BLACK HAWK: An Epic American Indian Tragedy

By Joan Bonnell Clark, 2012
Retired Rockford College professor/archivist


So … you say you want to set down my tragic story

Can a White person ever begin to understand

The downfall of my peaceful, prosperous tribe

Thousands of Sauk settled in willow-pole, mud daubed lodges

In Saukenuk with cultivated fields of corn and squash

Our Rock River hunting grounds for meat and furs

Teaming with edible fish and migrating fowl

From where the river is born in Wisconsin

To where it meets the Mississippi in Illinois.

Our town destroyed, renamed Rock Island by invaders.


My man could have had many wives

But in love he singled me out

My French blood made me a bit different

We’d admired one another for years

Black Hawk was the only son of Pyesa

Great-grandson of war chief Nanamkee

Each passing along the sacred medicine bundle

At fifteen Black Hawk became a true brave

For wounding an enemy, earned feathers and paint

At nineteen, against renegade Cherokees

His father killed, he assumed command.

Five years Black Hawk grieved his father

I comforted him with love and sons

During the regular rhythm of Sauk seasons

Spring, summer and fall in Saukenuk

Winter scattered into small groups to survive

Rejoicing reunions each spring for planting.

Warily we watched more and more Whites

Claiming what they called “government land”

Then four minor leaders in eighteen five

Without consulting our tribal council

Dulled by White Man’s “fire water”

Signed away our lands west of the Mississippi.

We scattered into groups for the usual Iowa winter

But Chief Keokuk ordered us to remain in Iowa

My magnificent man, general over all Indian

Allies of the British in the War of 1812,

Although now in his elderly, healthy sixties

Led a massive, aggressive revolt

Intent upon returning to Saukenuk

Heartland of our very way of life.


Longer than the memories of our esteemed elders

We Sauk dwelt undisturbed except for raiding parties

Easily repulsed from less fortunate Indian nations.

Perhaps if we Sauk had been less favored by Mother Earth

Less envied by jealous, fence-building farmer Whites,

We’d not have been tricked into a bogus treaty, then forced

Across the Mississippi by blue-clad soldiers

Armed with metal lightning-spitting rods

Mightier than our bows and arrows, and battle clubs.

But after a bitter winter, in spring we returned.

I suppose I should feel proudly complimented

That the ensuing war was actually named after me

But one doesn’t bring one’s wives and children to war

We crossed the Mississippi to resettle Saukenuk

So the women and youth could plant their usual crops

While we warriors sustained them with fresh fish and meat,

But our lodges were gone, our cemeteries plowed and planted

Imagine our anger at such desecration and destruction

And how panicked the Whites became at our appearance

They sent frantic messages requesting militia and soldiers.

Now I knew that my followers’ families were in for trouble

I’d led the British Indian allies in the War of 1812

And although our five hundred warriors now had rifles

Hoped for Indian allies refused to fight

Despite winning early skirmishes with White militias

We couldn’t move swiftly enough with animals and belongings

Including a thousand elderly, women and children

Who somehow had to be defended and led to safety

But our white flags requesting negotiation were ignored

And being pursued by increasing numbers, we fled north.


As Black Hawk’s son and a warrior, I fought

At his side for fairer Indians’ rights

Helped him try to protect his British Band

Saw how time after time the Whites

Foiled his attempts to negotiate surrender

How brilliantly he defeated militia

At Stillman’s Run and Pecatonica

But they were defensive battles

Waged to gain time for seeking refuge

Hoping to found a new Saukenuk

In Wisconsin wilds or Canada

If failing that, return to Iowa.


Perhaps our British friends would welcome us

Or we could find shelter in the Wisconsin wilderness

Since we weren’t to be allowed to peacefully surrender

We’d hide our families, give the Whites the fight deserved

Show them the bravery of our warrior training and tradition

But weekly from April to August of eighteen thirty-two

The numbers of our enemies and their Indian allies grew

Army troops were deployed, our numbers exaggerated

Twice more we sent messengers under white flags of truce

Each time the Whites acted as if they wanted all of us dead.

