The Black Hawk War of 1832 took place in the Illinois and Michigan territories and the USA were victorious. On one side there were the United States Army, the Ho-Chunk, the Menominee and the Potawatomi while on the other there were the Black Hawk’s British Band: the Sauk, the Fox, the Kickapoo, the Black Hawk–aligned Ho-Chunk and the Black Hawk–aligned Potawatomi.
On the USA’s side there were about 9,000 men from the Illinois Militia, 1,500 Regular soldiers and more than 300 USA aligned Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Potawatomi Indians opposing about 300 Indian warriors and 1,000 civilians. The casualties and losses –including civilians- were about 60/70 killed in action on the US side and 450/600 on the Indian side.
The Black Hawk War was fought in the Midwestern United States. The war was named for Black Hawk, a war chief of the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo Native Americans, whose British Band fought against the United States Army and militia from Illinois and the Michigan Territory (present-day Wisconsin) for possession of lands in the area.
Governor of Indiana Territory William Henry Harrison negotiated a treaty in 1804 with a group of Sauk and Fox leaders that ceded lands east of Mississippi River “forever”. However these leaders had not consulted their full tribal councils and other leaders objected. The white population of the region grew rapidly after the War of 1812 and this led to increasing tensions with the Native American population. Black Hawk led a group of Native Americans to the ceded region during the winters of both 1830 and 1831, which the Illinois governor declared an invasion.
Federal troops were brought in, and Black Hawk’s band was ordered to withdraw but refused. Hostilities began on May 14, 1832 when Black Hawk’s band defeated militia at the Battle of Stillman’s Run. The war primarily comprised a series of minor battles and skirmishes. A cholera epidemic severely reduced the manpower of the American forces. The war ended with a decisive victory for the militia at the Battle of Bad Axe on August 1–2, 1832. While many Native Americans stayed in the area, most of their leaders fled; Black Hawk and eight other Native American leaders were imprisoned. Several white Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were able to boost their political careers as a result of involvement in the war.
Following the Fox Wars (1712–1716 and 1728–1733) in the western Great Lakes and Detroit regions, the remaining Sauk and Fox sought refuge together in lands further west that extended from the Wisconsin River to the Illinois River in the south. Other settlements were established north of the Missouri River. Black Hawk and his band viewed this area as their homeland in 1832. The Sauks established their main village Saukenuk in the mid-18th century. Black Hawk was born there in 1767 and lived much of his life in the village.
Indian removal was a 19th-century policy of the United States government to move Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to the west of the river. President Thomas Jefferson believed that Native Americans should live west of the Mississippi River, away from the white settlers. The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 26, 1830. This led to the purchase of Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo lands.
In 1804, William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory (which then included modern-day Illinois), negotiated a treaty in St. Louis, Missouri with a group of Sauk and Fox leaders, in which they ceded lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for $1,000 per year and the condition that the tribes could continue to reside there until the land was surveyed and sold by the U.S. government.
Article 2 ceded the land to the United States “forever”, and raised the ire of the Sauk and Fox tribes. This treaty was disputed by Black Hawk and other members of the tribes, since the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands. After the War of 1812, in which Black Hawk had fought against the United States, he signed a peace treaty in May 1816 that re-affirmed the treaty of 1804, a provision of which Black Hawk later protested ignorance. While Black Hawk was away during the War of 1812, Keokuk, a Sauk leader known for his cooperation with the American authorities, had become a prominent figure in the tribe, and the two became rivals.
The white population of Illinois exploded after the War of 1812, exceeding 50,000 in 1820 and 150,000 in 1830. In 1825, 13 Sauk and six Fox signed another agreement re-affirming the 1804 treaty. In 1828, the U.S. government liaison, Thomas Forsyth, informed the tribes that they should begin vacating their settlements east of the Mississippi.
On July 15, 1830, U.S. Indian Commissioner William Clark signed another treaty with Sauk and Fox leaders, among other tribes, at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The treaty ceded about 26,500,000 acres (107,000 km2) of Sauk land east of the Mississippi to the government of the United States. It created a “Neutral Ground” boundary between the Sauk and Foxes and their traditional enemies, the Sioux, to prevent future hostilities between the tribes. The treaty was signed by Keokuk, and in November 1830 was approved by the Dakota Sioux.
