in Wisconsin History
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)]