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The Black Hawk War

At St. Louis in 1804, future president William Henry Harrison negotiated a treaty with two representatives of the Sauk nation who had come to the city on other business. When it was over, the government believed it had secured the right to open all Sauk lands east of the Mississippi to settlement, for a mere $2,500. Sauk chiefs back home in Illinois and Wisconsin, however, believed that the two negotiators had never possessed the authority to speak for the whole nation and that the treaty was therefore invalid. The Indians continued to inhabit their village of Saukenuk near the mouth of the Rock River, where they had lived since the mid-eighteenth century, near the Ho-Chunk village of Prophetstown.

A quarter century later, lead was being profitably mined in the Rock River region and thousands of settlers were swarming to it without regard for treaties or the land's original owners. Keokuk and other Sauk leaders who thought it was futile to resist overwhelming white military force complied with an 1829 government order to move across the Mississippi in return for enough corn to get through the winter. But when the government failed to honor its promises concerning this move, a group of about 1,200 Sauk under the leadership of Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) returned to the Illinois side of the river in the hope of re-occupying their homeland and harvesting their corn. Black Hawk believed that the 1804 treaty was fraudulent, that his Ho-Chunk neighbors would join him in fighting the Americans if necessary, and in the event of full-scale war the British would also come to his aid.

None of his expectations came true, however. Instead of Indian and British allies, Black Hawk and his followers were met in the summer of 1832 by the Illinois militia, who were soon reinforced by regular U.S. Army troops. He found the corn fields of Saukenuk trampled by cattle and fenced by settlers. Together the American forces tried to pin down the Sauk warriors, women, and children, but beginning with the Battle of Stillman's Run on May 14th, the Indians managed with great military finesse to escape and attempt a retreat. For 16 weeks Black Hawk and his warriors created tactical diversions while the noncombatants tried to make their way back to and safely across the Mississippi. Throughout the summer of 1832 they eluded capture by leading the Americans on a circuitous route around the populated lead region, through the future site of downtown Madison, across the Wisconsin where the Battle of Wisconsin Heights was fought, and toward the Mississippi above Prairie du Chien.

During this exodus several attempts to surrender were rebuffed or mis-interpreted by the American troops, and supplies of food and water repeatedly ran out. Many very young or elderly Indians died of hunger, thirst, and exhaustion and were buried on the trail. Warriors skirmished with the Wisconsin militia often enough to keep them at bay, but these engagements also kindled fear in the hearts of settlers and a desire for revenge in the minds of soldiers.

Finally, on August 1, 1832, the surviving Sauk finally reached the banks of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Bad Axe River. But rather than crossing to safety, they were caught in a crossfire between a gunboat in the river ahead of them and the pursuing troops on bluffs behind them. The next day, in the cruelly misnamed Battle of Bad Axe, the Americans again rebuffed a white flag of truce and instead indiscriminately massacred hundreds of men, women and children. The gunboat fired on defenseless swimmers as they attempted to retreat, until the Mississippi ran red with blood. About 70 Sauk made it across only to be killed by Sioux warriors, long-time enemies of the Sauk, fighting on the side of the Americans. Small scattered groups hid after the battle in the wilderness or in hunting camps of sympathetic Ho-Chunk. Black Hawk, after the rebuke of his council on the night of August 1, left his followers and surrendered to authorities at Fort Crawford. Of his initial community of 1,200 followers who had attempted to return to their homeland, only about 150 survived.

Black Hawk later dictated his autobiography, which includes an eloquent defense of his actions and an articulate statement of the case against U.S. aggression (a link to it is provided below). After imprisonment, he was ultimately repatriated with the main body of his people in Iowa, who were then led by his rival, Keokuk. The display of overwhelming power by U.S. troops convinced most other Wisconsin Indian nations that Keokuk had been right, and after 1832 Wisconsin tribes offered no further organized military resistance to the U.S. government.

