Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

The Last Struggle

I. The Sacs

In the early part of the eighteenth century there was living in Wisconsin a powerful tribe of Indians known as the Outagami, or Fox nation. These savages loved nothing better than the warpath; and for many years their very name was a terror among the French settlers and traders in the region of the Great Lakes. They were so active in stirring up trouble, and in doing deeds of violence to their neighbors, both white and red, that they became known as the "Firebrands of the Northwest." At length, however, after a long struggle with the French, the tribe was almost exterminated. The few warriors who remained alive, no longer felt themselves strong enough to stand alone among the unfriendly nations that surrounded them; and so, leaving their ancestral homes, they joined themselves with the Sacs, a kindred tribe whose lands bordered both shores of the Mississippi.

This occurred about the year 1736, when the Foxes numbered only two hundred or three hundred women and children, and perhaps sixty warriors. They settled in the neighborhood of Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi, and for a time were so quiet as to be almost forgotten. From that day the Sacs and Foxes were closely united, and they became, in fact, one and the same nation. The Foxes increased in numbers and in strength, and when Jonathan Carver visited their village in 1766, he found it second in importance only to the metropolis of the allies at Prairie du Sac.

On the north bank of the Rock River, about a mile above its mouth, was the village of Saukenuk, destined soon to be the center and favorite home of the Sac and Fox nation. In the very year after Carver's visit to the Northwest, a child was born in this village, who was to become the last patriot red man to defend his country against the resistless tide of civilization. The name of this child was Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk. His great-grandfather was the mighty chief Thunder, who, a hundred years before, had led the Sac people from their old home near Montreal, and settled them in the rich valley of the Wisconsin.

During his boyhood young Black Hawk distinguished himself by his skill in the use of the tomahawk and the bow and arrow, his ability to endure suffering without complaint, and his courage in the face of danger. He was only fifteen when, with his father, he went on the warpath against the Osages, and took his first scalp. When he returned to Saukenuk, he was permitted to join the warriors in the scalp dance, in which they celebrated their victory. This was a great honor for a mere boy, and the heart of the young savage was filled with ambition to excel in the craft and deeds of war. Before he was a year older, he led a party of seven into the Osage country, and fearlessly attacked a band of the enemy ten times as numerous. This exploit gave him great fame among his people, and from that day he was regarded as one of their bravest braves. When he was nineteen, his father was killed in battle, and Black Hawk "fell heir to the medicine bag of his fore-fathers." He was now, although not a chief, one of the leading men of his nation; and—for fifty years his voice was the controlling one in the councils of the Sacs and Foxes.

The lands claimed by the Sacs fronted on the Mississippi, and extended for hundreds of miles between the Illinois and the Wisconsin. The country to the north and south of Saukenuk abounded in game, and was the most beautiful region in all that section of the Northwest. Under the rule of Black Hawk the village became the chief center of the nation, and nearly all the Sacs made their homes there. The houses which they built were similar in many respects to those which the French found in the Huron villages of Canada, two hundred years before. The framework, which was of poles, was covered with sheets of elm bark held in place by thongs of buckskin. Each building was from thirty to one hundred feet in length, and from fifteen to forty feet in width. At each end was a narrow entrance, which was closed in rough weather by a heavy curtain of buffalo hides. Inside, down the center, were as many fire-pits as there were families in the lodge; while along the walls were ranges of rude sleeping bunks made of elastic poles over which were thrown the skins of bears and other furry animals.

The village itself was a populous and busy place, and at the time of Black Hawk's greatest power it is said to have contained nearly a thousand families. The men of this savage community occupied themselves in hunting and in fighting their ancient enemies, the Osages and the Sioux, on the other side of the Mississippi. And in the rich bottom lands of the Rock River, the women raised large crops of corn, beans, and pumpkins, having at one time more than eight hundred acres under cultivation. In the Mississippi, above the mouth of Rock River, was Rock Island, a place especially beloved by the Indians. "It was our garden," says Black Hawk, "supplying us with strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries; plums, apples, and nuts of different kinds. Being situated at the foot of the rapids, its waters supplied us with the finest fish. In my early life I spent many happy days on this island. A good spirit had charge of it, which lived in a cave immediately under the place where the fort now stands. This guardian spirit has often been seen by our people. It was white, with large wings like a swan's, but ten times larger. We were particular not to make much noise in that part of the island which it inhabited, for fear of disturbing it. But the noise at the fort has since driven it away, and no doubt a bad spirit has taken its place."

