The Sauk in Illinois
Chief Black Hawk in life and legend
from Looking for Illinois
A selection from Sinnissippi, Part I of my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. “Sinnissippi: is a lovely old name for northern Illinois, derived from the Indian word for the Rock River, which runs through it. I’ve never understood why it hasn’t been embraced by more of my upstate compatriots.
I’ve omitted the original draft’s source notes. For more about the See Illinois project, see Publications above.
No region in Illinois better illuminates, in all its contradictions, the complex relationship of Euro-American Illinois to its native predecessors than Sinnissippi. In no part of Illinois did white settlers suffer more at the hands of Indians than northern Illinois, yet no part of Illinois has embraced the Indian as a symbol more fervently.
The Native American occupation of Sinnissippi was continuous for the 12,000 years or so since the last of the great ice sheets crept back into Canada. The details of that tenure by various peoples must be inferred from the archeological record. The record gets fuller in historic times. (Historic in terms of Euro-Americans that is.) Peoples of several Native American cultures occupied the land since the first contact with Europeans. The region’s population history since then—French traders joined by Americans of various European stocks, such as the Yankees, then newer European immigrants, and (most recently) newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and the America South—has been hardly more complex.
When one says “Indian” in Sinnissippi one is usually assumed to mean the Sauk (sometimes spelled Sac or Sak) and the Fox. (The term "Fox Tribe" as commonly used is a misnomer. It refers to the Fox Clan of the Mesquaki or Mesquakies, who lived in confederation with the Sauk. The Europeans applied the name Foxes, or Reynards in French, to all the Mesquakies.) The Sauk and Mesquakies were themselves interlopers who had been in Illinois even less long than the French. The Sauk were here because they had been repeatedly pushed west from near the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada by more numerous or more aggressive intruders. As they moved west, the Sauk did some pushing of their own: people of the Illinois Confederacy had villages in what became the Quad Cities area in 1673 but Sauk and Mesquakies drove them out in 1680.
By 1800 or so, Sauk and Mesquakies occupied the lower reaches of the Wisconsin and Rock rivers and a large area west of the Mississippi. One band had settled in a metropolis they called Saukenuk, where the Rock drains into the Mississippi immediately south of where the white were to build the city of Rock Island; the Mesquakies lived nearby, three or four miles upriver on the Mississippi. It was the custom of the Sauk to settle in such a town for the spring and summer to farm and gather, then abandon it for their winter hunting grounds in Iowa.
As Indian towns went, Saukenuk was sizable, with several thousand residents at its peak. In organization at least it outdid most Euro-American towns of the era. Lodges—the long bark-covered houses preferred by the Sauk which covered as much as 4,000 square feet each—were arrayed in blocks. The site was well chosen too, offering spring water, fertile soils on the alluvial terraces, fish from the river rapids, and rich pickings of wild fruit on “Rocky” Island (now Rock or Arsenal Island) upstream in the Mississippi. For a century, recalled Black Hawk about his home, “We always had plenty.”
A beautifully drawn map of Illinois from 1824 in the collection of the Newberry Library shows the territory north of today’s Interstate 80 marked simply, “Sauk and Fox Indians.” But while dominant, the Sauk were not Sinnissippi’s only inhabitants in the Euro-American era. Winnebago had also been forced in to Illinois from Wisconsin and sojourned along the upper Rock River and its tributaries beginning some 40 miles upriver from Saukenuk. (The Freeport area, on the Pecatonica River, was home to the Winnebago in 1835, and the county of which Rockford is the seat was named after them.) Farther east, the valley of the upper Illinois River was occupied by Potawatomi.
