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“I Was Once a Great Warrior”

June 2024
26min read

The tragedy of Black Hawk, who became the eponym of a war he tried to avoid

On July 4, 1838, the people of Fort Madison, in the Iowa Territory, invited an old Sauk war chief named Black Hawk to be guest of honor at their Independence Day celebration. A wrinkled and feeble old man, he sat at their banquet table under the trees on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and listened dourly while the white men bestowed honor and friendship upon him. When his turn came Black Hawk, too, spoke of friendship, but he could not forget the past as easily as the whites. They, after all, had gained by it; he had lost. “Rock River was a beautiful country,” he told them now, leaning on his cane and gazing out over the river. “I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for them. … I was once a great warrior. Now I am poor.… Now I am old.”

Only six years had passed since this same man had led his braves in battle against the whites. Hoping to regain the Sauk and Fox homelands on the Rock River in Illinois, he and his warriors had spread panic through the white settlements. All the power of the United States government could not stop him, it seemed, and settlers slept on their rifles at night and started up, terrified, at any sudden sound in the woods. For eager young men and politicians Black Hawk’s attempt to reclaim his birthright became the Black Hawk War—a glorious adventure and a chance to prove one’s valor at election time. For the old Sauk chief, who realized too late that history was against him, it became a disaster that in the end only hastened the white man’s advance across the continent and cost the Indians much more than their old hunting grounds.

Fort Madison, where the aged Black Hawk spoke three months before his death, was near the southern end of what had once been the Sauk and Fox domain, a vast area stretching as far north as the Wisconsin River, as far east and south as the Fox and Illinois rivers, and west into parts of present-day Iowa and Missouri. Here the Sauk and Foxes had planted their corn for a hundred years. Algonquian-speaking peoples, they came originally from the north and east of the continent and had settled the area in the early 1700’s, having formed a confederacy for mutual protection. The chief village of the Sauk was Saukenuk, which lay on the north side of the Rock River three miles above its mouth, in what was one of the most fertile and beautiful of valleys. As many as five hundred families lived at Saukenuk during the growing season. The surrounding prairies, rivers, marshes, and oak-forested hills were a cornucopia of fish and game, and the rich alluvial soil of the Rock and Mississippi river valleys produced enormous crops of corn, squash, pumpkin, and tobacco. After each harvest the people of Saukenuk packed up their belongings and spent a nomadic winter hunting and trapping in the wilderness.

The Indians’ lives were not as peaceful and idyllic as their surroundings would suggest. Their hunting grounds in Missouri overlapped those of the Osage, and there were frequent raids and reprisals between the tribes and skirmishes as well with the neighboring Sioux and Cherokee. Foremost among the defenders of the Sauk and Fox lands was a young brave, Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, whose name described a black sparrow hawk in flight. The Black Hawk, as he became known to the whites, was born at Saukenuk in 1767. So he says in his autobiography, a deeply personal account of his struggle that he dictated to a government interpreter in 1833, the year after his so-called war.

Black Hawk was a spare man, in height some five feet four or five inches. He had a high, sloping forehead, and the top of his head was shaved clean but for a scalp lock, to which eagle feathers were tied. The feathers were the mark of a warrior, an honor he won at fifteen when he wounded an enemy in battle. Soon afterward, “fired by valor and ambition, I… smote [another enemy] to the earth with my tomahawk.… This was the first man I killed!” After that Black Hawk spent much of his time on the warpath, protecting the lands of the Sauk and Foxes from their enemies. Eventually his forcefulness and prowess in battle placed him among the leaders of Saukenuk, though he was neither a hereditary nor an elected chief and at tribal councils could speak only on matters of war.

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.

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.

