- Historic Sites
“I Was Once a Great Warrior”
The tragedy of Black Hawk, who became the eponym of a war he tried to avoid
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Black Hawk’s troubles with the Americans began long before he led his braves on the warpath in 1832. During his youth, American traders’ shoddy goods and unscrupulous business dealings had provoked his people’s hostility more than once. British agents, who continued to circulate among the tribes of the Old Northwest even after the Revolution, took every opportunity to encourage the I ndians’ mistrust of the Americans; furthermore, they gave the Indians a fair trade for their peltry. But the real difficulties between the Sauk and Foxes and the Americans arose over a treaty signed in i8o4by five chiefsof the confederation and Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory, who bore instructions from President Thomas Jefferson to form a new territorial government in the Louisiana Purchase country and to buy any lands that he could from t he Indians. The treaty stated that the Indians “do hereby cede and relinquish to the United States forever” all their territory east of the Mississippi, plus the eastern third of the present state of Missouri—an extraordinary total of fifty-one million acres. It was, as one of Harrison’s biographers has proudly pointed out, “the largest tract of land ever ceded in one treaty since the settlement of North America.” In return the Indians got next to nothing: guarantees of friendship and of protection against the Osage, an annuity of one thousand dollars in goods, and $2,234.50 to cover the bill the chiefs had run up for drink, baubles, and fancy clothes in St. Louis, where the treaty was signed.
It is doubtful whether the chiefs understood what they were signing, since they had no authority to sell tribal lands without the approval of the tribal council. Their mission to St. Louis had not been to sell land but to obtain the release of a brave who was being held for the murder of some white settlers. In all likelihood the chiefs considered the treaty a simple pact of peace and friendship and the annuity a gift such as they were used to receiving from the British. It was apparently on these grounds that Black Hawk himself first “touched the goose quill” to a reaffirmation of the treaty in 1816, “not knowing, however, that by that act, I consented to give away my village.” When an Indian agent later explained that the treaty was payment for land, the Sauk war chief and a number of others angrily refused to accept any more payments. “Land cannot be sold,” Black Hawk raged, ” nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.”
For a time the treaty posed little threat to the Indians, who were entitled to “enjoy the privilege” of living and hunting on their land until it was surveyed and sold to private buyers by the government. Neither in 1804 nor in 1816 were there buyers anywhere in the vicinity. Illinois and Indiana were populated by only a few thousand settlers, clustered for the most part around Vincennes and along the Ohio Valley. Except for Detroit, the Michigan Territory, including present-day Wisconsin, was largely an unexplored wilderness. Since there was no immediate reason to evict the Indians, the government was able briefly to assuage their complaints about the treaty. Thus it came as a great surprise to the Indians when, in 1808, under an “unknown” provision of the treaty, the Americans erected Fort Madison on the Mississippi, above the mouth of the Des Moines River, on Sauk land. Neither this hostile display nor the second-rate goods being given as the annuity were likely to insure friendship. When Britain and the United States again went to war in 1812, the British agent at Maiden, across the river from Detroit, needed only more and better merchandise and a little flattery to win Black Hawk and a number of the Sauk and Fox bands over to the British side. Donning a red coat and war paint, Black Hawk served as a colonel in the British army and campaigned with Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief, in Indiana and Ohio. In the summer of 1813 Black Hawk and his men fought alongside the British in their unsuccessful attacks on Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson in Ohio. A year later, with the help of a British cannon mounted on the bluffs above the Mississippi, they put to rout a punitive expedition led by young Major Zachary Taylor.
The signing of the peace at Ghent sorely disappointed Black Hawk, who had been counting on the British to help drive the Americans out of the Mississippi Valley. Every year now more and more settlers were moving into the Northwest, lured there by government land grants and by the discovery of lead in the hills along the western border of Illinois and Wisconsin. By the middle of the iSzo’salarge settlement had grown up at Galena, in the mining district. There was also a well-established army post at the old trading town of Prairie du Chien, at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, and another, Fort Armstrong, on Rock Island, within a few miles of Saukenuk. Nevertheless, the line of homestead was a good fifty miles east of the Mississippi, and under the terms of the treaty Saukenuk and the other Indian lands should have been safe for many years to come.