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Term: Black Hawk War (1832)


in April of 1832 the Sauk chief Black Hawk led ca. 1,700 followers back to their homeland at the mouth of the Rock River, which had been occupied by white squatters; that summer U.S. troops and local militia pursued them across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, ignoring or misunderstanding their offers to surrender, until the massacre at the Battle of Bad Axe, Aug. 2, 1832.

A Timeline of the Black Hawk War

1.   Events Leading Up to the War

1804: The Fox (Mesquakie) Indians numbered about 1,600 and the Sauk about 4,800. Both tribes lived mostly along the Mississippi River, from the Des Moines River north to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. 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. At the end of the war, the British 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.

2.   Military Events, 1832

1832, April 5-6: Black Hawk's band crossed the Mississippi near the mouth of the Des Moines River (at the Iowa-Missouri border). It moved north up the Illinois shore, intending to make a stand at Saukenuk or move up the Rock River to join forces with the supposed Indian and British allies.

1832, April 8: U.S. troops started up from St. Louis by boat, passing Black Hawk's band on the 11th.

1832, April 13: Black Hawk's band arrived at Saukenuk.

1832, April 24: U.S. officers sent emissaries to Black Hawk's band giving them one last chance to withdraw across the Mississippi, but it was rejected. Black Hawk, at the village of the Winnebago Prophet, a few miles up the Rock River, learned that most of the Ho-Chunk would not, in fact, support him.

1832, April 25: Black Hawk's band began moving east up the Rock River to join forces with the Potawatomi, as well as British forces rumored to be coming to Milwaukee.

1832, April 28:  Black Hawk's band arrived at Dixon's Ferry, Ill., seeking help from the Potawatomi.

1832, May 10: U.S. troops and militia started in pursuit, burning a Ho-Chunk village a few miles upriver from Saukenuk and reaching Dixon's Ferry, Ill. Black Hawk's band had moved 25 miles further upriver, to the mouth of the Kishwaukee. There Black Hawk learned that the Potawatomi would not support him either, and that no British allies were coming.

1832, May 13: Battle of Stillman's Run. About 10 miles southwest of modern Rockford, Ill., militia camped close behind the Sauk. Black Hawk sent three emissaries under a white flag of truce to invite the militia leader to meet and discuss a surrender. Despite the white flag, the troops attacked, killing one of the emissaries and charging the Sauk camp. In the ensuing battle, 40 Sauk warriors repulsed 275 militia, who fled in fear and confusion.

1832, May 14-20: Convinced that the whites would not obey the conventions of warfare and fearing extermination, Black Hawk's band went up the Kishwaukie River south of modern Rockford. Two sympathetic Ho-Chunk Indians offered to guide them up the Rock River into Wisconsin.

1832, May 21: Potawatomi and Sauk warriors seeking supplies for the retreating band massacred white settlers at Indian Creek, 12 miles north of modern Ottawa, Ill.

1832, June 16: Battle of the Pecatonica. 22 militia soldiers defeated a Sauk raiding party of 11 warriors who were foraging for supplies. The main body of Black Hawk's band was north of Lake Koshkonong at the time.

1832, July 1: U.S. troops and militia reached the site of modern Beloit, Wis. On July 3 they arrived at Lake Koshkonong, near modern Fort Atkinson, Wis., but discovered the Indians had gone.

1832, early July: The Sauk and their allies had run out of food and begun to starve. Many elders and children would die of starvation, exhaustion, and exposure before the war's final military engagement 30 days later.

1832, July 11:   Black Hawk's band reached the head of the Rock River at Hustisford, Wis., and paused at modern Horicon Marsh to consider their options.

1832, July 18: U.S. troops and militia stumbled across the Indians' trail 12 miles south of Hustisford.

1832, July 21: Troops and militia chased the retreating Sauk through the isthmus that would become downtown Madison, around Lake Mendota, and to the Wisconsin River across from modern Prairie du Sac, killing sick and elderly stragglers who could not keep up due to weakness.

1832, July 21: Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Ca. 60 Sauk warriors held off 700 troops under Henry Dodge while the Indian non-combatants crossed the river to safety. Before dawn, Sauk leader Neapope, concealed in a tree, verbally offered to negotiate a surrender; the troops lacked an interpreter and ignored him.

1832, July 28: The main body of troops and militia crossed the Wisconsin further downriver at Helena, Wis., and resumed the pursuit.

1832, Aug. 1: Black Hawk's band reached the Mississippi at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, in modern Vernon County between Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse. While they were preparing to cross, the steamboat Warrior appeared. Ignoring their white flag of truce, its captain fired cannon indiscriminately at the Sauk, killing 23. Black Hawk and his closest supporters decided to continue upriver but most of the Indians prefered to attempt to cross the Mississippi the next morning.

1832, Aug. 2: Massacre at Bad Axe. Overnight, U.S. troops caught up with the Sauk and charged them at dawn from the bluffs, firing indiscrimately at warriors, women, children, and the elderly. The steamboat Warrior returned to the scene about 10:00 a.m,, firing its cannon at the Indians who vainly sought cover on the riverbank and the islands until by noon only a small number were left alive. About 90 Sauk made it across the Mississippi, where 68 were killed by the Sioux (allied with the U.S.).

1832, Aug.:  Sauk chief Keokuk, who had oppposed Black Hawk's plan from the start, turned over Neapope to white authorities on the 20th. Ho-Chunk warriors One-eyed Decorah and Chaetar caught Black Hawk at Wisconsin Dells and turned him over to authorities a few days later.

1832, Sept. 19: A peace treaty was signed, requiring the Sauk and Fox to stay west of the Mississippi and cede a 50-mile-wide strip of the Iowa shore.

1832, Aug. to. April 1833: Black Hawk and The Winnebago Prophet were imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis.

3.  The Aftermath of the War

1833, April: Black Hawk and The Winnebago Prophet were moved to a prison at Norfolk, Va.

1833, June-Aug.: Black Hawk and The Winnebago Prophet were sent on a tour of eastern cities, where enormous crowds turned out to see them. On their return, Black Hawk said, "Brothers, we have seen how great a people the whites are. They are very rich and very strong -- it is folly for us to fight them."

1833-1836:  the Sauk and Fox lived on the Iowa River, where Keokuk was their principal chief and where Black Hawk died in 1838. Between 1836 and 1846 they were forced further west in Iowa, and their population fell from 6,000 to 2,477.

1846: the remaining Sauk and Fox were pushed to the headwaters of the Osage River in Kansas.

View more information elsewhere at

View pictures related to Indians at Wisconsin Historical Images.

View related articles at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

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

154 records found

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Bad Axe, Battle of
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