The land ceded in the treaty included Black Hawk’s home village of Saukenuk, but Black Hawk did not sanction the sale of this land and was determined to remain in his village. Despite opposition by Keokuk and the US authorities, Black Hawk’s band returned to Saukenuk in 1830 following their winter hunting. After a year of tension, they returned again in 1831, and Illinois Governor John Reynolds proclaimed it an “invasion of the state”.
Responding to Governor Reynolds’s call, General Edmund Pendleton Gaines brought his federal troops from St. Louis, Missouri to Saukenuk to insist upon Black Hawk’s immediate departure. Black Hawk left but soon returned, remaining west of the Mississippi. He was threatened by Gaines’ troops and an additional 1,400 militia called up by Reynolds on June 25, 1831. On June 30, Black Hawk and the chiefs of the so-called “British Band” were forced to sign a surrender agreement in which they promised to remain west of the Mississippi.
On April 5, 1832, chafing under the rule of Keokuk, Black Hawk and his group of 1,000 returned to Illinois. The Ho-Chunk prophet White Cloud contributed to the outbreak of war by promising Black Hawk the support of the Ho-Chunk Nation (formerly known as Winnebago), when in fact he could only speak for his own band of the tribe. Black Hawk was also misled by another ally, Neapope, who promised British aid. Reynolds issued a proclamation on April 16, mustering five brigades of volunteers to form at Beardstown and to head north to force Black Hawk out of Illinois. Although one-half of all the federal troops of the United States Army were eventually involved in the conflict, the 9,000 volunteers from the Illinois Militia provided the majority of the U.S. combatants. Black Hawk’s British band was composed of about 500 warriors and 1,000 old men, women and children when they crossed the Mississippi on April 5. The group comprised members of the Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo Nations. They crossed near the mouth of the Iowa River and then followed the Rock River northeast. Along the way they passed the ruins of Saukenuk and headed for the village of the Ho-Chunk prophet White Cloud.
Brevet Brigadier General Henry Atkinson was given charge of prosecuting the war. Federal authorities, along with Sauk and Fox tribal councils, ordered Black Hawk and his band to retreat west of the Mississippi, but they refused to leave. Soon after that, Black Hawk conferred with the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi tribes and learned that most their members, nor the British, would aid his British Band.
i- Hostilities begin
On May 9, a small Illinois militia battalion began the pursuit of Black Hawk from the army’s point of rendezvous on the Rock River at Dixon. On May 10, the militia burned the Prophet’s Village. Upon hearing of this Black Hawk decided to return with his band to Iowa. Events at Stillman’s Run prevented this and the Black Hawk War began.
The first confrontation occurred on May 14, 1832 and resulted in an unexpected victory for Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Fox warriors over the disorganized militiamen commanded by Isaiah Stillman. After a long march (the militia was mounted and followed by several supply wagons), the militiamen finally came into contact with Black Hawk and his warriors north of the Kishwaukee River, near present day Stillman Valley. When the militia killed a member of a three-man parley sent by Black Hawk, he rallied 40 mounted warriors and attacked the militia camp at dusk. Though Stillman’s men numbered about 275, cohesion quickly collapsed and they fled to Dixon’s Ferry, 35 miles (56 km) away. During the encounter, 11 militiamen under John Giles Adams were killed.
Soon after the battle at Stillman’s Run, an exaggerated claim of 2,000 “bloodthirsty warriors . . . sweeping all Northern Illinois with the bosom of destruction” sent shock waves of terror through the region. After the outbreak of hostilities, Black Hawk led many of the civilians in his band to safety in the Michigan Territory. On May 19, the militia travelled up the Rock River searching for Black Hawk. Several small skirmishes and massacres followed over the next month in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin before the militia regained public confidence through battles at Horseshoe Bend and Waddams Grove.
ii- Massacres and skirmishes
The war would see a number of small skirmishes and massacres. On May 19, a six-man detail carrying dispatches from Colonel James M. Strode was ambushed by a party of Kickapoo near the settlement of Buffalo Grove, Illinois in Ogle County. The ambush claimed one victim, William Durley, who was buried where he fell by Felix St. Vrain and his party as they marched to Galena. Two others present at the attack had bullet holes through their clothing but were not injured. In 1910 a memorial to Durley and the Buffalo Grove ambush was erected by the Polo, Illinois Historical Society. At that time Durley’s remains were reinterred beneath the memorial.
