“I Was Once a Great Warrior”


On July 4, 1838, the people of Fort Madison, in the Iowa Territory, invited an old Sauk war chief named Black Hawk to be guest of honor at their Independence Day celebration. A wrinkled and feeble old man, he sat at their banquet table under the trees on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and listened dourly while the white men bestowed honor and friendship upon him. When his turn came Black Hawk, too, spoke of friendship, but he could not forget the past as easily as the whites. They, after all, had gained by it; he had lost. “Rock River was a beautiful country,” he told them now, leaning on his cane and gazing out over the river. “I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for them. … I was once a great warrior. Now I am poor.… Now I am old.”

Only six years had passed since this same man had led his braves in battle against the whites. Hoping to regain the Sauk and Fox homelands on the Rock River in Illinois, he and his warriors had spread panic through the white settlements. All the power of the United States government could not stop him, it seemed, and settlers slept on their rifles at night and started up, terrified, at any sudden sound in the woods. For eager young men and politicians Black Hawk’s attempt to reclaim his birthright became the Black Hawk War—a glorious adventure and a chance to prove one’s valor at election time. For the old Sauk chief, who realized too late that history was against him, it became a disaster that in the end only hastened the white man’s advance across the continent and cost the Indians much more than their old hunting grounds.

Fort Madison, where the aged Black Hawk spoke three months before his death, was near the southern end of what had once been the Sauk and Fox domain, a vast area stretching as far north as the Wisconsin River, as far east and south as the Fox and Illinois rivers, and west into parts of present-day Iowa and Missouri. Here the Sauk and Foxes had planted their corn for a hundred years. Algonquian-speaking peoples, they came originally from the north and east of the continent and had settled the area in the early 1700’s, having formed a confederacy for mutual protection. The chief village of the Sauk was Saukenuk, which lay on the north side of the Rock River three miles above its mouth, in what was one of the most fertile and beautiful of valleys. As many as five hundred families lived at Saukenuk during the growing season. The surrounding prairies, rivers, marshes, and oak-forested hills were a cornucopia of fish and game, and the rich alluvial soil of the Rock and Mississippi river valleys produced enormous crops of corn, squash, pumpkin, and tobacco. After each harvest the people of Saukenuk packed up their belongings and spent a nomadic winter hunting and trapping in the wilderness.

The Indians’ lives were not as peaceful and idyllic as their surroundings would suggest. Their hunting grounds in Missouri overlapped those of the Osage, and there were frequent raids and reprisals between the tribes and skirmishes as well with the neighboring Sioux and Cherokee. Foremost among the defenders of the Sauk and Fox lands was a young brave, Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, whose name described a black sparrow hawk in flight. The Black Hawk, as he became known to the whites, was born at Saukenuk in 1767. So he says in his autobiography, a deeply personal account of his struggle that he dictated to a government interpreter in 1833, the year after his so-called war.

Black Hawk was a spare man, in height some five feet four or five inches. He had a high, sloping forehead, and the top of his head was shaved clean but for a scalp lock, to which eagle feathers were tied. The feathers were the mark of a warrior, an honor he won at fifteen when he wounded an enemy in battle. Soon afterward, “fired by valor and ambition, I… smote [another enemy] to the earth with my tomahawk.… This was the first man I killed!” After that Black Hawk spent much of his time on the warpath, protecting the lands of the Sauk and Foxes from their enemies. Eventually his forcefulness and prowess in battle placed him among the leaders of Saukenuk, though he was neither a hereditary nor an elected chief and at tribal councils could speak only on matters of war.