Black Hawk apparently had every intention of retiring into peaceful old age in the new country along the Iowa River. He was now sixty-four years old, and his hair was turning white. Further struggle seemed useless without the support of Keokuk, who spoke for the majority of the Sauk and Foxes. But the bitterness in the old man’s heart would not be stilled. He could not forget the white man’s insults to himself and to his people, who, deprived now of their corn harvest in Saukenuk, were facing a year of hardship. He also worried that the young war hawks in his band, eager to avenge the injustices of the whites, might depose him and find a new war chief if hedid not lead them into battle. While he was brooding on these matters his second in command, an aggressive young firebrand named Neapope, “the broth,” brought news that banished all thoughts of retirement from the old man’s head. Returning from a visit to Canada, Neapope reported that the British supported the Sauk claim to the lands at Saukenuk and were prepared to assist the Indians if the Americans tried to keep them away. Neapope had also stopped at the Winnebago village, some thirtyfive miles up the Rock River from Saukenuk, where Black Hawk’s friend and adviser, an Indian mystic called the Prophet, had told him that the Sauk and Foxes could also count on the aid of the Winnebago, Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa. Should the Indians go to war, the British would furnish arms, ammunition, and supplies, and if they were defeated, they would be given refuge in Canada. Black Hawk and his people were invited by the Prophet to come to the Winnebago village in the spring and plant corn, while waiting for their allies.

All this, of course, was fantasy, an inflation of British and Indian sympathies into promises of active support. Perhaps Neapope and the Prophet had simply deluded themselves, so intense was their hatred of the Americans. Or perhaps they were goading Black Hawk into taking the lead in hopes that his rebellion would spark a general Indian uprising. Black Hawk, at any rate, heard Neapope’s “good news” with great satisfaction. Against Keokuk’s advice he began recruiting warriors and spreading the word that his people should rendezvous for crossing in the early spring. Keokuk, fearing reprisals against his own people for Black Hawk’s intransigence, sent a message warning the government agent at Rock Island of Black Hawk’s plans. He even offered to lead his own war party against the followers of his fellow Sauk.

Undaunted by Keokuk’s opposition, Black Hawk’s party of five hundred warriors and fifteen hundred women and children assembled on the western shore of the Mississippi on the morning of April 5, 1832, just below the mouth of the Iowa, and made their way across on rafts and canoes to a place called Yellow Banks on the Illinois side. There they were met by the Winnebago Prophet, who reassured them of support and offered to escort them to his village. The river was swollen by spring thaws and heavy rain, and the trip was slow going, with women and children in canoes pushing upstream against the turbulent current while the warriors, most of them mounted, kept pace along the shore. They had just reached the mouth of the Rock River on April 12 when two steamboats appeared on the Mississippi, carrying the troops of General Henry Atkinson, who was on his way up to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien when he received word of Black Hawk’s crossing. Fearing an attack on Fort Armstrong, he had ordered full steam ahead and had managed to overtake the Indians. Black Hawk and his warriors beat their drums and sang loudly “to show the Americans that we were not afraid,” then proceeded peacefully up the Rock River, past the charred ruins of Saukenuk and on to the Winnebago village. Atkinson, uncertain of the Indians’ strength, hesitated to pursue them without adequate forces. Such indecisiveness was to mark his entire campaign against Black Hawk. After warning Governor Reynolds and the nearby settlers of the Indians’ return, he sent messengers to Black Hawk, ordering him to withdraw peacefully or be driven back across the Mississippi by force. Black Hawk viewed these orders as a sign of weakness and refused to turn back.

News that an army of savages was on the warpath in Illinois spread fear and outrage among the settlers. When Governor Reynolds issued another proclamation calling upon the men of the state to defend their homes, the settlers came out in droves. Among the Sangamon County volunteers was Abraham Lincoln, then a twentythree-year-old clerk in a New Salem store, who rode to war on a borrowed horse. The volunteers, sixteen hundred strong, assembled at Beardstown in late April and then marched to the mouth of the Rock River, where they were sworn into federal service on May 7 under the command of Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside. Atkinson’s three hundred regulars had meanwhile been supplemented by a force of one hundred men from forts Crawford and Leavenworth, under the command of Zachary Taylor, who had risen to the rank of colonel since his encounter with Black Hawk eighteen years before. Keokuk’s band also appeared, but their services were refused, perhaps for fear of treachery.