II. A One-Sided Treaty

The beauty and fertility of the Rock River Valley could not long remain hidden from the eyes of the American pioneers; and to see that country was to covet its possession.

In 1804 a Sac warrior who was visiting St. Louis had a quarrel with an American backwoodsman and killed him.

What was the cause of the quarrel, or from whom the provocation came, we shall never know, nor is it now important. The Sac was put in prison to await his trial, and his comrades carried the news to Saukenuk. A council was held in the village, and by Black Hawk's advice it was determined to send four Chiefs to St. Louis to see the American commander there and do all they could to secure the release of the prisoner. They were to offer to pay for the person killed, thus satisfying, as they supposed, both his family and the law. "This," says Black Hawk, "was the only means with us of saving a person who had killed another and we then thought it was the same way with the whites."

The four chiefs departed with the good wishes of the whole nation. The relatives of the prisoner blacked their faces and fasted, hoping that the Great Spirit would take pity on them and return the husband and father to his wife and children.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


It was many weeks before the Sacs heard anything at all from their ambassadors. Every heart was beginning to be filled with uneasiness when one day it was reported that the four chiefs were encamped on the river bank a few miles below the village. Why did they not come directly home and report the success of their mission? It was plain that they had no good news to bring.

Early the next morning a council was called. The council lodge was crowded with warriors, and the four chiefs made their appearance. To the astonishment of all, they wore fine coats of American make, and had shining medals pinned to their breasts and dangling from their necks. After the customary smoking, their leader arose and gave an account of their adventures. He said that they had been kindly received by the American "father "at St. Louis, and that when they had told him the object of their visit, he listened with interest to everything they said. Then he told them that the Americans wanted a small strip of land along the shore of the great river, in order that they might work the lead mines there; and he promised that if the Sacs would sell it to them, he would be glad to do everything in his power to please them. With this, he gave them some fine presents, and plenty of whisky to drink. In the end, they consented to give him certain parts of their country both on the Mississippi and on the Illinois, and he agreed, on the part of the great father at Washington, to pay the Sacs a thousand dollars a year for this concession. All this was set down in writing and signed with great ceremony. They supposed that now their friend would be set free; but about the time they were ready to start home, they saw him taken out of prison and shot dead before their eyes. This, they said, was all they could remember.

Such is the Indian side of the story of the treaty of 1804 at St. Louis, by which the American government obtained nearly all the lands of the Sacs and Foxes east of the Mississippi. Black Hawk never acknowledged the validity of this treaty. "I will leave it," said he, "to the people of the United States to say whether our nation was properly represented in this treaty, or whether we received a fair compensation for the extent of country ceded by these four individuals."

The officers who made this hard bargain with the Indians had inserted a clause in the treaty, which provided that the Sacs might continue to occupy their lands as they chose, so long as these lands were owned by the United States government. There can be but little doubt that this clause was intended to deceive the red men into a belief that they should always remain secure in their old homes; but, be this as it may, it postponed the evil day for several years. The Sacs continued to hunt and fish, and to fight the Sioux as of yore; the Rock River bottom produced its crops of corn and pumpkins, and Rock Island its fruits and nuts; and the village of Saukenuk prospered and remained the most important Indian town in the Northwest.

Black Hawk was never thoroughly pleased with the Americans, and the fact of the treaty ever having been made gave him great anxiety. He says: "I had not discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans that came to the country. They made fair promises, but never fulfilled them. The English, however, made but few promises, and we can always rely on their word." This explains why, in the War of 1812, he and his young men joined forces with the British. Through the greater part of that war Black Hawk was one of the most active among the Indian allies of Great Britain. He took part in several important battles, and more than one American prisoner was saved by him from ruthless murder. It is said that he was in the great battle of the Thames and saw the death of the famous Tecumseh; but of this there is serious reason for doubt. He seems to have foreseen the result of the war, and before it was fairly over he returned to Rock River.

III. The Removal

White squatters soon afterward began to come into the country. Although all the land belonged to the government, and none of it could yet be sold, these off scourings of the older settlements set up their cabins where they chose, and selected the best lands in the river bottoms for their own. One day Black Hawk, while hunting in the neighborhood of a squatter's cabin, was set upon by three white men, who accused him of killing their hogs. He denied the accusation, but what of that? The men took the flint out of his gun, and then gave him so severe a beating with sticks that he was lamed for several days. Imagine how such treatment as this would rankle in the heart of so proud a savage as Black Hawk.

