Shadow of a Cloud
The life of Black Hawk, Sauk chief
See Illinois (unpublished)
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.”
This profile is taken from the manuscript for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (See Publications for more about that project.) For more about the native people of northern Illinois, see here and here.
For an excellent summary of the editorial history of the Black Hawk autobiography mentioned below, see the introduction and footnotes by Donald Jackson in the 1954 University of Illinois Press reprint of the 1833 autobiography.
Black Hawk lords over northern Illinois 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—it is Black Hawk, whose very name sent settlers fleeing in fear to the blockhouses, who among Sinnissippi’s Indian leaders is hailed today as a hero by non-Indians.
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. A warrior must have an enemy, and Black Hawk’s was Americans. He allied himself with the British from colonial days. He was less pro-British, however, than anti-American. His home village on the Rock River was the site of the westernmost incident of the Revolutionary War. In 1780, when Black Hawk was a boy, 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.
Black Hawk was a curiosity as much as a celebrity; 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 saleable 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.
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. It is reasonable to wonder whether Black Hawk was included on grounds of political correctness rather than literary merit; to a librarian, perhaps, the only good Indian is a read Indian.
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. 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. When memories of the depredations of his braves were alive, he was denounced as a terrorist. By the mid-1800s the process of converting the bloodthirsty renegade into the George Washington of his people was well underway. Whites by then 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 of the Black Hawk legend 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 fate's 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 inter-tribal 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. ●