On May g a start was made. Whiteside, Reynolds, and the mounted volunteers followed Black Hawk’s trail up the east bank of the Rock River while the regulars and the few volunteers who had come on foot trailed behind in boats with the provisions, baggage, and artillery. Whiteside’s forces quickly outdistanced Atkinson’s, and in a short time they reached the Prophet’s town. Finding Black Hawk gone, they put the village to the torch and pressed on as far as Dixon’s Ferry, where they decided to wait for the supply troops to catch up. They were soon joined by two more volunteer battalions, commanded by majors Isaiah Stillman and David Bailey. Stillman’s men were eager for action and too impatient to stand around waiting when Black Hawk could be no more than twenty-five miles ahead. Finding it impossible to hold them back, Reynolds gave them permission to scout ahead and if they found the Indians to “coerce them into submission.” On May 14 Stillman’s 275 men galloped off in high spirits, not stopping until late afternoon, when Stillman decided to camp in a grove of treesjust below the mouth of Sycamore Creek.

All this happened while Black Hawk had been discovering to his dismay that aside from the Prophet and a handful of young warriors, the Winnebago wanted no part of a war against the whites. The very presence of the renegade Sauk and Foxes in their village was making them anxious for their own safety. After a week of fruitless councils with the Winnebago chiefs, Black Hawk angrily concluded that Neapope had been deceived. He still hoped for something better from the Potawatomi, but now, for the first time, he began to fear that the journey up the Rock River had been a mistake. Yet he continued to assure his people that help was at hand and that they would yet plant their corn in their own country. Leaving the Winnebago village, he sent his people on ahead while he and about fifty of his braves camped near the mouth of Sycamore Creek and met with the Potawatomi chiefs. Again the news was bad. Afew of their braves were eager for war, they told him, but most had made their peace with the white man. Black Hawk also learned now that he could not count on getting help from the British. It was a grave moment. The old warrior’s dream of regaining the lands of his fathers was revealed to be nothing more than empty fantasy. He had kindled the hopes of his people and had led them into a hostile land; now they were tired and hungry, without friends to help them and with neither food nor the promise of the ancestral lands to sustain them. Angry, desolate, defeated, the old man decided there was nothing to do but turn back.

But it was already too late. As Black Hawk’s Potawatomi guests were preparing to leave the council grounds scouts brought word that a party of whites was setting up camp a few miles away. Thinking them to be Atkinson’s advance guard, Black Hawk sent three of his young braves with a flag of truce to convey his offer to parley. As a precaution he sent another party of five braves to keep watch from a distance.

The militiamen, undisciplined to begin with, were well into the whiskey ration by the time Black Hawk’s emissaries appeared on the prairie. The sight of the three Indians threw them into turmoil. The flag bearers were immediately surrounded by a mob of hooting and threatening volunteers. While the three were being interrogated someone spotted the second party of Indians out on the prairie. The excited Americans decided they were being attacked. Without waiting for orders, a pack of horsemen took off after the I ndians, who turned and fled. Two were overtaken and shot; the others rushed back to Black Hawk’s camp. Meantime, Stillman’smenhad turned their wrath on the three flag bearers. In the melee guns were cocked, someone fired, and one of the Indians fell dead. The other two dashed through the crowd and made their escape.

Black Hawk was preparing a flag of truce when the three surviving scouts came galloping into the council grove with news of the white men’s treachery. Ina fury he tore up his flag and called upon his warriors to avenge the murder of their brothers. Determined to make their stand whatever the odds, Black Hawk and his fifty braves concealed themselves behind a long fringe of bushes and waited to see what would happen. As the white army of almost three hundred men came rushing toward them in disarray the Indians leaped up with whoops and yells and a volley of musket fire. In the uncertain light of early evening the militiamen thought they were being attacked by a whole nation of savages. They stopped short, and as some men in front fell from their horses and others turned to run, the men behind caught their panic, until all of Stillman’s volunteers were fleeing in terror across the prairie, pursued by a handful of Indians. Darkness ended the chase, but the Americans did not stop running until they reached Whiteside’s camp, twenty-five miles away, bearing frenzied tales of two thousand savages and a horrible massacre. The next day Whiteside and his army marched to the battlefield, where they found the scalped and mutilated bodies of eleven of Stillman’s men.

“Never was I so much surprised in my life, as I was in this attack! ” Black Hawk later recalled. “An army of three or four hundred … to retreat when they had ten to one , was unaccountable to me.” The old Sauk was elated. He knew there could be no more thought of a peaceful retreat down the Rock River, but his easy victory led him to believe that he no longer needed to fear the Americans, who, he said, “had no … braves among them.” His people, too, had cause for rejoicing, for in their haste Stillman’s men had left behind their entire store of provisions.

