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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: An obscure, nearly-forgotten war

The Black Hawk War

By Tom Morrow

When it comes to the American Indian wars, little has been said, written, or filmed about those conflicts that occurred in America’s Middle West. In 1832, one particular conflict saw a 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln serving for a short time as an elected militia captain in what would become known as “The Black Hawk War.”

Black Hawk was a Sauk war chief who rallied remnants of three tribes to take back lands in Illinois they claimed had been unfairly taken.

In addition to Lincoln, other notable participants in The Black Hawk War included Army officers Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis. Davis, was the son-in-law of future President Zachary Taylor. Davis would become the leader of the rebelling Confederate States during the Civil War.

The Black Hawk War gave impetus to the U.S. policy of Indian removal, in which Native American tribes were pressured to sell their lands and move west of the Mississippi River.

The war erupted soon after Black Hawk, who was in his sixties, led a combined group of some 6,000 Sauks, Meskwakis (Fox), and Kickapoos known as the “British Band.” In April 1832, they crossed the Mississippi River back into the Illinois from Iowa. The “British Band” moniker was for those tribes fighting with the British against the U.S. in the War of 1812.

Black Hawk was hoping to avoid bloodshed while resettling on tribal land that had been supposedly given to the United States in the disputed 1804 “Treaty of St. Louis.” The tribes believed they had been duped. The St. Louis agreement had been negotiated by future President William Henry Harrison, who then was governor of the Missouri territory at the time. A group of Sauk and Meskwakis (Fox) leaders supposedly “sold” their lands east of the Mississippi in Illinois for more than $2,200, in goods and annual payments of $1,000 in supplies. The treaty became controversial because the tribal leaders had not been authorized by their councils to give up lands. The chiefs probably did not intend to give up “ownership” or they would not have sold so much territory for such a small price. The treaty’s included more territory than the Indians realized, but tribal leaders didn’t learn the true extent of the treaty until the early 1830s.

When the river crossing took place, U.S. officials were convinced Black Hawk and his followers were hostile. Accordingly, on May 14, 1832, an Illinois militia opened fire on an Indian delegation. Black Hawk responded by successfully attacking the militia at the Battle of Stillman’s Run. He then led his band to a secure location in what is now southern Wisconsin. From there he was pursued by the militia and a contingent of U.S. troops..

The militia, led by Col. Henry Dodge, caught up with Black Hawk on July 21 and defeated him at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, forcing the Indians to retreat.

Black Hawk’s band had been weakened by hunger, death, and desertion. Many of the survivors retreated to the Mississippi River. On Aug. 2, 1832, U.S. soldiers attacked the remnants of Black Hawk’s followers at the Battle of Bad Axe, killing many or capturing most of those who survived, but Black Hawk and other tribal leaders escaped. They later surrendered and were imprisoned for a year.

Shortly before being released from custody, Black Hawk told his life story to an interpreter, and in 1833, was published — the first Native American autobiography to be published. It became an immediate bestseller and went through several editions. Black Hawk died in 1838 (at age 70 or 71) in what is now southeastern Iowa.

With the Black Hawk War concluded, President Andrew Jackson forced most of those Native Americans resisting the white man’s way-of-life to give up all their lands east of the Mississippi River. The Indian wars with the Great Plains tribes and those of the Southwest would continue throughout much of the rest of the 19th century.

For those Native Americans east of the Mississippi, Black Hawk joins Tecumseh as being two of the great leaders who stood up to the white man’s invasion.


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