The Black Hawk War | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Black Hawk War

A Misunderstanding Leads to Massacre

The Black Hawk War | Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1804, future president William Henry Harrison negotiated a treaty with two representatives of the Sauk nation. The government believed the treaty secured the right to open all Sauk lands east of the Mississippi to settlement for only $2,500. Sauk chiefs in Illinois and Wisconsin believed the two tribesman never possessed the authority to speak for the 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 eighteenth century.

EnlargePainting of Black Hawk by Robert M. Sully.

Black Hawk

Painting of Black Hawk by Robert M. Sully. Black Hawk, a Native American Sauk warrior and leader, sought to attack and drive out the settlers in the Blue Mounds of Wisconsin in 1832. After his capture and release, he became a symbol of a diminishing and no longer threatening culture. View the original source document: WHI 11706

Black Hawk

Lead mining began to flourish 25 years later in the Rock River region. Thousands of settlers swarmed there without regard for treaties or the natives. The Sauk were getting crowded out by the increasing number of lead miners. But Keokuk and other Sauk leaders thought it was futile to resist, since the settlers were protected by overwhelming white military force. Keokuk and his people complied with an 1829 government order to move across the Mississippi in return for enough corn to survive the winter.

But when the government failed to honor its promise, another Sauk chief named Black Hawk led 1,200 Sauk to the Illinois side of the river to re-occupy their homeland and harvest their corn. Black Hawk believed that the 1804 treaty was fraudulent, that his Ho-Chunk neighbors would join him in fighting the Americans and that in the event of full-scale war the British would come to his aid.

An Unpleasant Surprise

None of his hopes were correct, however. Instead of Indian and British allies, Black Hawk and his followers were met in the summer of 1832 by the Illinois militia, reinforced by regular U.S. Army troops. The corn fields of Saukenuk were trampled by cattle and fenced by settlers. The American forces tried to capture the Sauk warriors, women and children. But the Sauk managed to escape at the Battle of Stillman's Run on May 14th. For 16 weeks Black Hawk and his warriors created tactical diversions while the noncombatants tried to make their way back across the Mississippi. Throughout the summer of 1832 the Sauk eluded capture by leading the Americans around the lead region, through the future site of downtown Madison, across the Wisconsin river and toward the Mississippi.

Several attempts to surrender were rebuffed or misinterpreted by the American troops. The Sauk ran out of food and water several times throughout the journey. Many Indians died of hunger, thirst or exhaustion and were buried on the trail. Warriors skirmished with the Wisconsin militia often enough to keep them at bay. However, these battles kindled fear among the settlers and angered the soldiers.

Battle of Badaxe

EnlargePainting by Cal Peters depicting the battle of Bad Axe at the Wisconsin River on August 2, 1832.

Battle of Bad Axe

Painting by Cal Peters depicting the battle of Bad Axe at the Wisconsin River on August 2, 1832. View the original source document: WHI 4522

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 between a gunboat in the river ahead of them and pursuing troops on bluffs behind them. The next day the Americans again rebuffed a white flag of truce and indiscriminately massacred hundreds of men, women and children. The gunboat fired on swimmers as they attempted to retreat. 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. After the battle, small, scattered groups hid in the wilderness or in hunting camps of sympathetic Ho-Chunk. After his council rebuked him on the night of August 1, Black Hawk left his followers and surrendered to authorities at Fort Crawford. Only about 150 of his initial 1,200 travelers survived.


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

Learn More

[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)]