One of the Black Hawk War’s most famous and well publicized events was a peripheral event not directly connected to the war or Black Hawk and his “British Band.” The Indian Creek massacre occurred two days after the incident in Buffalo, following a dispute between a local settler and a Potawatomi warrior over the damming of nearby Indian Creek. The young warrior, named Keewasee, recruited a group of warriors and attacked the William Davis settlement on the banks of the creek. The attack resulted in the murders of 15 men, women and children, most of whom were unarmed, though it is possible Davis may have killed one assailant before being felled himself. The victims were scalped and mutilated. In addition, two teenage girls were kidnapped and held until they were ransomed two weeks later and released at Fort Blue Mounds. Events surrounding the release of the girls would lead to two attacks at the fort in June. The incident at Indian Creek triggered panic among the white population, and many settlers fled to the safety of local forts. The Illinois Militia used the massacre to boost recruiting in Illinois and Kentucky. The same day as the massacre at Indian Creek, a settlement on the Plum River was raided by Sauk or Fox warriors. Though the encounter was bloodless, it was one of many incidents that contributed to the atmosphere of fear.
The St. Vrain massacre, a small skirmish after Stillman’s Run, took place near present-day Pearl City, Illinois in Kellogg’s Grove on May 24, 1832. The massacre was most likely perpetrated by Ho-Chunk warriors unaffiliated with Black Hawk’s band. It is also unlikely they had the sanction of their nation. The victims were United States Indian Agent Felix St. Vrain and three of his companions. Some accounts indicated that St. Vrain’s body was subjected to mutilation, and at least one claimed it had happened while he was still alive. The massacre led to an unwarranted fear of all Native Americans in the area, even those friendly to the settlers. An example appears in an article published in the New Galenian on May 30, 1832. While it described the events of the massacre, it also associated the murders of St. Vrain and his companions with the Sauk and Fox of Keokuk’s band. Following these incidents, Governor Reynolds called up additional militia forces, raising their number to 4,000 men.
iii- Cholera epidemic
Reynolds mustered the first of the militia out of service on May 27 and May 28 since their one month enlistment was expired. The federal government then ordered General Winfield Scott’s 1,000 regulars and 300 mounted volunteers into action. For the moment it looked as though Atkinson’s role in the war would end soon, but a cholera epidemic struck much of the United States. Winfield Scott’s troops would bring it over from the east into Illinois.
General Scott assembled a force of about 1,000 federal troops. They embarked on boats from Buffalo, New York, making their way towards Chicago. To widespread horror, cholera was reported among the troops. The expedition was doomed. Troops became ill and many of them died. At each place the vessels landed, the sick were deposited and soldiers deserted.
Efforts to prevent the immediate spread of the illness into the population of the towns the expedition passed were largely successful as only 3 civilians died in the initial outbreak. However, later, in 1833 a larger-scale cholera epidemic affected large regions of the United States, its roots can be traced to the Scott expedition. By the time the expedition landed in Chicago, there were less than two hundred effective troops left. Scott felt the need to cancel his plans for an immediate march into the war zone. Instead he waited for reinforcements, supplies, and tended to his stricken men. Winfield Scott arrived too late for military action, but he played an important part in drafting the terms of peace.
iv- More raids
Public confidence in the militia, eroded since the outbreak of hostilities at Stillman’s Run, was still low when the month of June began. Small attacks and skirmishes continued to plague the frontier of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Though Fort Blue Mounds, in present-day Dane County, Wisconsin near the village of Blue Mounds, was never the site of a full-fledged battle or skirmish there were war-related events near the fort between June 6, and June 20. The first event killed a civilian miner, and area residents suspected Ho-Chunk warriors were responsible. This belief exacerbated the fear that more from the Ho-Chunk Nation were set to join Black Hawk’s band against the white settlers in Michigan Territory and Illinois. The second incident was a full-fledged attack near Blue Mounds Fort by a raiding party estimated by eyewitnesses to be as large as 100 warriors. Two members of the militia were killed in that attack, one of whom was badly mutilated and missing a “part” when his body was found.