Historian Theodore Pease correctly notes that the concentrated Indian presence here made Sinnissippi “another world distinct and independent from that to the south.” Sinnissippi was, by every obvious test, Indian country for more than a decade after Illinois’s white tribes organized themselves as a state in 1818. In Jo Daviess County (which was named after an Indian fighter), Thompson Township was at first known as Indian Grove, where local Indian are said to have held their final council; the present site of Hanover in that county was occupied by a Sauk and Mesquakie Indian village when white settlers showed up in 1828. Another village lay where Prophetstown State Park is today, on the northeast edge of the town of the same name along the south bank of the Rock River in Whiteside County. (Prophetstown was named after its chief, Wa-bo-kie-shiek, or White Cloud, who was Black Hawk’s counselor.) Spencer Park on South Appleton Road in Belvidere is where dwelt the last vestige of Potawatomi Indians in Boone County.
Ownership of some Sinnissippi lands had been ceded to the U.S. government by Indian leaders as early as 1804. As was the case with most of the cessions in what became Illinois, those cessions were disputed by Indians who were not party to them, with the result that some land in northern Illinois had to be ceded more than once before all claims to it were satisfactorily extinguished. The details are tedious and, to anyone sympathetic to Indians’ faint grasp of the consequences of what they were doing, dismaying. The process took more than 30 years, ending in 1833; it involved five “tribes,” and six treaties; the price paid for millions of acres was pathetically small, although the Indians, once they realized what they were signing away, gradually learned how to drive harder bargains.
One cession proved especially crucial to the early history of Sinnissippi. In 1804 all the Sauk land in what was still the Indiana Territory—some 50 million acres including all the lands lying between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers—had been ceded by a Sauk chief whom the whites, incorrectly, assumed to speak for all of his people. Under its terms the Sauk and Mesquakies had the right to use the lands of Sinnissippi for as long as they remained in federal hands—that is, until Washington ceded them to the states that would eventually be formed from them, or sold them to individual settlers.
This provision enabled the Sauk to dwell unmolested on the land for years, sustaining not only their people but the illusion that the land was still theirs. For some twenty-five years after 1804 the whites in Sinnissippi were few in number, and thus easily tolerated. The vanguard of white settlement in Illinois was still well to the south, and while traders and (later) lead miners were present, they were transients whose relation to the region was, in economic terms, not much different from the Indians.’ The latter felt unthreatened, and thus were peaceable, apart from isolated acts of mayhem that enliven relations between any neighbors.
Many Sauks favored resistance to continuing American occupation of the lands ceded in 1804, but none did so more fervently than Black Hawk, of the Thunder clan. The rightness or wrongness of Black Hawk’s actions swing crucially on whether the 1804 treaty was valid. The whites thought so, of course, but a gap of customs, concepts, and language separated the sides. For years, apparently, many of the Sauk believed the annual annuities paid them under the treaty were presents, tokens of the whites’ good will. As an anthropologist, William Henry Harrison, the territorial official who negotiated the deal, was a fine general but a poor anthropologist. His assumption that a chief could speak for all of even his own band, much less for kindred clans, was unfounded. Black Hawk himself complained in his autobiography, “What do we know of the manner of the laws and customs of the white people?” This may be ingenuous; the Sauk of the Rock river country, unconditionally assented to and confirmed the treaty of 1804 in 1816, 1822, and again in 1825, although Black Hawk would later claim that he was ignorant of its conditions or, more darkly, that the treaty language had been changed after he signed it.
By the 1830s, Black Hawk and the Americans already had a history, to borrow a phrase. The Sauk had allied themselves with the British in the latter’s wars against the French and later against the Brits' own American colonists. After the American’s war for independence, British officials continued to foment trouble along the frontier from Canada, in which mischief Black Hawk eagerly took part. Black Hawk and his “British band” annoyed the Americans on behalf of the British at every opportunity. During the War of 1812, for example, Indians led by Black Hawk attacked and mauled a badly outmanned U.S. force at the Mississippi River island known today as Campbell's Island, upstream from Rock Island off East Moline.