With each passing year the squatters came in greater and greater numbers. They encroached upon the Indians' fields, and fenced in large portions of the richest ground for themselves. They even tore down some of the huts in the village, and once when Black Hawk returned from a hunt, he found a family of squatters occupying his lodge. Nevertheless, in spite of all these provocations, Black Hawk kept the peace and restrained his warriors from violence. He repeatedly complained to the American commander at St. Louis, who promised to lay the matter before the great father at Washington; but the only reply was that the land had been bought by the white people, and the red people must give it up.



The Sacs and Foxes were informed that lands had been provided for them on the western side of the Mississippi, and the Indian agent at Saukenuk advised them to give up peaceably and remove thither. Many of the Foxes about Prairie du Chien did this, and a Sac chief whose name was Keokuk persuaded a large number of the Saukenuk Indians to join them on the reservation which the government had set apart for them in Iowa.

Black Hawk refused to go. He had lived for more than fifty years in the Rock River country. It was the place of his birth. It had been the home of his father and grandfather and there the bones of his ancestors were buried. He loved his country with its fair prairies, its wild woods, and its broad rivers; and he was loath to give it up. With a number of his people, therefore, he remained on the east side of the river, and hoped that at some time and in some way justice would be done.

Soon a rumor was set afloat that Black Hawk had threatened some of the squatters. This rumor was magnified into a report that the Sacs were preparing to make a raid upon the border settlements. Then it was declared that the savages had already begun the work of devastation. The whole country was alarmed. The militia of the state was called out, and General Gaines at the head of six companies of regulars took possession of Rock Island, where a fort had already been built. A council was called, and Black Hawk was summoned to attend. He came at the head of his warriors, all hideous with war paint and carrying their war clubs. Keokuk and Wapello, the Fox chief, were also there. General Gaines opened the council with a speech, explaining the object of his mission and ending by advising Black Hawk's followers to consult their own interests and go peaceably to the reservation across the river.

Black Hawk then arose and declared that the Sacs had never sold their country, and that they were determined to hold on to their village.

General Gaines, appearing to be very angry, here cried out: "Who is this Black Hawk? Who is Black Hawk?"

Very straight and dignified, as became a brave warrior, the old Indian answered:

"Black Hawk is a Sac! His forefathers were Sacs! All the nations know him to be a Sac!"

"Very well," said Gaines, "I am here neither to beg nor to hire you to leave your village. My business is to remove you, peaceably if I can, but forcibly if I must. If within two days you are not all on the other side of the Mississippi, I will adopt measures to put you there by force."

Black Hawk, flaming with anger, declared that he would never consent to leave his old home; and the council broke up.

On the morrow a number of Sacs, who were afraid to resist longer, crossed the river and joined Keokuk. Soon afterward a company of mounted soldiers and backwoods militia arrived in the neighborhood of Saukenuk and went into camp a short distance below the village. Black Hawk saw now that he must submit, and so as soon as night had come all his people embarked in canoes, and, bidding good-by to their old homes, paddled silently across the Mississippi. A few days later the militia marched into Saukenuk, set fire to the lodges, and watched the once famous village of the Sacs disappear in flames.

IV. Black Hawk's War

On the last day of June a new treaty was made by which Black Hawk and the Sac chiefs agreed to remain on the reservation west of the river, and never to cross to the east side without the consent of the President of the United States. The government, on its part, agreed to give them corn in place of that which had been left growing in the fields, and promised to help them open their new farms on the reservation. With this Black Hawk seemed to be satisfied, and all might have gone well had he been able to forget the old home from which he had been driven.

A short time after this, a lying Indian, whom Black Hawk had sent on a mission to Canada, returned to the Sac settlement and reported that the British commander at Malden had told him that the Americans could not force the Sacs to leave their lands. "He said, also, that in the event of war we should have nothing to fear; for the British father would stand by us and aid us." Much else of the same sort did this mischief maker report, to the effect that the Ottawas, the Chippewas, and the Pottawattomies were ~.11 ready to join the Sacs in opposition to the United States.

All this filled the mind of Black Hawk with a new hope, which was strengthened by a promise from White Cloud, the prophet of the Winnebagoes, that he should have the help of that nation also. "For myself," says he, "I was growing old, and was willing to spend the rest of my days anywhere. But I wished, above all, to see my people happy. This had always been my constant aim; and I now began to hope that our sky would soon be clear."

