- 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
In the spring Black Hawk and the other leaders of the British Band were taken on a tour of the East so that they might witness the immense power of the Americans and never again be tempted to rebel. They were shown railroads, prisons, public buildings, government arsenals, and the seagoing fortresses of the American navy. They were taken to all the important cities, where they were gaped at by the crowds and lionized like foreign princes. Black Hawk was amazed by what he saw. “I had no idea that the white people had such large villages, and so many people,” he said somberly.
Black Hawk returned home without any fight left in him. When he discovered that in his absence the United States had appointed Keokuk head of the Sauk nation and that he must now obey the man whom he considered a traitor to his people, the old man could barely express his anger and humiliation. Later that year, dedicating his autobiography to his victor, General Atkinson, he found words for his bitterness, here translated by an interpreter: The changes of fortune, and vicissitudes of war, made you my conqueror. When my last resources were exhausted, my warriors worn down with long and toilsome marches, we yielded, and I became your prisoner. … I am now an obscure member of a nation, that formerly honored my opinions. … That you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to, is the wish of him, who, in his native forests, was once as proud and bold as yourself.
During the last years of his life, Black Hawk lived quietly on a small tract of land set aside for him in Iowa, while more whites than ever came pouring into the Midwest and Keokuk grew rich selling the Sauk lands. The old Sauk warrior died on the third of October, 1838, at the age of seventy-one, and was buried in a mound near his lodge. But even this bit of ground was denied him. The following year his body was stolen from its grave by an Illinois physician, who hoped to get rich by placing it on exhibit. When the bones were finally recovered, they were placed in the Geological and Historical Society of Burlington, Iowa. They were destroyed in 1855, when the building burned down.