The end of the war left the Sauk and Fox (in Pease’s words) chastened but morose. A nervous governor of the territory prodded Washington to build a fort to secure the Mississippi and “overawe” Black Hawk at Saukenuk. In 1816, a fort was built on Rock Island. The redoubt, dubbed Fort Armstrong, was an affront to Black Hawk—indeed was intended to be. Not only was it only three and one-half miles upriver from Black Hawk’s Watch Tower, but it defiled “Rocky Island,” which has been called “the recreational and spiritual center of Sauk life.”
To the injustice of the 1804 treaty soon was added insult. As noted, the Sauk and Fox were free to use Sinnissippi as long as the federal government owned it, but many whites respected Washington’s claims no more than they did those of Indians. Instead of soldiers, Black Hawk began coping with what proved a peskier and scarcely less truculent foe in the form of squatters. Whites—mainly poor white farmers with little respect for the edicts of any chief, red or white—wanted land, not skins or ore. If the Indians conceived that occupation of land conferred ownership, these new white squatters assumed that ownership under the 1804 treaty gave them the right of occupation.
In 1829 white squatters moved into the Rock River valley while the Sauk were away on their annual hunt. It was perhaps inevitable that, with all of Sinnissippi open to settlement, the farmers chose to encroach on Saukenuk, since the land was already cleared, lay near river ports, and enjoyed the protection of Fort Armstrong. The whites fenced off long-established Indian fields and in some cases plowed up their graves. The Indians, irked, broke down fences and took the whites’ livestock in retaliation.
Attempts at truce-making over several years failed. By then the squatters were considered under white law to have earned ownership rights to the disputed land, based on their occupation of it. This ended the federal government’s interest, and the fuss became a matter between Indian and settlers (more specifically, between Indians and the settler’s state government in faraway Vandalia) rather than the Indians and the federal treaty-makers. The new state government was hardly likely to side with Indians against their own citizens, and after a show of force from the state militia the Sauk were ejected from Saukenuk and packed off to Iowa. While their unharvested crops rotted, Black Hawk nurtured the resentments that would explode into violence.
In 1832 Black Hawk and a band of 1,000 of his people—most of them women, children, and old men—crossed back from exile from Iowa into Illinois. Their return set the frontier “ablaze with excitement,” in Pease’s phrase. Among the volunteers who rushed to the settlers’ defense was a 23-year-old captain named Abraham Lincoln. He bore no particular animus toward the Sauk (he mainly became a soldier because he needed the money) but served a total of 90 days—the only military experience for the man who, 28 years later, would command the greatest army ever assembled on U.S. soil.
Sadly, not many of Lincoln’s compatriots were his superiors in military experience. More than most wars, the Black Hawk War was a blend of farce and horror. The opening encounter on Sycamore Creek that came to be known Stillman’s Run occurred after Black Hawk had already been convinced of the futility of hoped-for aid from either other clans or his British friends, and was looking for someone to surrender to. That encounter caused panic among Illinois’s under-led and over-whiskeyed militia; a more disciplined and larger force had to be called up to complete the job. After that the “war” was mostly a chase. Black Hawk’s band—eventually outnumbered ten to one—sought safety, first by heading eastward across northern Illinois, then westward through what is now southern Wisconsin. They suffered a major defeat on the Wisconsin River on July 21 and near-annihilation while trying to cross the Mississippi on August 3 at the Battle of Bad Axe.
That final encounter would be more accurately known as the Massacre of Bad Axe. Raking fleeing children with cannon shot and picking off drowning women with rifles was barbarous even by the standards of Americans much less fastidious in war than they are today. Not more than one hundred and fifty of the band of nearly a thousand Indians survived. Black Hawk escaped alive but was turned over to U.S. authorities by Winnebago Indians. The fighting had lasted four months and cost 72 Euro-American dead (counting generously) and those of an unknown number of Indians. Historian Robert Howard would later dismiss the “war” as “overrated, expensive, and avoidable”—true of most wars, but especially and sadly true of this one.
