The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Black Hawk, Makataimeshekiakiak, or Black Sparrow Hawk
(1763?–October 3, 1838)

–Sauk tribal leader—was born at Saukenuk, the largest Sauk village, near the mouth of the Rock River in western Illinois in 1763. He reached adulthood as fundamental changes reached the Indians of the upper Mississippi Valley. For generations, tribes in that region had dealt with French, British, and Spanish traders and officials, but few of those people lived near them. With American independence in the 1780s, citizens and government negotiators surged westward. By 1804 the United States had purchased Louisiana, the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Within a few months American negotiator William Henry Harrison had persuaded a few Sauk leaders to cede all of their territory in present-day Illinois and Wisconsin to the federal government. That treaty infuriated many of the Sauk, who rejected its legality. The treaty dispute between the tribe and the government divided the Sauk and their allies, the Meskwaki, for a generation, and Black Hawk became a focal point for anti-American ideas and actions. During the late 18th century, he became a recognized warrior and leader, organizing and leading frequent attacks against enemy tribes, and gaining a solid core of followers within his society.

    American entrance into Iowa and Illinois and efforts to prevent Sauk raids on other tribes infuriated the young warrior. He turned increasingly to the British for support and encouragement. During the War of 1812, he led several hundred warriors to Detroit. From there they fought against the United States in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Returning to Saukenuk in late 1813, the warriors learned that Keokuk had been appointed war leader there in their absence.

    To Black Hawk's annoyance, the younger man's superior oratorical skills helped him dominate tribal affairs and relations with the United States for several decades. Nonetheless, Black Hawk continued to direct military campaigns. In May 1814 he defeated Major Zachary Taylor and more than 400 U.S. troops near the mouth of the Rock River. Sporadic raids continued into 1815, and the Rock River Sauk refused to meet American negotiators at Portage des Sioux that year. In 1816 they signed another agreement under threat of American attack. This reaffirmed the disputed 1804 treaty, but Black Hawk and several others refused to sign the new accord.

    From 1816 to 1829 white pioneers moved into Sauk territory, and by the latter year had begun to seize land at Saukenuk. By that time most of the Sauk and Meskwaki had agreed to stay west of the Mississippi in Iowa and Missouri, and only a minority chose to return east to Illinois. That group, referred to by American officials as the British Band because of their supposed reliance on officials in Canada, included discontented Sauk, Meskwaki, and some nearby Kickapoo who came together to defy Illinois officials' demands that they leave the state. In June 1831 General Edmund P. Gaines, commanding army regulars, forced the British Band from Saukenuk into Iowa.

    That winter the Sauk-Winnebago prophet Wabokieshiek, or White Cloud, invited the British Band to join his village up the Rock River in northern Illinois, so in April 1832 Black Hawk led perhaps 1,800 people back into Illinois. They hoped to establish a new village, but the pioneers and Illinois politicians denounced the move as an "invasion."Soon militiamen and U.S. Army troops began to pursue the British Band as they moved up the Rock River valley into southern Wisconsin. After weeks of scattered Indian raids and fruitless hunting for their quarry, the whites overtook the Indians at the mouth of the Bad Axe River and killed most of them, ending the conflict.

    The government imprisoned Black Hawk and several British Band leaders at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis in 1832. The next year it sent several of them east to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. After taking the captives to several large eastern cities, authorities sent them home. In August 1833 Black Hawk had to agree to accept Keokuk's leadership in the tribe and to remain at peace.

    On October 3, 1838, Black Hawk died peacefully. To him, Americans represented a selfish, greedy, and dishonest society. In opposing them, his behavior represented the actions of a patriotic Sauk. He sought to protect the Sauk values and way of life. By the 1830s, however, the frontier situation in his home region had changed so drastically that those ideas existed mostly in his memory.
Sources For a view of how the Black Hawk War has been treated, see Roger L. Nichols, "The Black Hawk War in Retrospect," Wisconsin Magazine of History 65 (1982), 239–46. For a subsequent fully contextualized account of the Black Hawk War from the American Indian perspective, see Kerry Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (2006). Roger L. Nichols, Black Hawk and the Warrior's Path (1992) is the only full biography available. Roger L. Nichols, Black Hawk's Autobiography (1999) is one of several editions of that account.
Contributor: Roger L. Nichols