With two-hundred warriors we attacked and enticed the Whites

Well away from our frightened and fleeing families

Giving them time to make Lake Koshkonong

Perhaps lie low there until the hubbub subsided

And it would be safe to recross the Mother of Waters

But our scouts reported a feverish, continued search

Even through swampy Wisconsin lowlands for us

There was to be no merciful quarter shown

Our only chance to proceed to the islands at Bad Axe

Where hunters used to fashion rafts, float down to Saukenuk.

Only Wisconsin’s Potawatomi tribes aided us

While the Whites harassed our brave rear guard defense

But there was to be little relief at reaching Bad Axe

Too few rafts nor time to build the needed more

And soldiers continued to shoot whatever moved

Within range, regardless if elder, woman or child

Those who took to the water were victims of their gunboat

No one would have escaped if the boat hadn’t run low on wood

And steamed back upstream for wood and ammunition

While blessed darkness shrouded the few of us left.

Returning from fruitless searches for Indian aid

Whirling Thunder, my son, the Prophet and I

Watched in horror from a bluff overlooking the river

When the gunboat returned and their troops herded our remnant

Into the Mississippi to die whether drowned or shot

And later we learned that the few who’d made it downstream

Were killed by Sioux Indians as they staggered ashore

I wanted to also die, responsible for this annihilation,

But my son counseled we flee, live to recount such cruelty

Surrender to the commander of Ft. Crawford in Prairie du Chien.


Our finale was not entirely at Bad Axe

For Black Hawk divided our band into two—

The faster, well mounted overland with him

The slower to fashion bark canoes

Float down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi

Both groups to reunite at Cedar River

Travel together to Keokuk’s village.

But guns from Ft. Crawford foiled the slow group

While Winnebago and Menominee Indians killed

All but thirty-nine survivors rescued by troops

Who’d “not come to murder women and children.”


Exhausted and heartsick, we hurried north and rested a week

In the Winnebago village at Prairie La Crosse

Where the women outfitted me in a suit of white deerskin

So I might surrender at Fort Crawford with dignity

Relying for assistance from the Winnebagos’ agent,

General Street, who escorted us to Colonel Taylor

Who immediately arrested and put us in iron chains

Awaiting the next boat going south to Fort Armstrong

But a cholera epidemic caused Lieutenant Jefferson Davis

To send us south to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri.

Eight long months we leaders awaited our fate

Until President Andrew Jackson sent for us

To Washington by steamboat, carriage and rail

With curious crowds everywhere along the route

Then interviewed by Secretary of War, Lewis Cass

And President Jackson himself before imprisonment

At Fortress Monroe in Virginia, our portraits painted

But soon we were sent on a tour of major cities

To convince us of Whites’ overwhelming odds

Instead we became “toasts of the town.”


One would think me a star on stage

The way White women gawked at me

During the tour of major cities

And admired me as being “the noble savage”

My father the ultimate Indian spokesman

Which so enraged President Jackson

Our projected tour was curtailed

Again imprisoned in Ft. Monroe, Virginia.


Finally I was released to rejoin the Iowa Sauks.

Those two-hundred non-combatants

Clinging to life in Iowa tribal lands

What a comedown to be subject to Keokuk

Still chief of those who’d refused to follow me

I felt I’d done my duty in opposing greedy Whites

But sympathized with these Indians’ grief at results.

I wondered about which people were more “civilized”

Those Whites who wanted all of us Indians dead

Or we Indians living in harmony with nature and traditions.


Black Hawk, the unbowed embittered Indian leader

Died at age seventy-two on October third

Eighteen thirty-eight near Centerville

His Iowa burial plot and modest marker

Very soon becoming a pilgrimage site

However, his bones did not remain at rest

Dug up by Doctor Turner for exhibition

Quick action by Governor Lukas saved them

But the Iowa Historical Society’s headquarters

To which the bones had been consigned

Burned to the ground in eighteen fifty-five

So Black Hawk is remembered in sorrowful legend

As detailed in his unique, remarkable autobiography.

From the Sept. 19-25, 2012, issue

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