Shadow of a cloud
Black Hawk lords over Sinnissippi today the way he never did in life. The majority of the Sauk and Fox, indeed the Winnebago and Pottawatomi too, accepted the terms of the treaties signed by their chiefs that Black Hawk disdained. Rival leaders such as Keokuk and Shabbona showed wisdom in refusing to follow him in war. Yet—in one of those ironies that make history worth reading—the Sinnissippi Indian leader who is hailed today as a hero by non-Indians is Black Hawk, whose very name once sent settlers fleeing in fear to the blockhouses. In 1927, a Rockford newspaper sponsored a contest to select a name for that city’s opulent new movie palace; “Black Hawk” was among the runners-up. When arts and downtown improvement organizations in Rock Island decided to decorate the sides of buildings left exposed by adjacent demolitions, they commissioned a forty-foot trompe l'oeil representation of Black Hawk. Black Hawk has even been adopted as a fellow patriot by modern Sinnissippians. “The chief was a smart man,” insisted poet Dave Etter, in “Midwinter Thoughts.” “He was one of the first to recognize the fact that Illinois is a better place to live than Iowa.”
Indeed, it is hard to think of any dead Illinoisan who is held in such veneration, save another of Illinois’s great war chiefs, Abraham Lincoln. And like Lincoln, Black Hawk has teased biographers. “Writing the biography of an Indian leader, dead more than 150 years now,” wrote scholar Roger L. Nichols, “is something like trying to catch the shadows of clouds as they cross the beach on a warm summer afternoon.” Quite a few people have tried to catch the shadow of Black Hawk, or Ma-Ka-Tai-me-she-kia-kaik, or Black sparrow hawk, in the language of his people.
The facts of Black Hawk’s life are not much in dispute. He was born at Saukenuk in 1767. He found a constituency and a calling in war, which he pursued at every opportunity that life on an unsettled frontier gave him. He was less pro-British than anti-American thanks to an incident in 1780, when Black Hawk was still a boy, at his home village on the Rock River, the site of the westernmost incident of the Revolutionary War. An American force joined with French and Spanish allies to destroy the village in retaliation for Indian participation in a British attempt to capture Cahokia and St. Louis. When a man, Black Hawk returned the gesture, fighting against the Americans alongside the British under Tecumseh in the War of 1812. Upon his capture in 1832 he was paraded in eastern cities. A placid retirement ended in Iowa in 1838, when he died at the age of 71.
Officially a prisoner of war while in the East, he was treated as if a visiting foreign dignitary, which of course he was. He had his portrait painted, his skull measured, and a bust modeled, an anthropological method not usually applied to, say, the French ambassador or a German prince on tour. Black Hawk’s grave was plundered not long thereafter by a local doctor who cleaned the bones and wired them for display to gawkers with money to waste; the territorial governor obtained their return, but instead of being respectfully re-buried the remains were shipped to an Iowa museum, where they were destroyed in a fire in 1855. Even Black Hawk’s detractors agree that it was an end undeserved by a warrior, or even for that matter, by a villain.
In 1833, at Rock Island, Black Hawk dictated an account of this life to Frenchman Antoine LeClaire. LeClaire was a competent interpreter but English was not his first language, so J. P. Patterson, who published the Galenian newspaper in Galena during the war, put LeClaire’s manuscript into more sellable form and published it later that year. The accuracy of the book, Life of Ma-Ka-Tia-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk, thus depends on LeClaire’s grasp of Sauk (considered good), his knowledge of English (not so good) and Patterson’s faithfulness to LeClaire’s text. Of the last we have little reason to be confident; Patterson amended subsequent editions so much that scholars consider them untrustworthy. For an excellent summary of the editorial history of the autobiography, see the introduction and footnotes by Donald Jackson in the University of Illinois Press reprint of the 1833 autobiography from 1954.