Revived in body and spirit, the Indians headed north up the Kishwaukee, where, guided by friendly Winnebagos, they hoped to find a safe hiding place in the tangled swamps and marshes of southern Wisconsin. When his people were well on their way, Black Hawk and a party of mounted warriors armed with guns and tomahawks returned to Illinois and unleashed their fury on the settlers in the Galena mining district, attacking a stockade on Apple River and an isolated detachment of volunteers at Kellogg’s Grove. Five men were killed at Kellogg’s Grove, and Abraham Lincoln was among those who helped bury them the next day. Later Lincoln remembered how each of the dead men “had a round, red spot on top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken off his scalp.” The foray was Black Hawk’s one act of offensive war, a brief and bloody outburst. But elsewhere renegade bands of Potawatomis, Winnebagos, and Kickapoos, fired by Black Hawk’s victory on Sycamore Creek, began spreading terror throughout northern Illinois. The worst massacre was at the Indian Creek settlement near Ottawa, where a Potawatomi war party slaughtered three families—fifteen men, women, and children. But wherever Indian war cries were heard and white men’s blood ran over the ground, Black Hawk was blamed until it seemed that he and his warriors were everywhere. Terrified settlers in outlying areas carried their muskets with them into the fields and kept their women and children near the stockade. Outraged politicians and newspaper editors began demanding a war of extermination against the Indians. In Washington President Andrew Jackson was fuming at Atkinson’s delay inbringing the Indians under control, and finally he ordered General Winfield Scott to assemble an army at Chicago and take charge of the campaign.

While the Indians were rampaging through Illinois the pursuing army was falling apart at Dixon’s Ferry. After Stillman’s defeat the volunteers had completely lost their nerve and were clamoring to be discharged. General Atkinson also overestimated Black Hawk’s strength and was reluctant to engage his regulars without the support of the militia. Governor Reynolds was forced to call for new recruits. A small number of veterans, including Lincoln, chose to re-enlist, but it was the end of June before Atkinson had what he considered a sufficient force to set off after Black Hawk. His army swollen to almost 3,500 men, Atkinson confidently followed the Indians’ trail into Wisconsin. His guides, however, were Winnebagos, who, though friendly toward the whites, were more friendly toward the Sauk and Foxes. They led Atkinson and his army on one false trail after another, backtracking and crisscrossing the marshy, mosquitoridden country until provisions began running out and the weary and disgusted volunteers began drifting back to their crops and their families in Illinois. This time Governor Reynolds and Lincoln also joined the exodus. Atkinson was forced to halt on Lake Koshkonong while detachments of regulars went in search of food. One of the foraging expeditions was on its way back to Atkinson’s camp when, on July 18, a scout stumbled on Black Hawk’s trail. Sending word back to Atkinson, the officer in charge, General James B. Henry, joined Colonel Henry Dodge and his Galena volunteers and set off in pursuit.


The Indians, in the meantime, had moved west to the Four Lakes area (the site of present-day Madison), where Black Hawk had rejoined them at the beginning of July. He found his people desperately short of food and exhausted from three months of almost steady travelling. In the marshes “there was but little game of any sort to be found—and fish were equally scarce,” he said. “We were forced to dig roots and bark trees to obtain something to satisfy hunger and keep us alive!” When he learned that the Americans were again on his trail, Black Hawk decided to move his people across the Mississippi, believing that once they had returned to the Sauk country in Iowa the Americans would leave them alone. With five Winnebagos to guide them, the Indians broke camp again and followed the sun to the west, intending to descend the Wisconsin River.

