On Rock River, in Illinois, near its junction with the Mississippi, there was a considerable Sauk village, inhabited by a large band of active sympathizers with the British, and under the domination of Black Sparrow Hawk (commonly called Black Hawk), an ambitious, restless, and somewhat demagogic headman of the tribe. Altho himself "touching the quill" at both the treaty of 1804 and that with the Sauk and Foxes in May, 1816, he afterward denied the authority of the tribal chiefs to sign away the common lands, thereby ignoring his own earlier assent.
When, in 1816, the Federal Government treated separately therefor with the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi, and it was found that the lower Rock River was south of the prescribed boundary line, the majority of the Sacs and Foxes on that stream, under the Fox head-chief Keokuk, discreetly moved to the west of the Mississippi. But Black Hawk's "British band," as they were calledtwo hundred of them had fought under Tecumsehcontinued to hold the old village site, where he himself was born, and where was the great cemetery of the tribe; quite ignoring the fact that their tribal rights in the territory were no longer recognized by the United States.
White squatters, coveting land far beyond the frontier of legal entries, still some sixty miles eastward, began to annoy the Hawk as early as 1823, burning his lodges while he was absent on the hunt, destroying his crops, insulting his women, and now and then actually beating him and his people. Persistently advised by the tribal chiefs to abandon his town to the on-rushing tide of settlement, he nevertheless obstinately held his ground. In the spring of 1830 affairs had reached a crisis. When the British band returned from their winter's hunt, they found their cemetery plowed over, for several squatters had now preempted the village site, the cemetery, and the extensive aboriginal planting grounds; yet a belt of forty miles of Indian lands still lay unsurveyed between this and the western line of regular settlement.
The indignant Hawk now took his band overland by the great Sac trail, south of Lake Michigan, to consult with his friend the British military agent at Malden, in Canada, not far from Detroit. He was there advised that the spirit of the treaty of 1804 had clearly been violated, and that if he persisted in repelling the squatters the Government's sense of fair play would surely support him; but the British official evidently had not carefully studied the trend of our Indian diplomacy. Thus fortified, Black Hawk returned to his village in the spring of 1831, his people in a starving condition, only to find white intruders more numerous and offensive than ever. He thereupon indiscreetly threatened them with force if they did not at once depart. This was construed as being a "bloody menace," and the Illinois militia were promptly called out by Governor John Reynolds in a flaming proclamation, to "repel the invasion of the British band." On June 25, the Hawk cowered before a demonstration made at his village by some seven hundred militiamen and regulars, and fled to the west of the Mississippi, humbly promising never to return without the express permission of the Federal Government.
Black Hawk, now a man of some fifty-four years, a somewhat remarkable organizer and military tactician, and for one of his race broad-minded and humane, was nevertheless too easily led by the advice of others. He was now beset by young Potawatomi hot-bloods from northeastern Illinois and along the western shore of Lake Michigan, scalp-hunters from the Winnebago and along the upper Rock River, and emissaries from the Ottawa and Chippewa, all of whom urged him to return and fight for his rights. Particularly was he influenced by a Winnebago soothsayer named White Cloud, who throughout was his evil genius. No crop had been raised, and the winter in Iowa was unusually harsh, so that by early spring the British band were menaced by famine.
Driven to desperation, and relying on these proffers of intertribal assistance, the Hawk crossed the Mississippi at Yellow Banks, April 6, 1832, with five hundred warriors, mostly Sauk, accompanied by all their women, children, and domestic equipment. Their intention was to raise a crop at the Winnebago village at Prophet's Town, on Rock River, and then if practicable the bucks would take the warpath in the autumn.
But the news of the "invasion" spread like wild-fire through the Illinois and Wisconsin settlements. Another fiery proclamation from Springfield summoned the people to arms, the United States was also called on for troops, those settlers who did not fly the country threw up log forts, and everywhere was aroused intense excitement and feverish preparation for bloody strife.
In an incredibly short time, three hundred regulars and eighteen hundred horse and foot volunteers were on the march. The startled Hawk sent back a defiant message, and retreated up Rock River, making a brief stand at Stillman's Creek. Here, finding that the promised assistance from other tribes was not forthcoming, he attempted to surrender on stipulation that he be allowed peacefully to withdraw to the west of the Mississippi. But his messengers, on approaching with their white flag the camp of twenty-five hundred half-drunken Illinois cavalry militia, were brutally slain. Accompanied by a mere handful of braves, the enraged Sac leader now ambushed and easily routed the large and boisterous party, whose members displayed rank cowardice; in their mad retreat they spread broadcast through the settlements that Black Hawk was backed by two thousand bloodthirsty warriors, bent on a campaign of universal slaughter. This created popular consternation throughout the West. The name of the deluded Black Hawk became everywhere coupled with stories of savage cruelty, and served as a household bugaboo. Meanwhile, so great was the alarm that the Illinois militia, originally hot to take the field, now, on flimsy excuses, promptly disbanded.
