The Black Hawk War: Chief Black Hawk

Chief Black Hawk Portrait

Chief Black Hawk, as portrayed in 1832, before the Black Hawk War and the Battle of Bad Axe

Chief Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk tribe which was forced west of the Mississippi through a treaty with the Americans in the early 1800's. This land was given to the Americans in exchange for money, that was negotiated by natives in the Sauk tribe that Black Hawk did not believe possessed the power or authority to carry out such negotiations (Jung 32). Though many of the native nations surrounding the Sauk were unfriendly toward them, Black Hawk wanted to focus on combatting the Americans. Not in an agreesive way, as he was aware that such violent means could turn disastrous for him and his tribe, but through peaceful negotiation (Black Hawk). His willingness to negotiate set him apart from his fellow tribe members, however when he tried to work and negotiate, the consequences were numerous and quite telling of how strained and misunderstood the Native-American relations were at the time.

Survivor of Black Hawk War

Account from a soldier of the Black Hawk War, recounting the massacre that ensued on the Mississippi River as the Native men, women and children all tried to surrender, but were met with a deadly massacre

In April of 1832, a band of around 1,000 native americans under the direction of their dear leader Chief Black Hawk traveled across the Mississippi River eastward into their old land in Illinois. They went against a federal decree that removed them from the land, and they wanted to get the land back. As in previous native american wars, there was a great misunderstanding that led to the eventual buildup and breakdown of relations in this short lived Black Hawk War. It was said that "After Black Hawk was compelled temporarily to move his people west, he led his followers back east on a path of diplomatic resistance" (Frank 6), with unclear motives and an unclear goal in mind. He did not want to begin a war, for it was obvious that the American forces were much stronger than his band of 1,000 men. However, this is where it is important to note how misunderstandings can greatly affect situations like this. The United States, immediately after recognizing that that native Sauk and Fox indians had crossed back over the Mississippi into Illinois Territory, they landed a series of brutal attacks on the indians, killing most of them. This war was especially brutal, being that "at many times [the war] resembled a massacre rather than a war, particularly since women, children, and elders were needlessly and viciously" (Jung 60). Jung does an interesting job explaininig in his text how the war came about, and how it directly related to many previous and than future native american wars. Jung said, "resistance to white expansion and pan-Indian nativism were the foundation for both the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War" (Jung 45), which is meaningful because most native wars were started on false assumptions, rumors, and misconceptions of the other side's intentions. Black Hawk was trying to negotiate, however it turned bloody and violent. Indian negotiations were "met with hostility by Illinois volunteers, which, according to Patrick J. Jung, precipitated the conflict" (Jung 45)

Battle of Bad Axe
This painting depicts a broad view of the confluence of Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers; site of the concluding battle of the 1832 Black Hawk War.

The most decisive and bloody battle of this small, and mostly forgotten war, was at the Battle of Bad Axe. This battle was the culmination and final fihgt in the war, spanning over two days. After suffering smaller losses in previous days, the natives under Chief Black Hawk sought to retreat. "After losing the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21, 1832, near present day Sauk City, Wisconsin,  the Native Americans retreated to the west" (Copeland). Chief Black Hawk attempted to get peace with the whites, however his attempts were misconstrued. Black Hawk can be quoted as saying, "I immediately started three young men with a white flag to meet them and conduct them to our camp, that we might hold a council with them and descend Rock river again. After this party had started I sent five young men to see what might take place. The first party went to the camp of the whites, and were taken prisoners" (Bowes). His attempts at peace were thought to be tricks, and his soldiers trying to negotiate were taken prisoner. On the first day of the Battle of Bad Axe, there was a steamboat that was sitting on the water's edge ready to attack the retreating natives. Raising a white flag to the steamboat, they wished to surrender to the American forces, for their casulties had mounted. However, after some miscommunciation between the two sides, the steam boat opened fire on the land of native troops. Only 70 out of over 400 natives left (Joseph), made it safely back across the Mississippi, with the rest being slaughtered on the banks of the river by the oncoming American soldiers. Following this was the end of the Black Hawk war, a war started in miscommunication once more, and ended with native removal and native slaughter.

It is important to note the historical relevancy of even a war like the Black Hawk war. It was not drawn out, it was not over a large expanse of land. This was non-typical of most wars that contemporary historians teach, and what most school classes cover. However, in this, it is still necessarily important to realize that such small wars have had large implications on American history. This war was the last "great attempt" (Jung) by the natives to usurp American authority, and push back against their removal west of the Mississippi. Even in this, their wishes were for peace, and a negotiating correspondence with the Americans. Though, through miscommunication the battles begun once more, though peace was always the goal of Black Hawk and his band on natives when crossing the Mississippi River back into Illinois Territory. 

1. Bowes, John P. 2010. “Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War.” Annals of Iowa 69 (4): 451–52. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=55099091&site=ehost-live

2. Copeland, David A. 2009. “The Black Hawk War of 1832 – By Patrick J. Jung.” Historian 71 (2): 367–68. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=41044395&site=ehost-live.

3. Jung, Patrick J. 2007. The Black Hawk War of 1832. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

4. Dickson, Joseph. “Personal narrative of the Black Hawk War, 1855.” Original manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (SC 1816).

5. Wisconsin Historical Society, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM2531

6. Hawk, Black. “The Massacre at Bad Axe.” Https://Www.wisconsinhistory.org/Pdfs/Lessons/EDU-Account-BlackHawk-BattleofBadAxe.pdf.