The country was even rougher than before. Heavily wooded and cut up by thickets, swamps, and creeks, it was at times all but impassable. And heavy rains fell almost continuously. Every day a few old people died of starvation. Stragglers, too weak or too sick to keep up, were overtaken by their pursuers, and it was reported that “half a dozen of these old creatures were shot and scalped.” No longer was there a possibility of mercy from the whites, who were enflamed by the massacres in I Uinois and determined to exact retribution. By the time the Indians reached the heights above the Wisconsin on July 21, Henry and Dodge, with 570 mounted men, were within a few hours of catching up with them. As a delaying tactic Black Hawk posted snipers along the trail. Then, sending most of his braves ahead to assist the women and children in crossing the river, he and fifty of his best warriors took possession of a hill about a mile to the rear, intending to hold the whites back as long as possible. Jefferson Davis, a young lieutenant at the scene, later recalled that “the Indians made so determined a stand, and fought with such desperation, that they held us in check. During this time the squaws tore bark from the trees, with which they made little shallops, in which they floated their papooses and other impedimenta across to an island, also swimming over the ponies.” Eventually the whites rushed forward and drove Black Hawk and his braves from the hill by sheer force of numbers, pushing them back into a brushcovered ravine. From this new position the Indians kept up a withering fire, holding the whites back until darkness fell and Dodge and Henry reluctantly called off the attack. During the night Black Hawk moved the rest of his people across the river, and in the morning the Americans found no one to fight. Having neither adequate supplies nor any means of crossing the river, they were forced to give up the chase.

Black Hawk’s conduct of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights was later given high marks by Jefferson Davis, who was himself on the way to an illustrious military career. It was, he said, “a feat of consummate management and bravery, in the face of an enemy of great superior odds. ” Black Hawk said he lost six men in the engagement, though Dodge estimated that “we must have killed 40 of them,” while only one American was killed. During the crossing of the Wisconsin a number of Black Hawk’s followers, faced with another long overland journey, decided to continue downstream on their rafts, hoping to escape down the Mississippi. But the refugees, among them a great number of women and children, were cut off by soldiers from Prairie du Chien, and most were killed or drowned. Several were taken prisoner, and a few others escaped to the woods, where they starved to death or were slaughtered by Menominis sent out to search for them.

Black Hawk was relying now only on himself. Neapope had deserted him after the battle, and the Prophet no longer cared or dared to offer advice. Without rafts or canoes to descend the Wisconsin, Black Hawk and the remainder of his band started over the rugged and increasingly hilly country toward the Mississippi. The chief tried to hurry his people along, knowing that the Americans would soon be after them again. But progress was painfully slow. Many of the ponies had given out. More old people died. So did some children and several of the wounded. Rushed along by the braves, the Indians abandoned their belongings, leaving a pathetic trail strewn with kettles, pots, blankets, mats, and graves. There was still nothing to eat but roots, boiled grass, bark, and occasionally a pony that had grown too weak to be of any other use. But the Indians trudged on, and on August i they reached the Mississippi, just below the mouth of the Bad Axe, about forty miles above Prairie du Chien.

They had been at the river only a short time and some had already begun to cross when the steamboat Warrior came into view upstream. Carrying a detachment of troops and armed with an artillery piece mounted on the bow, the Warrior was returning from Minnesota, where the commander of the troops had been urging the Sioux to watch for their enemies the Sauk and Foxes and prevent their escape across the river. Far from being alarmed, Black Hawk was relieved to see the vessel. He knew its captain and was confident that he would at last be able to surrender and put an end to the suffering of his people. Waving a white cloth from a pole, he called to the captain to send a boat over so that he might come aboard to parley. The interpreter on the Warrior apparently misunderstood the message and said that the Indians wanted those on board to come ashore. The Americans refused, suspecting a trap. When some of the Indians jumped into the water and began swimming toward the boat with a white flag, the troops got panicky and opened fire pointblank with the artillery piece. The attack caught the Indians by surprise. A number were killed immediately. The rest ran for cover behind logs and trees and began returning the Warrior ’s fire. The shooting went on for two hours and only ceased when the steamboat ran short of wood and had to return to Prairie du Chien to refuel. The next day the captain described the skirmish to a friend with all the verve of a sportsman at a turkey shoot. “This little fight cost them twenty-three killed, and of course a great many wounded,” he reported. “We never lost a man.”

