Hawk himself, captured and imprisoned, was paraded around the U.S. in chains; after he died his skeleton was displayed in the governor's mansion in Iowa, like a trophy. Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838, of a respiratory illness. He was buried sitting up inside a small mausoleum of logs but his grave was robbed soon afterward. His remains were later deposited in a museum in Burlington, Iowa. The museum and its contents were destroyed by fire in 1855.

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