Another event, the Spafford Farm massacre, also known as the Wayne massacre, occurred on June 14, 1832 near present-day South Wayne, Wisconsin. A band of Native Americans attacked a group of 7 men working on the farm of Omri Spafford, 5 men, including Spafford, were killed. Two men escaped, one of them killing an attacker before individually making their way to Fort Hamilton. One of the men spent several days hiding in the forest because he was under the erroneous impression that the fort was being overtaken by friendly Menominee who had arrived around the same time.
v- Renewed confidence
After Colonel Henry Dodge was informed of the massacre at Spafford Farm he set out for Fort Hamilton Arriving at Fort Hamilton on June 16, Dodge gathered a force of 29 mounted volunteers and set out in pursuit of the band of Kickapoo warriors responsible for the massacre. They caught up with them at a bend in the Pecatonica River known as “Horseshoe Bend.” The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was the first real victory for the militia and a major turning point in the conflict. The clash helped restore public confidence in the volunteer militia force.
The Black Hawk War also included two clashes at Kellogg’s Grove, in present-day Stephenson County, Illinois. The first battle took place the same day as Dodge’s clash with the Kickapoo, on June 16, 1832, and was really nothing more than a minor skirmish. Forces commanded by Adam W. Snyder fought with a band of about 80 Kickapoo warriors. During the fighting three militia members were killed and six Kickapoo warriors died.
The Battle of Waddams Grove, also called the Battle of Yellow Creek, occurred on June 18, 1832 near Yellow Creek in present-day Stephenson County, Illinois. The fighting became a melee with bayonets and knives. Up to six Sauk, and three militia men under the command of James W. Stephenson were killed in action, while Stephenson was severely wounded during the battle by a musketball to the chest. The battle served to restore confidence in the militia within the population of the area, who were still afraid following the defeat at Stillman’s Run. The dead militia men were eventually buried in a memorial cemetery in Kellogg’s Grove, Illinois.
The Battle of Apple River Fort commenced on June 24, 1832 at the hastily constructed Apple River Fort, near present-day Elizabeth, Illinois. Approximately 150–200 Sauk and Fox warriors under the command of Black Hawk attacked the fort which was defended by about 25 militia. The militia, under the command of Captain Clack Stone, was shorthanded during the battle as most of the fort’s detachment were not present. Fierce fighting ensued for at least 45 minutes with both sides exchanging heavy gunfire. Inside the fort, the people of the nearby settlement had taken refuge. One woman, Elizabeth Armstrong was singled out for her bravery after the battle. She rallied the fort’s women to assist during the battle by making musket balls and reloading weapons. Believing the fort to be more heavily defended than it was, Black Hawk and his band eventually retreated.
The second, and larger, Battle of Kellogg’s Grove commenced on June 25, 1832 when forces commanded by Major John Dement met and fought with a large band of Native Americans at the grove. The Native forces, under the command of Black Hawk mounted an unrelenting attack during which 25 horses and five militia men were killed and at least of nine of Black Hawk’s band died.
On July 21, 1832, Illinois and Wisconsin militia men under the command of Generals Henry Dodge and James D. Henry caught up with Black Hawk’s British Band near present-day Sauk City, Wisconsin. The clash became known as the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Militarily, the battle was devastating for Black Hawk’s band of warriors; including those who drowned during the melee, casualty estimates climbed as high as 70. Despite the relatively high casualties the battle did serve to allow much of the band, including many women and children, to escape across the Wisconsin River. The reprieve was temporary for the group of Sauk and Fox, the militia would eventually catch up with them at the mouth of the Bad Axe River resulting in the decisive battle of the war.
vi- Bad Axe
The Battle of Bad Axe occurred August 1–2, 1832, between Sauk and Fox Indians and United States Army regulars and militia. This final battle of the Black Hawk War took place near present-day Victory, Wisconsin in the United States. It marked the end of the war between white settlers and militia in Illinois and Michigan Territory, and the Sauk and Fox tribes under Chief Black Hawk.
The battle occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, as Black Hawk’s band fled the pursuing militia. The militia caught up with them on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, a few miles downstream from the mouth of the Bad Axe River. The battle that followed was very one-sided; historians have been calling it a massacre since the 1850s. The fighting took place over two days, with the Warrior steamboat present on both days. By the second day, Black Hawk and most of the Native American commanders had fled, though many of the band stayed behind. The British Band lost at least 260 members whereas the whites lost 14 men. While Black Hawk intended to get to the battle, he only got to within about 2 miles (3.2 km). The victory for the United States was decisive and the end of the war allowed much of Illinois and present-day Wisconsin to be opened for further settlement.
vii- Military results
The Black Hawk War of 1832 resulted in the deaths of 70 settlers and soldiers, and hundreds of Black Hawk’s band. As well as the combat casualties of the war, a relief force under General Winfield Scott suffered hundreds dead and deserted.
