The Black Hawk War: Introduction

by James E. Lewis, Jr., Kalamazoo College

On April 5, 1832, a band of roughly one thousand Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo men, women, and children crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois near the mouth of the Iowa River. They moved north along the eastern bank of the river and then turned to the northeast along the Rock River. At the mouth of the Rock, they passed the remains of Saukenuk. For roughly one hundred years, Saukenuk had been the principal village of the Sauks; now, it lay in ruins, with just a scattering of cabins, barns, and fields marking the homes of a few white settlers. Beyond Saukenuk lay the fields where Sauk and Fox women had planted and harvested corn, squash, and beans for generations. Beyond them, just three or four miles from Saukenuk up the Mississippi, stood the main Fox village, which had also been abandoned. Surely saddened by the sight of their old homes, the members of the band continued north and east along the Rock, headed for the village of a Winnebago prophet named White Cloud.

Black Hawk In the eyes of most contemporaries, whether Native American or white, the leader of this mixed band was Black Hawk (left), a sixty-five-year-old Sauk warrior. Black Hawk had led Sauk, Fox, and other native warriors against his people's enemies, including Americans, for nearly fifty years. In April 1832, however, Black Hawk sought not honor, horses, captives, and scalps, but freedom and peace on the lands of the Winnebago prophet. He was prepared to fight, but whether he would have to or not would be decided by whites. Black Hawk's dreams of a peaceful retirement were quickly shattered, however. His band's presence in Illinois quickly spurred fear and then hysteria among white settlers. The U.S. Army, the Illinois militia, and groups of Sioux and Menominee warriors started to pursue Black Hawk's band within just a couple of weeks of the crossing of the Mississippi.

The Black Hawk War might be conveniently divided into four phases.

The first phase lasted from April 5 to May 14, 1832. During these weeks, Black Hawk's band crossed the Mississippi and headed toward the Winnebago prophet's village on the Rock. In response, federal and state forces mobilized against them. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Black Hawk's band decided to re-cross the river. As they tried to arrange an orderly retreat, however, they got into a fight with a militia unit, which seemed to make a peaceful return down the Rock impossible.

The second phase began with this missed opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on May 14 and ended on the eve of the first major battle of the war on July 21. In this phase, there were a number of raids and confrontations. Some were attacks by Black Hawk's band against white settlements; others were launched by the army or militia against native war parties. While there were no pitched battles between the main forces on each side, the pursuers gained ground.

On July 21, the pursuit caught up with Black Hawk's band at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. This third phase, which ended with Black Hawk's surrender on August 8, witnessed a desperate race by Black Hawk's band toward the Mississippi and its ultimate destruction on the river's banks by the U.S. Army and the Illinois militia.

The final phase of the Black Hawk War was its aftermath. It is important to trace the effects of the war on some of its white participants, on the Sauks and Foxes as a whole, on Black Hawk's band, and on Black Hawk himself.