A timeline of the war is available in our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

[Sources: Trask, Kerry. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (N.Y., Henry Holt: 2006). Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood, by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.  A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.
Link to article: Ho-Chunk chief Spoon Decorah looks back over a long life.  Ho-Chunk chief Spoon Decorah looks back over a long life.
Link to article: Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events  Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events
Link to article: The Sauk and Fox shortly before the Black Hawk War  The Sauk and Fox shortly before the Black Hawk War
Link to article: A Wisconsin soldier describes the massacre at Bad Axe, 1832  A Wisconsin soldier describes the massacre at Bad Axe, 1832
Link to article: Black Hawk, remembered by those who knew him  Black Hawk, remembered by those who knew him
Link to article: Eastern newspapers report on Black Hawk's 1833 tour  Eastern newspapers report on Black Hawk's 1833 tour
Link to article: Gen. Joseph Street, Indian agent to the Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Fox.  Gen. Joseph Street, Indian agent to the Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Fox.
Link to article: Recollections of a young mother in the Lead Region, 1826-1841  Recollections of a young mother in the Lead Region, 1826-1841
Link to article: The founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre Paquette  The founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre Paquette
Link to article: John Shaw recalls Tomah, Black Hawk, Keokuk, and other Indian leaders.  John Shaw recalls Tomah, Black Hawk, Keokuk, and other Indian leaders.
Link to article: Walking Cloud recounts episodes of the Black Hawk War.  Walking Cloud recounts episodes of the Black Hawk War.
Link to artifacts: A powder horn carried during the Black Hawk War  A powder horn carried during the Black Hawk War
Link to book: A description of the Battle of Bad Axe, 1832  A description of the Battle of Bad Axe, 1832
Link to book: Black Hawk's Route through Wisconsin in 1832  Black Hawk's Route through Wisconsin in 1832
Link to images: Wisconsin's first Territorial Governor, Henry Dodge  Wisconsin's first Territorial Governor, Henry Dodge
Link to images: Portrait of Black Hawk in 1833  Portrait of Black Hawk in 1833
Link to images: Menominee Chief Oshkosh in 1858  Menominee Chief Oshkosh in 1858
Link to images: Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.  Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.
Link to images: View of the Pecatonica battlefield (1857)  View of the Pecatonica battlefield (1857)
Link to images: View of the Bad Axe battleground (1856)  View of the Bad Axe battleground (1856)
Link to images: View of the Wisconsin Heights battlefield (1856)  View of the Wisconsin Heights battlefield (1856)
Link to images: Pictures of the Sauk Indians during the 1830's  Pictures of the Sauk Indians during the 1830's
Link to manuscript: Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Winnebago War (1827)  Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Winnebago War (1827)
Link to manuscript: The new Indian agent describes tensions in the Lead Region in 1827.  The new Indian agent describes tensions in the Lead Region in 1827.
Link to manuscript: A woman describes her fears during the Black Hawk War, 1832  A woman describes her fears during the Black Hawk War, 1832
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin soldier looks back on his role in the hostilities of 1832.  A Wisconsin soldier looks back on his role in the hostilities of 1832.
Link to manuscript: One-Eyed Decorah relates how he helped Black Hawk surrender.  One-Eyed Decorah relates how he helped Black Hawk surrender.
Link to manuscript: Diary of a Visit to the Sauk and Fox after the Black Hawk War  Diary of a Visit to the Sauk and Fox after the Black Hawk War
Link to manuscript: Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Black Hawk War (1832)  Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Black Hawk War (1832)

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to book: A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854  A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854
Link to book: Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society  Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society
Link to book: An 1823 interview with a Sauk warrior  An 1823 interview with a Sauk warrior
Link to book: Black Hawk's autobiography (electronic text from Project Gutenberg)  Black Hawk's autobiography (electronic text from Project Gutenberg)
Link to book: The Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, 1833 (page images)  The Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, 1833 (page images)

Related Links

Visit the Web site of the Ho-chunk Nation
Visit the Web site of the Sac and Fox Nation
Discover the standard book about Wisconsin Indians, by Patty Loew
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights

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