William Clark And The Black Hawk War 


Looking back to the Black Hawk War produces a vision that is horrifying. A baby found floating on the Mississippi on top of a bark raft is executed by soldier muttering, "Kill the nits, and you'll have no lice". Another baby riding in his mother's papoose is shot at point blank range. Hundreds of women, children and invalids shot or bayoneted to death after they attempted to surrender on the banks of the Mississippi River at the "Battle of Bad Axe" . These atrocities could have been avoided had cool minds prevailed. Unfortunately William Clark, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and a man celebrated as "the friend of the Indian" has been accused of being "directly responsible for the war" according to Thomas Forsyth, a former U.S. government agent to the Sauk-Fox. Was Forsyth simply a disgruntled former government employee or was there some justification for the accusation ? 

In 1832 Black Hawk's band (about 1,000 men, women and children). of the Sauk tribe crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois to occupy their former homes along the Rock River. (Black Hawk's band contended that the land north of the Rock River remained Sauk property and that his people were tricked  in signing both the 1804 and 1816 treaties). The Governor of Illinois regarded the entry of Black Hawk's band into the State as a military invasion. Experts on Indian warfare, know that "...No Indian in history had ever gone on the warpath taking, women, children, and old people, with them." That fact saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from being annihilated during their 1804 exploration of the West. The presence of Sacagawea with her baby, "Pomp" are credited with providing the trans-tribal message that the expedition was not a war party but one of peace. Clark should have known that.

But Clark makes no distinction regarding Black Hawk's band. In fact on June 8, 1832 Clark sent an "extermination" order to the Secretary of War. Clark wrote that Black Hawk's band "have afforded sufficient evidence not only of their entire disregard of treaties, but also of their deep-rooted hostility in shedding the blood of our women and children, a War of extermination  should be waged against them." [italics are Clark's]. As result of the extermination policy, only 39 mostly women and children were captured alive by the U.S. forces. The Sioux, operating under the request of the government, intercepted any survivors escaped back across the Mississippi. These were almost all unarmed Sauks so exhausted and starved they could offer no resistance. The Sioux executed 68 as evident by the number of scalps they collected and only spared 22 women and children. It was a massacre on both sides of the river. Black Hawk's retreat from Saukenuk (Rock Island, Illinois) to Bad Axe, Wisconsin left a trail of hundreds of starved bodies on a forced retreat. If they did not die from hunger they were executed where they were found. In most cases no quarter for mercy was given even after the victim begged with little English they could vocalize. 

Although Clark should be held responsible for this great travesty that he allowed to unfold, he was not the only one to hold the blame. Black Hawk's own advisors lied to him regarding the British and other tribes that would come to there rescue if they were attacked. Black Hawk never would have attempted to return to Illinois had these safeguards not have been guaranteed from the people he trusted ("White Cloud", the "Prophet" and Neopope).

** NOTE: It should be noted that the only whites Black Hawk's men killed were soldiers that attacked them as they tried to negotiate or surrender. They demonstrated extreme tolerance to the white squatters that occupied their land and to other non-combatants along their retreat.  The white civilians (including women and children) killed at the Massacre of Indian Creek (May 20, 1832) were killed not by Sauk but by Potawatomi. Furthermore, the May 24, 1832 murder of the Sauk agent, Felix St. Vrain, also was not committed by the Sauk but by Winnebago Indians. 

Summary History of Sauk-U.S. Relations Prior to the Black Hawk War

The United States had a long history of poor relations when dealing with the Sauk-Fox Indians. First going back to 1804, when a delegation of Sauks came to St. Louis to resolve a murder case in which members of their tribe killed three Americans on the Cuivre River. This delegation was authorized by the tribal council to make a payment to the relatives of the deceased, whom they admitted were wrongly murdered. This group of Sauks had absolutely no power to cede away tribal land but this is exactly how the United States took advantage of the situation. It is a ridiculous claim that there could be considered any legitimacy to such a signing away of land especially on the grand scale this treaty encompassed. It allegedly sold all tribal land east of the Mississippi  and a portion west of the Mississippi. Of course, the signers did not know what they were doing by making their mark and the tribe did not recognize the sale.

During the War of 1812, the tribe sided with the British. Clark was Governor of Louisiana Territory at the time. In 1814 Clark led a military operation that resulted in a military campaign in which the United States lost all its territory in the Mississippi valley north of the Des Moines. At the end of the war, the victorious Sauks lost the war because of the British capitulation in the Treaty of Ghent. In May of 1816 the Sauks sign what they believe was simply a peace treaty but instead included a reiteration of land cessation of the 1804 treaty. According to treaty, Sauks don't have to vacate land until the land is surveyed and sold by the government. The main Sauk settlement east of the Mississippi is Saukenuk on the Rock River. Sauk remain at peace even though white squatters appear on their lands. By fall of 1829 Saukenuk is sold, but the Sauk living there had left for their winter hunt west of the Mississippi. Thomas Forsyth (the Sauk-Fox agent)  tells the Sauk they can not return in the Spring of 1830

Clark and Forsyth are both aware that the key to keeping the Sauk west of the Mississippi is to prevent attacks on them by the Sioux. In May 1830 a group of Fox Indians, who are allies of the Sauk, was ambushed by Sioux on their way to a pre-scheduled council at Prairie du Chien. Forsyth prevents a tribal war by granting the Fox a future visit to St. Louis to discuss their concerns with Clark. They expressed their willingness to meet with their enemies at Rock Island but not Prairie du Chien were they felt vulnerable to attack. Clark refused to consider their request and proceeded with the July 1830 council at Prairie du Chien. Clark had put together an impromptu group of seventy Sauk-Fox to sign away more land and to make peace with enemy Siouan tribes. Of course the treaty only angered and divided the Sauk-Fox even more. To make matters worse, on the eve of the Black Hawk war, Clark fires his experienced Sauk agent Thomas Forsyth  and replaces him with Felix St. Vrain who had no experience at all. 

By Spring of 1831 the Sauk had returned to Saukenuk on the Rock River. The U.S. government called for negotiations at nearby Ft. Armstrong. Since it was a rehash of the1830 treaty, Black Hawk remained silent while those who considered it suicide to oppose the U.S. Government signed the treaty of 1831.  At this time Black Hawk is fed lies from the Prophet "White Cloud" and his own "principal lieutenant", Neopope, an overeager young Sauk warrior. He is told that if the Sauk are attacked by U.S. forces, not only the British will come to their rescue but also the Winnebago, Potawatomis, Chippewas, and Ottawas tribes agreed to aid them. So on April 3, 1832 Black Hawk's band crossed the Mississippi into Illinois not to make war but to occupy that which they considered their home.

--Scott K. Williams, Florissant, Missouri


Making Treaties: Good Faith or Deception ?

American Indian History

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