He laid the matter before Keokuk and Wapello, but they told him that he had been deceived by liars, and advised him to abide by the new treaty. He then determined to take matters into his own hand. In the following spring he astonished the Illinois militia by suddenly appearing in the Rock River Valley with all the warriors and women and children that would follow him. It is by no means certain what Black Hawk intended to do, and the fact of his taking the women and children with him would seem to indicate that he did not mean war. He had been invited by White Cloud to spend the summer among the Winnebagoes and plant corn there, and it is not unlikely that he intended to go into Wisconsin in response to this invitation. Nevertheless he had violated his agreement not to cross the Mississippi; the whole country was alarmed, and there were rumors of a general Indian uprising. All the outrages committed on the settlers by straggling Winnebagoes and Kickapoos were ascribed to Black Hawk, and there was a call from all quarters for protection by the United States government.

Black Hawk, when he learned of the alarm he was causing, at first defied the American government, and boasted of the trouble he would cause. Then realizing the mistake he had made, and despairing of reaching the Winnebagoes, or of being aided by the British or any of the lake tribes, he sent a flag of truce to Major Stillman, the commander of a body of militia that was in close pursuit of his band. The major, instead of respecting the flag, made prisoners of its bearers and soon afterward sent a detachment of soldiers to attack a small body of Sacs that were seen in the distance. The Sacs were routed, and two of their number slain; and the militiamen, wild with thoughts of victory, gave chase to the remainder. Black Hawk, who was at supper in the woods near by, heard the clamor and hastily summoned his warriors, of whom he had scarcely two hundred. As the militiamen rushed heedlessly and without order through the shadowy woods, their ardor was suddenly cooled at sight of scores of swarthy savages rising up suddenly from the thickets and giving vent to the dreadful war whoop. They turned and ran for life, scarcely thinking of resistance. Black Hawk's warriors followed them, killing some, and filling the rest with such a panic of fear that they did not stop until they were safe behind doors at Dixon, twenty-five miles away.

Elated by this victory, many of Black Hawk's followers went out in small parties, contrary to his orders, and began to harry the outlying settlements. Many a deed of blood was committed, and the alarm of the country was increased by exaggerated accounts of the strength of the savage forces and of the widespread devastation they were causing.

But why follow the details of this painful story? After the defeat of Stillman's militiamen, Black Hawk's little army was vigorously pursued by strong forces of United States troops. Several times they were overtaken, and in the fights that followed were sorely defeated. At last, hemmed in and despairing, Black Hawk decided to seek safety for himself and people by recrossing the Mississippi. The weary and discouraged Indians were overtaken at Bad Axe in Wisconsin, just as they were preparing to go over the river. They were surrounded, and, although they offered to surrender, an indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, and children was begun. Many of the women threw themselves into the stream, and with their children on their backs attempted to swim to the opposite shore. Others embarked on rude rafts or in leaky canoes, and made all haste to escape. Vainly did Black Hawk and his braves stand their ground and attempt to cover the flight of the helpless fugitives. A white man who was present at this slaughter says: "When the Indians were driven to the bank of the Mississippi, some hundreds of men, women, and children plunged into the river, and hoped by diving to escape the bullets of our guns. Very few, however, escaped our sharpshooters; and those who did reach the western bank of the river were butchered in cold blood by a party of Sioux, their hereditary enemies, who had been brought there for that purpose by the Federal officers."

Black Hawk and a few of his men made their way through the lines of attacking soldiers, and escaped into the woods; but a few days later the chief was discovered by some Winnebagoes, who delivered him to the Americans. After being kept in prison at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for several months, he was taken to Washington, where he had a conference with President Jackson.

The President asked him why he had gone to war with the American people. He answered in true Indian fashion in a little speech which showed that although he had been defeated, his spirit was not crushed. "I am a man," he said, "and you are another. I did not expect to conquer the white people. I took up the hatchet to avenge injuries which could no longer be borne. Had I borne them longer, my people would have said, 'Black Hawk is a squaw; he is too old to be a chief; he is no Sac.' This caused me to raise the war whoop. I say no more of it. All is known to you."

After being exhibited in the eastern cities, he was allowed to return to the remnant of his people in Iowa, among whom he lived until his death in October, 1838.

Black Hawk


The Black Hawk War was the last effort made by the Indians of the Old Northwest to retain their ancestral hunting grounds. Henceforth the country was to have peace, and the development of its resources was to proceed without hindrance from barbarous natives or alien foes. Its conquest was complete.

Many years ago the Hon. William H. Seward, in a speech before a western audience, ventured to predict that "power would not much longer linger on the narrow strip between the Atlantic and the slopes of the Alleghanies; but the commanding field would soon be in the upper Mississippi Valley, whence men and institutions would speak and communicate their will to the nation and the world." It has been reserved for people now living to see the fulfillment of this prediction.