Black Hawk was born about 1767, a member of the Thunder Clan of the Sauk and Fox, and grew up at Saukenuk in northeastern Illinois. He joined his first war party at the age of fifteen and fought in successive wars and raids against the neighboring Osages and Cherokees. A chief since 1788, Black Hawk resented American interference in Indian affairs and became stridently pro-British in outlook. This sentiment conflicted directly with most tribal elders, who were friendly toward the United States and received gifts and annuities in return.
By 1804, Black Hawk's dislike turned to hatred when Indiana territorial Governor William Henry Harrison persuaded several Sauk and Fox chiefs to sell most of their peoples' land east of the Mississippi River. Black Hawk refused to sign the treaty and remained at his village of Saukenuk. When the War of 1812 erupted eight years later, his warrior band joined Tecumseh's pan-tribal alliance in their struggle against the whites. Real Indian unity proved fleeting, however. Despite Black Hawk's best efforts, the Sauk and Fox nation split into the British band under himself and a pro-American faction allied to Chief Keokuk.
Black Hawk fought and helped defeat General James Winchester at the Battle of Frenchtown in January 1813 and subsequently attended the unsuccessful siege of Fort Meigs that May. When British forces failed to dislodge Major George Croghan from Fort Stephenson in August 1813, however, he grew disillusioned and withdrew to his homeland for the winter. Black Hawk reentered the fray in July 1814 when his warriors ambushed and defeated a detachment of the First U.S. Infantry on Campbell's Island in the Mississippi River.
In September, Black Hawk enjoyed similar success when he drove off an expedition under Major Zachary Taylor at Rock River, Illinois. Black Hawk was therefore very upset with his British allies when they signed a peace treaty and abandoned all their western conquests to the United States. Throughout the spring of 1815, he raided several settlements near Fort Howard, Missouri, in protest. His warriors defeated a pursuing party of rangers at the Battle of the Sinkhole in June 1815, the final skirmish of the War of 1812. The following year, Black Hawk sullenly concluded a peace treaty with the United States and was the last war chief to do so.
For the next twenty years, Black Hawk lived in an uneasy truce with his white neighbors at Saukenuk, but by 1829 the Illinois state government applied pressure on the Indians to migrate. When the old chief refused, Governor John Reynolds called out the militia in June 1831 to evict them by force. Bloodshed was averted, however, when the Sauk and Fox tribe slipped quietly across the Mississippi River into Iowa and endured an uncomfortable winter there. Black Hawk had come under the influence of White Cloud, a Winnebago prophet, who urged action against the whites, and Black Hawk decided to reclaim his ancestral home. On April 5, 1832, the tribe, numbering 1,400 men, women, and children, crossed back into Illinois for the stated purpose of occupying Saukenuk. It was hoped hostilities could be avoided.
The Americans reacted by summoning the troops of General Henry Atkinson and Colonel Henry Dodge, who immediately marched against them. The Indians, having received no pledge of assistance from the neighboring Winnebago and Potawatomi tribes, decided the odds were too steep and tried to surrender. When two of their peace envoys were killed by Illinois militia, the Battle of Stillman's Run erupted on May 14, 1832, and Black Hawk was again victorious. The Indians then reached the Mississippi River and prepared to cross. They were in the act of building rafts when they were attacked by the steamboat Warrior on August 1, 1832.
Again, the Indians tried to signal their surrender, to no avail. After inflicting considerable losses, the steamboat withdrew because of lack of fuel, just as Atkinson's column arrived. An intense battle ensued in which 150 Native Americans were slain and a similar number captured. Several survivors made their way across to the west bank of the Mississippi, where they were immediately attacked by Sioux Indian war parties. Black Hawk was eventually captured and taken east by Lieutenant Jefferson Davis to meet with President Andrew Jackson. After several months of confinement at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he was released in the custody of rival chief, Keokuk.
Back in Iowa, Black Hawk dictated his memoirs, a stinging indictment against European-American injustice, to Indian agent Antonine LeClaire. When published in 1833, the book became a national best seller. Black Hawk continued living quietly for another five years and died in Keokuk's village on October 3, 1838. His defeat signaled the collapse of Native American resistance to white expansion east of the Mississippi.
Eckert, Allan W. 1988. Twilight of Empire: A Narrative. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.; Hagen, William T. 1958. The Sac and Fox Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Jackson, Donald, ed. 1964. Black Hawk: An Autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Nichols, Roger L. 1992. Black Hawk and the Warrior's Path. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.; Stark, William F. 1984. Along the Black Hawk Trail. Sheboygan, WI: Zimmerman Press.; Thayer, Crawford B. 1981. Hunting a Shadow: The Search for Black Hawk. Privately published.