The Sauk in Illinois
The whites' war on Indian country
See Illinois (unpublished)
The occupation of Sinnissippi—northern Illinois outside Chicago—by peoples of several Native American cultures was continuous since the last of the great ice sheets crept back into Canada some 12,000 years ago. Nonetheless, 'Indian" in Sinnissippi these days means "Sauk," who are thought to have arrived from the east only in the 1600s.
This summary account is taken from the manuscript of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. See Publications for more about that project.
The Sauk (sometimes spelled Sac or Sak) and the Fox clan of the Mesquaki or Mesquakies, who lived in confederation with the Sauk, were 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 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 that 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, for whom Saukenuk was 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 (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, 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 those lands 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.
As the permanent white settlements grew, many Sauk 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, accustomed to hierarchical social systems with chains of command. His assumption that a chief was a general of sort who 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 their own American colonists. After the Americans' 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 out-manned 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.”
A marker on the spot notes that the fort was garrisoned by United States troops until May 1836, served as headquarters for the Sauk and Fox Indian Agent from 1836 to 1838—appropriately, as it was a military occupation—and as a military depot from 1840 to 1845. It was destroyed by fire in 1855. Perhaps inevitably, a federal arms facility, the Rock Island Arsenal, was later built on the spot.
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. All of Sinnissippi open to settlement, but the farmers chose to encroach on Saukenuk,since the land, which lay near river ports, was already cleared 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 local Indians and settlers (more specifically, between Indians and the settler’s state government in Vandalia) rather than the Indians and the federal treaty-makers. The new state government was hardly likely to side with Indians against its 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 result in 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 would in 28 years later 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, this one was a blend of farce and horror. The opening encounter on Sycamore Creek that came to be known as 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; he 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 even 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. ●
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