On this date in 1832, the fortunes of American Indians in Illinois, Iowa and Michigan Territory took a significant turn for the worse. On August 1-2 of that year, the final confrontation of the Black Hawk War took place just south of the Bad Axe River in the western region of modern day Wisconsin. The result was as decisive as the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) had been for the Indians of the Ohio River Valley, or the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) had been for the Creeks. Though it is often overshadowed by the drama of the Cherokee removal, the Black Hawk War was no less critical to the history of Indian peoples east of the Mississippi.
The conflict was complex in origins but derived specifically from the Jeffersonian-era grievances of the Sauk and Fox. In 1804, a controversial treaty between the US and a group of Sauk tribal leaders resulted in a massive and permanent transfer of tribal lands east of the Mississippi; in return for their contributions to Manifest Destiny, the Sauk and Fox would receive an annual subsidy of $1000. According to the terms of the treaty, the region’s inhabitants could remain on the land until such time as the United States saw fit to distribute it among its own citizens. As was typical of 19th century US diplomacy toward native peoples, the 1804 accord did not actually receive the consent of all groups whose territory had actually been negotiated away. Over time, the treaty proved to be the source of irreparable divisions within the nation. During the War of 1812, several bands fought with the British under the leadership of the war chief Black Hawk, who was determined not to abide by a treaty he would someday describe as “the origin of all our difficulties.”
Although the 1804 agreement was reaffirmed in 1816 and several times by various parties over the next two decades, the Sauk and Fox were never united behind it. Meantime, whites flooded the region, pushing most of the nation west of the Mississippi River into Iowa, in accordance with the conditions of the disputed treaty. When Keokuk* — one of the two great Sauk leaders of the era — consented to the cession of an additional 27 million acres of land in 1830, Black Hawk refused to acknowledge the treaty and temporarily reoccupied his old village at Saukenuk. Skirmishes in 1831 pushed him and his roughly 1500 followers out of Illinois, but they returned in the spring of 1832, sending frontier whites into a panic and provoking the US army and an assortment of volunteer state militias into pursuit.
From early May through late July, Black Hawk’s warriors — who comprised a third of the Sauk and Fox under his guidance — engaged in skirmishes with civilians and soldiers alike throughout northern Illinois and modern-day Wisconsin. Meantime, Black Hawk expected to receive aid from the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Ottawa, Menominee and Potawatomi as well as from the British, with whom he’d fought nearly 20 years before. Although some Kickapoo and Ho-Chunk fighters joined up with the Sauk and Fox — or carried out independent raids in the vicinity of Black Hawk’s camps — no broader alliances materialized. Indeed, hundreds of Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi warriors eventually took up arms and joined the Illinois and US forces in their pursuit of the Sauk and Fox “invaders.”
Although the war lasted nearly three months, it could boast of few significant confrontations until late July, when US Army regulars and the volunteer militias successfully encircled Black Hawk’s warriors in southwestern Wisconsin and chased them back toward the Mississippi. By this point, starvation, disease, and desertion had significantly depleted Black Hawk’s band. (The US Army, for its part, endured a horrific outbreak of cholera, which prevented thousands of troops from joining the struggle.) On August 1, the nearly defeated Sauk and Fox band reached the Mississippi River, where — after raising a white flag — they endured a two hour assault from of from a private steamship that stopped firing only because it ran low on fuel. That evening, Black Hawk and a group of 30-40 others abandoned their encampment, determined to seek refuge among the Ojibwe.
Early the next morning, in a confrontation that came to be known as the Bad Axe Massacre, US and Illinois forces slaughtered most of the remaining men, women and children — hundreds in all — while suffering no more than a few dozen casualties. Militiamen and their Indian allies scalped the dead and cut strips of back flesh to be used as razor strops. At least one volunteer reported seeing a field dentist rummaging the mouths of the dead. Parties of soldiers and warriors hunted the stragglers for the next few weeks; Black Hawk himself was arrested and shipped east, along with a handful of other leaders, to meet President Andrew Jackson.
Among other things, the Black Hawk War helped launch or solidify the careers of men like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and a roster of other men who would spend the next three decades serving as as governors, senators, congressmen, cabinet secretaries and military commanders. As for the Indian people of the upper Midwest, the war was disastrous. Within a year, the US had wrestled even more land from the Sauk and Fox, as well as from the Ho-Chunk in Illinois and Wisconsin. As with earlier struggles in the old southwest, Indian neutrality — much less military fidelity to the United States — made no difference whatsoever. All were removed to reservations in Iowa, for which they received compensation amounting to as little of ten cents per acre for the hunting, fishing and agricultural grounds lost in the war.
* For whom the city of Keokuk — home of the best tasting water in Iowa — is named.