Black Hawk himself was much encouraged by his easy victory at Stillman's Creek, and, laden with spoils from the militia camp, removed his women and children about seventy miles northeastward, to the neighborhood of Lake Koshkonong, near the headwaters of Rock River, a Wisconsin district girt about by great marshes and not then easily accessible to white troops. Thence descending with his braves to northern Illinois, where he had spasmodic help from small bands of young Winnebago and Potawatomi, the Hawk and his friends engaged in irregular hostilities along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, and made life miserable for the settlers and miners. In these various forays, with which, however, the Sac headman was not always connected,, fully two hundred whites and nearly as many Indians, lost their lives. At the besieged blockhouse forts (particularly Plum River, in northern Illinois) there were numerous instances of romantic heroism on the part of the settlers, men and women alike; and several of the open fights, like one on the Peckatonica River, are still famous in local annals.
Three weeks after the Stillman's Creek affair, a reorganized army of 3,200 Illinois militia was mobilized, being reenforced by regulars under General Atkinson and a battalion of two hundred mounted rangers from the lead region, enlisted by Major Henry Dodge, then commandant of Michigan militia west of Lake Michigan, and in later years governor of Wisconsin Territory. The entire army now in the field numbered about 4,000 effective men. Dodge's rangers, gathered from the mines and fields, were a free-and-easy set of fellows, destitute of uniforms, but imbued with the spirit of adventure and the customary frontiersmen's intense hatred of the Indians whom they had ruthlessly displaced. While disciplined to the extent of obeying orders whenever sent into the teeth of danger, these Rough Riders of 1832 swung through the country with small regard for the rules of the manual, and presented a striking contrast to the habits and appearance of the regulars.
As the new army slowly but steadily moved up Rock River, Black Hawk retired toward his Lake Koshkonong base. The pursuit becoming too warm, however, he retreated hastily across country, with women and children and all the paraphernalia of the British band, to the Wisconsin River, in the neighborhood of Prairie du Sac; on his way crossing the site of the present Madison, where he was caught up with by his pursuers, now more swift in their movements. On reaching the rugged bluffs overlooking the Wisconsin, he sought again to surrender; but there chanced to be no interpreter among the whites, and the unfortunate suppliant was misunderstood. The battle of Wisconsin Heights followed (July 21), without appreciable loss on either side. Here the Sauk leader displayed much skill in covering the flight of his people across the broad, island-strewn river.
A portion of the fugitives, chiefly women and children, escaped on a raft down the Wisconsin, but near Prairie du Chien were mercilessly fired upon by a detachment from the garrison of Fort Crawford, and fifteen killed. The remainder, led by Black Hawk and some Winnebago guides, pushed across through a rough, forbidding country, to the junction of the Bad Ax with the Mississippi, losing many along the way, who died of wounds and starvation. The now sadly depleted and almost famished crew reached the Mississippi on the first of August, and attempted to cross the river to the habitat of the Sioux, fondly hoping that their troubles would then be over. But only two or three canoes were obtainable, and the work was not only slow, but, owing to the swift current, accompanied by some loss of life.
In the afternoon the movement was detected by the crew of the Warrior, a government supply steamer carrying a detachment of soldiers from Fort Crawford. A third time the Hawk sought to surrender, but his white signal was fired at, under pretense that it was a savage ruse, and round after round of canister swept the wretched camp. The next day (August 2) the troops, who had been delayed for three days in crossing Wisconsin River, were close upon their heels, and arrived on the heights overlooking the beach. The Warrior thereupon renewed its attack, and caught between two galling fires the poor savages soon succumbed. Black Hawk fled inland to seek an asylum at the Dells of the Wisconsin with his false friends, the Winnebago, who had guided the white army along his path; fifty of his people remained on the east bank and were taken prisoners by the troops; some three hundred miserable starvelings, largely noncombatants, reached the west shore through the hail of metal, only to be waylaid by Sioux, dispatched by army officials to intercept them, and half of their number were slain. Of the band of a thousand Sacs who had entered Illinois in April, not much over a hundred and fifty lived to tell of the Black Hawk War, one of the most discreditable punitive expeditions in the long and checkered history of American relations with the aborigines.
As for the indiscreet but honest Black Hawk, in many ways one of the most interesting of North American Indians, he was promptly surrendered (August 27) by the Winnebago to the Indian agency at Prairie du Chien. Imprisoned first at Jefferson Barracks, and then at Fortress Monroe,2 exhibited to throngs of curiosity-seeking people in the Eastern States, and obliged to sign articles of perpetual peace, he was finally turned over for safe-keeping to his hated and hating rival, the Fox chief Keokuk. In 1834 his autobiography was publisheda book probably authentic for the most part, but the stilted style is no doubt that of his white editor.
Dying in 1838 (October 3) upon a small reservation in Iowa, Black Hawk's grave was rifled by a traveling physician, who utilized the bones for exhibition purposes. Two years later the skeleton was, on the demand of indignant sympathizers, surrendered to the State of Iowa; but in 1853 the box containing it was destroyed by a fire at Iowa City, then the capital of that commonwealth.
With all his faults, and these were chiefly racial, Black Hawk was preeminently a patriot. A year before his death he made a speech to a party of whites who were making him a holiday hero, and thus forcibly defended his motives: "Rock River was a beautiful country. I liked my town, my corn-fields, and the home of my people. I fought for them." No poet could have penned for him a more touching epitaph.
1 From Thwaites' "Wisconsin." By permission of Mr. Thwaites and by arrangement with his authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright 1908.
2 Black Hawk was taken to Fortress Monroe by Jefferson Davis, then a young lieutenant from West Point, and afterward President of the Confederacy. It is curious that Abraham Lincoln and Robert Anderson, who commanded Fort Sumter, also took part in the Black Hawk War.