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Black Hawk War, 1832 by Office of School Services

By Office of School Services
Standards: TBA
Grade Level: Secondary
Topic: Territory to Statehood

Lesson Plan Text:

Background Information
In the summer of 1832, U.S. troops pursued a band of Sauk and Mesquakie Indians across southern Wisconsin in the last major confrontation between the U.S. Army and Native Americans east of the Mississippi River. The conflict┐s roots date back to 1804, when treaties required the Sauk and Mesquakie nations to cede their lands east of the Mississippi River to the United States. At that time, the two Indian nations lived near rivers in what is now southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Although the Indians retained the right to remain until ordered to leave by the federal government, pressure mounted as more and more non-Indians settled on Indian land. The eager search for lead in this area only increased the tensions.

When the land on the lower Rock River was offered for sale to settlers in 1829, the government ordered for sale to settlers in 1829, the government ordered the Sauk and Mesquakie to go west. Some moved peacefully. Others, like Black Hawk, a warrior chief who had fought with the British during the War of 1812, disliked American settlers and firmly resisted. But after first refusing, he finally relented and moved his people west.

Once west of the Mississippi River, Black Hawk┐s people began to suffer. They were forbidden to visit their ancestors┐ graves, even though the sites were now being disturbed. The U.S. government did not deliver the food promised to the removed tribes. Watching his people agonize, Black Hawk┐s anger grew. He made plans to reoccupy his old village. Joined by members of other tribes in April 1832, he led about a thousand people back across the Mississippi River.

The news of Black Hawk┐s movements alarmed local settlers, and they formed a militia to protect themselves. The U.S. army was ordered to ensure the return of Black Hawk back across the Mississippi River. Black Hawk hoped that other Indian tribes in the area and the British in Canada would help. For safety, Black Hawk moved his band up the Rock River, but neither the British nor any of his Indian allies came to his aid.

The military and militia greatly outnumbered Black Hawk┐s hungry and tried people, so he sent a small delegation under a white flag of truce to a militia encampment. Some militia members panicked when they saw the Sauk men approaching and started a battle in which people on both sides were killed. The militiamen fled in terror.

Black Hawk believed that the safest decision was to move his people north along the Rock River before heading west in order to get back across the Mississippi. Near the Wisconsin River, they successfully resisted the militia in the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. On August 1, Black Hawk and his band reached the Mississippi River and tried to cross. Despite another white flag of truce, the steamboat Warrior blocked their escape and fired on the band, while the military and militia attacked from the read. Although Black Hawk and about 50 of his party escaped, many Indian people, mostly women and children, were massacred in the Battle of Bad Axe.

Black Hawk was captured a short time later and imprisoned. In his autobiography, Black Hawk wanted to communicate his people┐s frustration and explain his resistance. He clarified the cultural differences between the Indian and the Euro-American concepts of land use, when he stated, "My reasons teaches me that the land cannot be sold┐ Nothing can be sold, but such things as can be carried away."

Excerpt from Wisconsin History Highlights


Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the challenges of reading a document that is more than 160 years old? Explain.
  2. Consider who wrote each of the documents and to whom they were written. How might the intent of the documents affect the content?
  3. 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?
  4. What conclusions can you draw about the Black Hawk War based on these accounts?
  5. 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.
  6. What questions do these accounts answer for you, and what questions do they raise?

Suggested Activity
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.

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