Black Hawk

From New World Encyclopedia

Black Hawk
1767–October 3, 1838
Chief Black Hawk3.jpg
Place of birth Saukenuk, Virginia Colony (now Illinois)
Place of death Davis County, Iowa
Allegiance Sauk; (British Band, Band of 1812)
Years of service 1782–1832
Rank War chief (not a civil, hereditary Tribal chief)
Commands held Band of 1812, British Band
Battles/wars Various tribal conflicts, War of 1812, Black Hawk War
Relations great-grandfather, Nanamakee

Black Hawk (Sauk and Fox language: Makataimeshekiakiak) (1767 – October 3, 1838) was a leader and warrior of the Sauk Native American tribe in what are now the states of Iowa and Illinois in the central United States. While he had inherited an important historic medicine bundle, he was not a hereditary civil chief of the Sauk, but was an appointed war chief, and was generally known in English as Black Hawk.

During the War of 1812 he fought on the side of the British. Later he led a band of Sauk and Fox warriors against settlers in Illinois and present-day Wisconsin in the 1832 Black Hawk War in an attempt to regain his tribe's traditional village sites along the Rock River in Illinois. After the war he was captured and taken to the eastern U.S. where he and other 'British Band' leaders were confined for a time, then showcased in several cities. The Sauk defeat marked an end to armed resistance in what was then known as the "Old Northwest."

Black Hawk died in 1838 in what is now southeastern Iowa. He left behind an enduring legacy of nobility and patriotism, and is honored today as a hero to both Native and White Americans.

Early life

Black Hawk, or Black Sparrow Hawk, was born in the village of Saukenuk on the Rock River, in present-day Rock Island, Illinois in 1767. He was the great-grandson of Thunder, Nanamakee, who was an important principal chief among the Sauk. Nanamakee had been born in the vicinity of Montreal, Canada, once home to the Sauk Nation. As the British and French fought over Quebec, the Sauk were moved to the area of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Here they held a council with the Fox Tribe, and a national treaty of friendship and alliance was agreed upon.[1] From this point forward the two tribes have been joined and known as the "Sac and Fox."

The Sauk used the Illinois village in the summer, for raising corn and as a burial site, while moving across the Mississippi River for winter hunts and fur trapping. Although Black Hawk was never a civil chief, he often led war parties and had killed his first man by the time he was 15 years old. Before his 18th birthday he had led war parties to victory. [2] By the time he was in his mid-thirties, he was recognized as one of the most able war chiefs of the Sauk nation.

Black Hawk and his people visited St. Louis each summer, to pay tribute to their "Spanish Father," with whom they got along well. They also had formed friendships with British traders who came to their village. However, they were apprehensive of the Americans from the beginning. In 1804, a treaty was signed with the Americans which ceded all of the country east of the Mississippi. [1] However, the native signatories were not chiefs, or anyone with authority to speak on behalf of the tribe. They, in fact, had been encouraged to drink heavily, after which time their signatures were obtained.[3]

Military career

The War of 1812

Black Hawk, the leader of a band of Sauks near Rock Island at Saukenuk, had always been opposed to ceding Native American lands to white settlers and their governments. Black Hawk, in particular, denied the validity of an important 1804 treaty between the Sauk and Fox nations and then Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison. The treaty ceded territory, including Saukenuk, to the United States.[4] This treaty was subsequently disputed by Black Hawk and other members of the tribes, since the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands.[5]

When the War of 1812 erupted between the United Kingdom and the United States, Colonel Robert Dickson, an English fur trader, amassed a sizable force of Native Americans at Green Bay to assist the British in operations around the Great Lakes. Most of the warriors Dickson assembled were from the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Kickapoo and Ottawa tribes. Dickson then summoned Black Hawk's Band of about 200 Sauk warriors. When Black Hawk arrived he was given command of all Natives gathered at Green Bay, presented with a silk flag, a medal, and a written certificate of good behavior and alliance with the British. In addition, Dickson bestowed upon Black Hawk the rank of brevet Brigadier General. The certificate would be found 20 years later, after the Battle of Bad Axe, carefully preserved along with a flag very similar to the one Dickson gave to Black Hawk.[4]

