The origin of Sauk and Fox removal lies in a treaty signed in St. Louis in 1804 when the American government made its first inroads into the upper Mississippi River Valley. During the mid- to late 18th century, the Great Lakes region underwent tremendous changes due to ongoing warfare first between the French and the British and then between the British and the American colonists. At the conclusion of the American Revolution, the Sauk and Fox still held strong ties to the British. However, they also looked to the new American nation and its citizens as a potential source for trade goods.
A source of trouble in this new relationship came from American treatment of Native Americans in and around St. Louis. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson and his administration had to develop relations with Native groups on both sides of the Mississippi River. It was not easy. The Sauk in particular believed that the Americans unfairly favored the western communities of Osage Indians, who had been enemies of the Sauk for years. This rivalry between the Sauk and Osage was evident in their competition over hunting grounds on the western side of the Mississippi River. And when American officials attempted to halt Sauk and Fox raids on the Osage villages, settlements of American citizens became new targets. Such was the case in 1804, when a small raiding party of Sauk killed three Americans at a settlement north of St. Louis.
In the aftermath of this attack, two things happened. First, five minor Sauk village chiefs traveled to St. Louis to negotiate for peace. Second, the governor of Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, decided to take advantage of the circumstances and pushed the Sauk delegation to sign a treaty that ceded land. Although they did not have the authority to do so, the five men signed an accord that surrendered all of the Sauk territory located east of the Mississippi River. In these negotiations and in the final treaty, Harrison referred to the "Sac and Fox tribes," therefore grouping together two communities who had close ties but no official communal political organization.
Despite protests within both Sauk and Fox villages that the five signatories did not have the authority to surrender the named territory, the St. Louis Treaty remained valid according to the American government. Further conflict was avoided because the treaty allowed the Sauk and Fox to remain on their land for the time being. However, the land cession included in that agreement served as the foundation for all future removals of Sauk and Fox communities in the decades that followed.
The war between the British and Americans that lasted from June 1812 to December 1814 had a distinct impact on the Sauk communities east of the Mississippi River. Many Sauk maintained relationships with the British traders at Fort Malden and Amherstburg in the first decade of the 19th century, and therefore they had a decision to make when the war began. For a portion of the Sauk community, the war provided an opportunity to respond to the increasing expansion of American settlements into the Great Lakes region. Those Natives who had particularly benefited from British generosity in trade goods chose to fight against the Americans. Black Hawk was one of the most prominent Sauk warriors who allied with the British over the next two years.
But even as Black Hawk and dozens of other men joined the British, a contingent of Sauk hoped to maintain their neutrality by moving away from the violence. After a series of councils with William Clark, the territorial governor of Missouri Territory, these Sauk relocated in the fall of 1813. All told, approximately 1,500 Sauk, Fox, Piankeshaw (Miami), and Ioway Indians traveled by canoe up the Missouri River to a spot west of the Mississippi River.
This separation during the War of 1812 led to the negotiation of several distinct treaties in the years following the conflict. The Missouri Sauk signed two treaties, each of which recognized the truce that ended the war and also confirmed the terms of the Treaty of 1804. In addition, the Missouri Sauk agreed to remain separate from those who had remained east of the Mississippi and allied with the British. The Sauk who remained in their villages on the Rock River in northern Illinois signed the Treaty with the Sauk (1816), a peace treaty in 1816. But they did not believe they had suffered a defeat, and American officials referred to Black Hawk and those who followed him as the British Band.
American settlement in the western Great Lakes region increased dramatically in the decade after the end of the War of 1812. Illinois became a state in 1818, and the non-indigenous population more than tripled from 1820 to 1830. But the Sauk and Fox homes in the northwestern part of the state had more to fear from the miners who flocked to the rich lead deposits in the upper Mississippi Valley. Tensions between miners and Native Americans in the Fever River region in particular helped cause the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Uprising in 1827. In the years that followed, American officials tried to relocate the Sauk and Fox from their homes east of the Mississippi in the hopes of avoiding another war.
The Indian agents in the region received some cooperation in the person of Keokuk, a Sauk warrior whose status as a civil leader had risen in the decade after the War of 1812. Keokuk was intent on protecting Sauk and Fox land west of the Mississippi and believed that it was necessary to surrender the eastern lands in the process. This belief made him a very appealing leader in the eyes of American officials, and they worked to increase his influence and authority. As of the fall of 1829, Keokuk and his followers were residing in villages on the Iowa River west of the Mississippi River.
In contrast, Black Hawk and the Sauk and Fox members of the so-called British Band refused to support the terms of the St. Louis Treaty of 1804 and intended to maintain a residence at Saukenuk, the center of Sauk lands in the Rock River region. By the early 1830s, however, American officials were determined to enforce the removal of the Sauk and Fox. Therefore, when Black Hawk and approximately 800 men, women, and children crossed the Mississippi River and headed to Saukenuk in the summer of 1832, many Illinois residents considered their movement hostile. A series of misunderstandings and heightened tensions sparked what is known as the Black Hawk War. More of a pursuit than a war, this conflict ended on August 2 when an American military force of more than 1,300 men caught up to the British band on the Bad Axe River and killed at least 300 Sauk and Fox men, women, and children.
In the aftermath of the Black Hawk War, American treaty commissioners forced the Sauk and Fox to confirm a final cession of all their lands along the Mississippi River. They wanted to avoid further bloodshed by separating the Native groups from the white Americans who continued to populate Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. Within a decade, however, U.S. treaty commissioners visited the Sauk and Fox to discuss their presence in the new state of Iowa. The Treaty with the Sauk and Fox (1842) arranged for the cession of all indigenous land claims in Iowa and the relocation of approximately 2,300 Sauk and Fox to present-day Kansas.
Over the next four decades, the community of Sauk and Fox encountered another wave of American expansion and moved in several directions. More than 100 Fox returned to Iowa in the 1850s and lived on a small parcel of land they obtained through purchase. A majority of the Sauk and the remaining Fox removed one more time to present-day northeastern Oklahoma. The descendants of the Missouri Sauk who separated in the War of 1812 continue to live on a reservation that spans the Nebraska and Kansas borders.
The Sauk and Fox removal is most often associated with the Black Hawk War and its illustration of the last Native militant resistance in the Old Northwest. However, the westward movements of the Sauk and Fox encompassed the first three decades of the 19th century and demonstrated the growing push for Indian removal that culminated rather than began with the Indian Removal Act (1830).
John P. Bowes
Bowes, John P. Black Hawk and the War of 1832. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007; Hagan, William T. The Sac and Fox Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958; Jackson, Donald, ed. Black Hawk: An Autobiography. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987; Trask, Kerry A. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.