When the Warrior left, Black Hawk seems to have concluded that the war was over and that his people were free to return to the Sauk nation. But having led them to safety, he himself would go no farther. With his dream a disaster and his people decimated, he was apparently reluctant to return and face the scorn of those who had once honored him as a great warrior. Telling his people that they could now cross the river if they wished, he and his family, together with the Winnebago Prophet and the few lodges that were still willing to follow him, started north, intending to join the Chippewa.

Atkinson had meantime combined forces with Henry and Dodge and had again taken up the chase. General Scott’s army was at Chicago, stricken with cholera and unable to move. But Atkinson now had command of an army of fourteen hundred mounted men and an easy trail ahead, and he neither needed nor wanted Scott’s help. With buzzards and carrion crows to guide them, the Americans had no trouble closing the distance between themselves and the Indians. On the night of August 2 they camped within a few miles of the place where the ragged remnants of the Sauk and Foxes were making their way across the river. Black Hawk heard the news at daybreak. Fearing disaster, he hurried back to the Bad Axe, determined to “die with my people, if the Great Spirit would not give us another victory!” Hoping to gain as much time as possible for those at the river, he and his warriors retired a safe distance to the rear, where, aided by a thick morning fog, they set about obliterating the main trail and laying a new one. When the whites approached, advancing cautiously through the mist, the Indians suddenly opened fire from ambush. Atkinson and his army rushed up the false trail in pursuit, and Black Hawk and his men retreated, drawing them on. The troops of Henry’s brigade, however, were some distance to the rear. Not yet caught up in the excitement and having more time to watch where they were going, they discovered the main trail and realized Black Hawk’s ruse. Sending word to Atkinson, Henry marched his men forward and soon fell upon the Indians, many of whom were still on the east bank waiting to cross. The red men tried to give themselves up, but the Americans rushed on them with bloody fury, clubbing and shooting them without sparing the women and children.

In the first assault the braves fought back ferociously and killed several whites. But the main body of the army came up, and the Indians were quickly overwhelmed. In the midst of the battle some women jumped into the river and attempted to swim across with their babies on their backs. Others took refuge on an island and hid among the trees. But then the Warrior reappeared from Prairie du Chien and began raking the island with artillery fire, while sharpshooters on the upper deck picked off the Indians in the water. Those who were not shot or drowned were tomahawked by the Sioux on the west bank. Later, Dodge’s and Taylor’s men were ferried to the island, where they slaughtered those who had survived the artillery barrage.

The carnage went on for several hours. When it was over, the ground was littered with corpses. The whites lost seventeen men and counted the bodies of about 150 Indians along the shore. Many more Indians were killed or drowned in the river. General Joseph M. Street, the Indian agent at Prairie du Chien, wrote that “The Inds. were pushed litterally into the Mississippi, the current of which was at one time perceptibly tinged with [their] blood.” Some whites took Indian scalps. Others, not satisfied with that grisly souvenir, cut from the bodies strips of skin with which to make belts and razor strops. Of the Indians who made their way across the river, a large number were killed and scalped by the Sioux almost as soon as they crawled out of the water, while perhaps two hundred others got as far as the Iowa River before they were overtaken and killed. The rest were captured or else died of wounds or exhaustion before they could reach their friends on the Iowa. Altogether it has been estimated that not more than 150 Indians survived the massacre at the Bad Axe.


The war was over. Black Hawk and his small band, who had been at Atkinson’s rear during the fighting, managed to make their way north to the Winnebago country, where they were given shelter. But they did not stay long. Perhaps fearing further reprisals against his people, Black Hawk decided to give himself up. The Winnebago were anxious to appease the whites and offered to deliver him to their agent at Prairie du Chien. Black Hawk made no objection. Dressing himself in white deerskin as a sign of mourning, the old Sauk chief headed south with the rest of his party. Taken prisoner at Prairie du Chien, he and his two sons and the Prophet were eventually turned over to Jefferson Davis, who escorted them downriver by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks. There the Indians spent a miserable winter. Black Hawk felt his humiliation keenly enough, but General Atkinson, who had since returned to his post at the barracks, added to the Sauk’s mortification by forcing him to wear the ball and chain. “Was the White Beaver afraid that I would break out of his barracks, and run away? Or was he ordered to inflict this punishment upon me? If I had taken him prisoner on the field of battle, I would not have wounded his feelings so much, by such treatment. …”

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.

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