During the war, Black Hawk and his warriors fought in several engagements with Major-General Henry Procter on the borders of Lake Erie.[5] Black Hawk was present at the battle of Fort Meigs, and the attack on Fort Stephenson.[6] The British and the Indian Confederacy, led by Tecumseh, were repulsed with great losses to the British. Black Hawk despaired over the waste of lives caused by the use of European attack methods; soon after, he quit the war to return home. Back in Saukenuk he found his rival Keokuk had become the tribe's war chief.[4] However, Black Hawk rejoined the effort toward the end of the war and participated alongside the British on campaigns along the Mississippi River near the Illinois Territory.[6] After the War of 1812 ended, Black Hawk, together with Keokuk, signed a peace treaty in May 1816 that re-affirmed the treaty of 1804, a provision of which Black Hawk later protested ignorance.[7]

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 vacated their lands in Illinois and moved west of the Mississippi in 1828. However, Chief Black Hawk and others disputed the treaty, claiming that the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands.[5] Angered by the loss of his birthplace, between 1830 and 1831 Black Hawk led a number of incursions across the Mississippi River, but was persuaded to return west each time without bloodshed. In April 1832, encouraged by promises of alliance with other tribes and the British, he again moved his "British Band" of around 1,000 warriors and non-combatants into Illinois.[5] 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.[8]

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.[9] The group included members of the Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo Nations. They crossed the river near the mouth of the Iowa River and then 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.[9]

As the war progressed factions of other tribes would join, or attempt to join Black Hawk, and others would carry out acts of violence for their own 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 in an event that became known as 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 that attacked St. Vrain's party acted with no authority or oversight from the Ho-Chunk nation.[10] Sympathetic Potawatomi warriors also joined with Black Hawk's Band in the months between April and August.[11]

The war stretched from April to August 1832 and a number of battles, skirmishes and massacres took place. When the Illinois Militia and Michigan Territory Militia finally caught up with Black Hawk's "British Band" following the Battle of Wisconsin Heights it would lead to the decisive clash of the war at Bad Axe. At the mouth of the Bad Axe River, hundreds of men, women and children would be killed by pursuing soldiers, their Indian allies, and a U.S. gunboat.[12]

Tour of the East

Following the Black Hawk War, with most of the British Band dead and the rest captured or disbanded, the defeated Chief Black Hawk was held in captivity at Jefferson Barracks with Neapope, White Cloud, and eight other leaders of the British Band.[11] After 8 months, in April 1833, they were taken east, as ordered by then U.S. President Andrew Jackson. The men traveled by steamboat, horse drawn 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, though their final destination was prison at Fortress Monroe in Virginia.[11] They stayed only a few weeks at the prison, during which they mostly 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 met with huge crowds of people in cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.[11] Reaction in the west, however, was much different. For instance, in Detroit, a crowd burned and hanged effigies of the prisoners.[11]

Near the end of his captivity in 1833, Black Hawk told his life story to a government interpreter, which was edited by a local reporter and became the first Native American autobiography published in the United States.[13] The Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk was published in 1833 in Cincinnati, Ohio, as interpreted by Antoine LeClaire and edited by J.B. Patterson.[1] The book immediately became a best seller.[6]

Last Days

After that tour, Black Hawk was transferred back to his people in Iowa, and he lived with them along the Iowa River and later the Des Moines River. In the last few months of his life he found himself the object of admiration among Iowa settlers. He was often invited to the territorial capital to attend sessions of the legislature. His last public appearance was July 4, 1837.

Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838 following several weeks of illness. His wife Singing Bird survived him. According to Captain James H. Jordan, who was present at the chief’s burial, Black Hawk was buried on the banks of the Des Moines River, in the northeast corner of Davis County. He wore a full military uniform, which had been given to him by General Jackson when Black Hawk had visited Washington, DC. At the head of his grave flew the American flag.

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 where, with the permission of the Chief's sons, they were left in the care of the Burlington Geological and Historical Society. When the Society's building burned down in 1855, Black Hawk’s remains were destroyed.[14]


Statue of Black Hawk, on display at Black Hawk State Historic Site

In modern times Black Hawk has become a tragic hero and a large number of present-day commemorations exist.[6] These are mostly in the form of eponyms; roads, sports teams and schools are commonly named after Black Hawk.

A sculpture by Lorado Taft overlooks the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois, titled The Eternal Indian, this statue is commonly known as the Black Hawk Statue.[15]

The Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois commemorates all Native Americans of the area, but particularly Black Hawk's Sauk and Fox tribe. The site includes a unique 100-acre “designated nature preserve,” consisting of an oak-hickory forest with numerous woodland flowers and bird species, including bald eagles. Also on site are the Watch Tower Lodge and a large statue of Black Hawk executed in 1892 by sculptor David Richards. The Lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. [16]

In his last public appearance, in 1938 at Fort Madison, Black Hawk said:

A few summers ago, I was fighting against you. I did wrong, perhaps, but that is past. It is buried. Let it be forgotten. Rock river was beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. It is yours now. Keep it as we did. [17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Black Hawk, Autobiography of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk Rock Island, IL, 1833. Project Gutenberg EBook. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  2. Gary Ilminen, "The Great Chiefs: Black Hawk: Tactical Genius of the Sauk & Fox," Native Peoples 19(5) September, October 2006: 74–76, 78.
  3. Harvey Markowitz and Carole A. Barrett, American Indian biographies (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2005, ISBN 978-1587652332), 45-48.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 William Rudolph Smith, The History of Wisconsin: In Three Parts, Historical, Documentary, and Descriptive (Wentworth Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1587652332), 221–406.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, "A diary of the Black Hawk War." Iowa Journal of History and Politics 8(1) (1910): 265-269.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Kerry A. Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (Henry Holt, 2006, ISBN 0805077588), 109, 308, 220-221.
  7. James E. Lewis, Jr., Background, The Black Hawk War of 1832, Abraham Lincoln Digitization Project, Northern Illinois University. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  8. The Black Hawk War Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 James E. Lewis, Jr., The Black Hawk War: Introduction Northern Illinois University Digital Library. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  10. The St. Vrain Massacre The Closet Skeleton Genealogical Society. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 James E. Lewis, Jr., Black Hawk War Phases Northern Illinois University Digital Library. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  12. Bad Axe, Battle of Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  13. "Black Hawk Remembers Village Life Along the Mississippi History Matters. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  14. Black Hawk Black Hawk State Historic Site. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  15. Sculpture Trail City of Oregon. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  16. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Black Hawk Retrieved May 22, 2008.
  17. The Memory of Chief Black Hawk Young American Republic. Retrieved March 24, 2021.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Black Hawk, and Roger L. Nichols. Black Hawk's autobiography. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1999. ISBN 0813826373
  • Ilminen, Gary. "The Great Chiefs: Black Hawk: Tactical Genius of the Sauk & Fox," Native Peoples 19(5) (September, October 2006): 74–76.
  • Jung, Patrick J. The Black Hawk War of 1832. Campaigns and commanders, v. 10. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0806138114
  • Markowitz, Harvey, and Carole A. Barrett. American Indian biographies. Magill's choice. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2005. ISBN 978-1587652332
  • Smith, William Rudolph. The History of Wisconsin: In Three Parts, Historical, Documentary, and Descriptive. Wentworth Press, 2019 (original 1854). ISBN 978-0530799087
  • Trask, Kerry A. Black Hawk: the battle for the heart of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. ISBN 978-0805077582


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