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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Events Leading Up to the War

Editor's Note:

Every historical event is preceded by causes that bring it into existence. Listed at left are the main incidents that brought about the Black Hawk War of 1832.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Fox (Mesquakie) Indians numbered about 1,600 people and the Sauk about 4,800. Both tribes lived along the Mississippi River, from the modern border between Missouri and Iowa in the south to the vicinity of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the north. The town of Saukenuk, on a point overlooking the mouth of the Rock River at modern Rock Island, Illinois, was the center of Sauk and Fox life. It was their largest village, with more than 100 multi-family lodges, and could field 1,000 warriors.

1804: The U.S. concluded the Treaty of St. Louis with the Sauk and Fox. When it was signed, the U.S. believed it had bought all Sauk and Fox lands east of the Mississippi, though the treaty allowed the tribes to stay on it until asked to leave by the U.S. government. Many Sauk and Fox leaders, however, considered it invalid because its two signers had not been authorized to speak for the whole tribe at the time it was drawn up. Even its signers contended they had never ceded anything north of the Rock River, including the village of Saukenuk on the northern bank.

1806: Lewis and Clark called the Sauk and Fox the best hunters on the Mississippi and Missouri, estimating they supplied $10,000 in furs to traders each year.

1812-15: During the War of 1812, most Sauk and Fox (and Ho-Chunk) supported the British, with Black Hawk in command. The British promised that a U.S. defeat would restore the 1795 boundaries of the Treaty of Greenville and remove Americans from their lands. The British won the war but betrayed their word to the Indians: frontiers were not restored to the 1795 lines. Instead, the U.S. gained complete control of military, political, and fur trade affairs in the West. In 1816 the Treaty of 1804 was re-affirmed by the Fox and some Sauk bands, but not the Rock Island bands.

1828, May: the Sauk and Fox were given one year's notice to move across the Mississippi under the Treaty of 1804.

1829, spring: About 20 white families illegally occupied parts of the town of Saukenuk near the mouth of the Rock River, destroying homes and fencing fields. The U.S. Indian agent protested this action to the federal government, without effect.

1829, Sept.: Sauk chief Keokuk (30 years younger than Black Hawk) thought resistance to the U.S. was futile, and led the Sauk and Fox, including Black Hawk's band, across the Mississippi to start a new village on the Iowa River.

1830, spring: Black Hawk's band, which had never recognized the Treaty of St. Louis, returned to Saukenuk to plant their crops in the spring as usual and found it almost completely occupied by white squatters.

1830, summer: Black Hawk visited Canada for advice from his old allies, and the British supported his view that Saukenuk belonged to the Indians. Leaving on his summer hunt, Black Hawk sent emissaries to tribes as far away as Texas in search of support for his opposition to the U.S.

1830-1831, winter: the Sauk and Fox in Iowa nearly starved to death because they lacked their annual harvest of corn.

1831, spring: Black Hawk's band returned again to Saukenuk to plant corn. Troops and militia were called out, and at a council in June the Indians were told they could leave voluntarily or at the point of a bayonet. On June 26, U.S. troops attacked Saukenuk ar dawn but found the Indians already departed. On June 30, Black Hawk reluctantly signed an agreement to leave the east side of the Mississippi forever, and the U.S. agreed to supply them with the same amount of corn left in their fields at Saukenuk.

1831, autumn: Neapope, Black Hawk's chief advisor and leading warrior returned from Canada and a nearby Ho-Chunk village. He told Black Hawk that the British, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Ho-Chunk would all support the Sauk if they made a stand at Saukenuk. Keokuk persuaded most of the Sauk and Fox this was a lie or a misunderstanding, but many supported Black Hawk nonetheless.


[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). Hagan, William T. The Sauk and Fox Indians (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1958).]

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