The war also resulted in the settlement of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. It ended the threat of Native American attacks in northwest Illinois and allowed the region to be further settled. Atrocities were committed by both whites and Native Americans.
Black Hawk was held in captivity at Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis, with Neapope, White Cloud, and eight other leaders of the British Band. In April 1833, after 8 months, they were taken east on the orders of U.S. President Andrew Jackson. The men travelled by steamboat, carriage, and railroad, and met with large crowds wherever they went. Once in Washington, D.C., they met with Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass, though their final destination was prison at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. They stayed only a few weeks at the prison, during which they posed for multiple portraits by different artists. On 5 June 1833, the men were sent west by steamboat on a circuitous route that took them through many large cities. Again, the men were a spectacle everywhere they went, and met with huge crowds of people in cities such as New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Reaction in the west, however, was much different: in Detroit: a crowd burned and hanged effigies of the prisoners.
viii- Effect on Native Americans
The war affected adversely even those Native Americans who had cooperated with the US government. Even the Sauks and Foxes who were friendly towards the whites suffered, despite the fact that they had surrendered many of Black Hawk’s supporters to the government. These bands of Native Americans were forced to give up most of eastern Iowa, prime farm land, as an indemnity for the war at a price of about eleven cents an acre (26 $/km²) in the Black Hawk Purchase and had to move further westward by June 1, 1833. The Ho-Chunk tribe suffered a similar treaty that forced them to move from Wisconsin and Illinois into western Iowa. Few members of any of the affected tribes managed to stay east of the Mississippi River. The federal government purchased the last of the Native American held lands in Iowa in 1842 and had moved the last tribes from Iowa by 1845.
ix- Political results
Abraham Lincoln, the future US president, served in Reynolds’ militia during the time of the Black Hawk War, but never saw action. Zachary Taylor, another future US president, commanded the troops under General Atkinson during the war. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, was on leave during most of the war but returned in time to escort the surrendered Black Hawk, son Whirling Thunder, Neapope, White Cloud and others to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri in September 1832. Davis gave an interview in 1887 in which he indicated he was at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, but this assertion today has been largely discredited.
The Black Hawk War was similar to other frontier wars fought in the United States in that in provided a boost to several political careers. Besides the notable involvement of Lincoln and Davis, four Illinois governors served during the war: Thomas Ford, John Wood, Joseph Duncan and Thomas Carlin. The conflict also helped in the political careers of a future governor in both Michigan and Nebraska as well as boosting at least 7 U.S. Senators. In 1836, Henry Dodge was appointed governor of the Wisconsin Territory.
Henry Atkinson, however, did not fare as well following the war and spent the last decade of his life at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Most of those affiliated with the conflict, subordinates and superiors believed that Atkinson had handled the prosecution of the war badly, especially that he was not decisive enough. U.S. President Andrew Jackson was looking for someone to blame for the conflict even as it was ongoing. After the war Congressional reports glossed over Atkinson’s failings but privately others still criticized him. Zachary Taylor stated he believed that had Atkinson’s regulars met with Black Hawk in the war’s first battle instead of the militia under Isaiah Stillman the war could have ended without a single shot being fired. Historians generally believe that a more decisive action by General Atkinson, charged with prosecuting the war, in stopping Black Hawk’s Band from moving up the Rock River may have prevented the war. Zachary Taylor made similar observations shortly after the war ended.
Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois occupies much of the site of the village of Saukenuk. Blackhawk Township, Rock Island County, Illinois is named after Black Hawk. University of Wisconsin–Madison has a marker at a spot where Black Hawk’s band retreated. Black Hawk County, Iowa, Black Hawk College, and Black Hawk Bridge are named after Black Hawk.
The Black Hawk War is a key event in the white settlement of the central United States. It is often seen as needlessly bloody and possibly avoidable. While this was the last Indian War fought in Illinois and Wisconsin, it was not the last one fought east of the Mississippi River. The Second Seminole War was fought in Florida from 1835 to 1842, showing opposition among the Native Americans against American expansionism was not over. Black Hawk dedicated his autobiography to Atkinson because of the kind treatment Atkinson had extended to him during his confinement and warned Atkinson: “The path to glory is rough, and many gloomy hours obscure it. May the Great Spirit shed light on yours—and that you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to.”