As a factual account, Black Hawk’s autobiography (in its the first edition anyway) is considered genuine, even if it must be considered suspect as a literal record of Black Hawk’s speech. Yet it is largely on account of that work that Black Hawk’s name was included on the frieze atop the Illinois State Library in Springfield with the names of 35 of Illinois’ literary immortals. Others have questioned whether Black Hawk was included on grounds of political correctness rather than literary merit.
It is not only by his words that we remember Black Hawk. He was among the most painted of Native American leaders. Probably the most published of the several portraits done of him is the later of two done by Charles Bird King in 1837. (The Chicago Historical Society has a portrait of Black Hawk painted by Homer Henderson around 1875 that was taken from the 1837 King portrait.) In 1982, Hodges Soileau did a portrait that appeared on a 1984 commemorative cover issued by the U.S. Postal Service at Rock Island. It contrasts interestingly with the lithograph done more than a century earlier, in 1853, by John Cameron after a portrait by James Otto Lewis. The newer version is Roman in mien, a more robust and admirable Indian in every way, an Indian worthy of respect from a people that likes its heroes handsome.
Black Hawk has stayed put but the world has moved around him, and now sees him from a new perspective. When memories of the depredations of his braves were alive, he was denounced as a terrorist. The process of converting the bloodthirsty renegade into the George Washington of his people began in the mid-1800s. Whites could regard Black Hawk with the magnanimity that victors often reserve for the safely vanquished, and commentators tended to describe Black Hawk’s resistance as being in the tradition of great Indian leaders such as King Philip, Pontiac, and Tecumseh.
Victorians sentimentalized the noble red man in their own way, transforming the saga of cultural conflict in North America into a tragedy of innocence betrayed. Speeches made at the dedication in 1911 of the Black Hawk monument in Lowden Memorial State Park made wistful references to Black Hawk’s ”simple, kindly, faithful, virile race.” As anthropology this is almost comic—the Sauk were unforgiving, even (by Western standards) barbaric in war.
Each revision spawned its own revision. In 1903 Frank E. Stevens wrote a book to set the record straight—again. In place of the noble savage, cruelly wronged, Stevens gave the world a man who was vain, jealous, and untrustworthy, and who had no ambition for his people, only himself. By the end of the 20th century, public opinion had swung again. Today Black Hawk is romanticized as a freedom fighter, his age’s Che Guevara. The baby-boom generation in particular have been drawn to him, seeing in him a fellow anti-establishment rebel who identified with oppressed people of color.
The blood-thirsty malcontents of the 1830s are now (to quote a State of Illinois Web site) “brave warriors.” Decades of well-intentioned site interpretation have not yet enlightened every Illinoisan about Native American history. Among its recommended “Merry Adventures” for summer day trips in Illinois, one of the state’s professional organization listed Black Hawk War sites under the heading “Cowboys and Indians.”
So who is the “real” Black Hawk? Even Nichols, whose aim was to provide the balanced view, concludes that Black Hawk as was proud, stubborn, could not take advice, was uncooperative, and found it difficult to admit mistakes. Perhaps most dangerous in a military leader, Black Hawk believed in fairy tales—about the fates’ plans for him, about promised alliances with other clans, about the loyalty of his old allies. This tendency toward wishful thinking undid him, as it was to undo so many military men. In an era in which the fur trade, European diseases, and the resulting increased intertribal warfare had unalterably changed the Sauk culture and economy, his “warrior path” proved to be a dead-end.
There is of course no one truth about the war any more than there is one truth about Black Hawk. Certainly the war is understood in very different terms today than it was a century ago. Since then the Native American has been transformed in the popular mind from savage to victim. Skepticism of government action (learned in Vietnam), the civil rights revolution, the profound ambivalence felt among Illinois’ postwar middle class about their commercial, rootless culture that is the antithesis of Native American ways—these factors shade our opinions as decisively as fear shaded those of the isolated settler in the 1830s. The human taste for simple explanations hasn’t changed, however, and Black Hawk is no more perfectly a hero than he was a savage. ●