- 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
But the rich soil of the Rock River valley was too tempting to pass up, and soon white squatters appeared in the area. Black Hawk complained to the Indian agent at nearby Fort Armstrong, but though it was clearly the government’s duty to evict the squatters, nothing was done. The American agents had long been arguing that white expansion into the area was inevitable and that the Indians would do best to avoid trouble by withdrawing to the other side of the Mississippi. Indeed, during the war with England a large number of Sauk and Foxes, fearing involvement in the conflict, had moved voluntarily to American-held territory west of the river. Division of the tribes now enabled the government to increase its pressure on those who remained—an effort that was aided by a clever and ambitious Sauk named Keokuk, “one who moves about alert.” Thirteen years Black Hawk’sjunior, blue-eyed (his mother apparently was halfFrench), and a gifted speaker, Keokuk had great influence among the Sauk and was more inclined to cooperate with the Americans than Black Hawk was. By helping Keokuk bolster his position in the tribe and by showering him with gifts, American officials won his fealty. A tour of eastern cities in 1823 further convinced the young chief of the futility of resisting the white man.
The squatters at Saukenuk gradually became more and more brazen in their intrusions on the Indians, usurping their lodges, destroying their boats, plowing up and fencing in their cornfields, and harassing their women and children. Once Black Hawk himself received a brutal and gratuitous beating at the hands of some white settlers. ” I was so much bruised that I could not sleep for several nights,” he later recalled. “How could we like such people, who treated us so unjustly?” The situation grew more intolerable every year. Finally, in 1828, the governor of Illinois persuaded the federal government to order the Indians’ removal, regardless of their rights under the treaty. The following year Keokuk, resigned to the inevitable, convinced a majority of the tribe that the time had come to move across the Mississippi and rebuild their lodges beside the Iowa River. Black Hawk was enraged by Keokuk’s defection, which he considered a betrayal of the Sauk birthright: “I looked upon him as a coward, and no brave, to abandon his village to be occupied by strangers.”
Black Hawk and his British Band, as his followers were called by the Americans, were determined to hold on to Saukenuk. “It was here that I was born,” he said, “and here lie the bones of many friends and relations. For this spot I felt a sacred reverence, and never could consent to leave it, without being forced therefrom.” He and his band remained at Saukenuk that summer and returned again in the spring of 1830, despite the efforts of Keokuk and the American agent to get them to leave. It was a tense summer, and the squatters made things worse by getting the braves drunk and cheating them of their horses and guns. When Black Hawk led his people back to Saukenuk in the spring of 1831, determined this time to drive the whites off, the governor, John Reynolds, issued a fiery proclamation calling on the men of Illinois to “repel the invasion of the British band.” Black Hawk soon found himself and his small force of three hundred warriors on the verge of war with an army of some sixteen hundred militiamen, bearing what the governor called “an excess of the Indian ill-will ,” and ten companies of regulars sent to Rock Island from St. Louis. Called to a conference with the American officers, Black Hawk put on a good show, entering the council house with haughty demeanor and in full war regalia. But the size of the force arrayed against him suggested persuasively that resistance would be suicidal. On June 26, 1831, when the volunteers were finally turned loose on Saukenuk, they found the village deserted. Black Hawk and his people had extinguished their fires the night before and slipped across the Mississippi. The thwarted militiamen took their revenge by burning the village to the ground. A few days later, under threat of further pursuit, Black Hawk went back across the river and signed a treaty promising never to return to the Illinois side of the Mississippi without the express permission of the government.