The Black Hawk War, 1832
A version of this lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services as part of the Wisconsin Stories online activity guide for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.
In the early 1800s the Sauk and Fox Indians lived along the Mississippi River from northwestern Illinois to southwestern Wisconsin. The Sauk leader Black Sparrow Hawk was born in Saukenuk, a large village at the mouth of the Rock River located near present-day Rock Island, Illinois.
In 1830, seeking to make way for settlers moving into Illinois, the United States required the Sauk to move and accept new lands in present-day Iowa. There they struggled to prepare enough acreage for their crops. The winter of 1831-1832 was extremely difficult. In April 1832, Black Hawk led about one thousand Sauk and Fox people back to northern Illinois. Black Hawk hoped to forge a military alliance with the Winnebago and other tribes. They intended to plant corn on their ancestral farmland. Fearing the Sauk, Illinois settlers promptly organized a militia. Observing the military forces organizing against him, Black Hawk reconsidered his actions and decided to surrender. Yet an undisciplined militia ignored a peace flag and attacked the Sauk. The Indian warriors promptly returned fire. The militia retreated in a panic, many forgetting their firearms. The Sauk collected the weapons and retreated northward along the Rock River into Wisconsin. The Black Hawk War had begun. General Henry Atkinson was in charge of U.S. Army forces, assisted by four thousand militiamen led by Henry Dodge and James Henry. Traveling with small children and elderly members of the tribe, the Sauk and Fox were unable to move as rapidly as the soldiers. In an effort to distract the Americans, Sauk warriors raided frontier farms and villages. On July 21, 1832, soldiers led by Henry Dodge caught up with Black Hawk's band near the Wisconsin River, outside of present-day Sauk City. Although greatly outnumbered, Sauk warriors turned the attack on American troops, allowing the Indian women and children to flee across the Wisconsin River. The next morning, the American troops discovered that the Sauk warriors had vanished, having quietly forded the river in darkness. Dodge subsequently fell back, journeying north to Fort Winnebago (near present-day Portage) to obtain supplies.
At Fort Winnebago, Dodge joined forces with Atkinson and set out in pursuit of the Sauk and Fox. Most members of the starving band had fled west, hoping to find sanctuary among tribes beyond the Mississippi River.
On August 2, U.S. soldiers attacked the Sauk and Fox as they attempted to ford the Mississippi River, near what is now Victory in Vernon County. Ignoring a truce flag, the troops aboard a river steamboat fired cannons and rifles, killing hundreds, including many children. Many of those who made it across the river were slain by the Eastern Sioux, allies of the Americans in 1832. Only 150 of the one thousand members of Black Hawk's band survived the events of the summer of 1832. Survivors rejoined the Sauk and Fox who had remained in Iowa.
Black Hawk surrendered to officials at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. The defeated warrior was imprisoned and sent east to meet with President Andrew Jackson and other government officials. Eventually the U. S. government sent him to live with surviving members of the Sauk and Fox nation.
For secondary-level students, the documents provided here offer a good example of how historical accounts may vary. From Black Hawk's autobiography, originally published in 1833, we have included the Sauk warrior's account of both the Battle of Wisconsin Heights and the Battle of Bad Axe. Also included is a letter from Dodge to Atkinson describing the Battle of Wisconsin Heights and General Atkinson's account of the Battle of Bad Axe, published in the Detroit Weekly (Wisconsin was part of the Michigan Territory in 1832), printed on August 9, 1832.
- What are some of the challenges of reading a document that is more than 160 years old? Explain.
- Consider who wrote each of the documents and to whom they were written. How might the intent of the documents affect the content?
- According to these accounts, what would you say were Black Hawk's main concerns throughout the events? What were Dodge's and Atkinson's primary concerns?
- What conclusions can you draw about the Black Hawk War based on these accounts?
- Consult any U.S. history textbook. Examine the sections about
- Black Hawk and
- U.S. Indian policy in the 1830s. Do the firsthand accounts support or challenge the textbook's interpretations? Explain.
- What questions do these accounts answer for you, and what questions do they raise?
- Working in small groups, have your students choose one of the conflicts described in these accounts (the Battle of Wisconsin Heights or the Massacre of Bad Axe). Direct them to study both accounts of that battle and find places where the authors seem to agree and/or disagree about the events. Each group should prepare a list of topics on which the authors agree and another list of events on which they disagree. Discuss how we as historians can use these accounts to form a more accurate description of the events of 1832. Discuss the possible reasons for inconsistencies between the accounts.