Black Hawk is best known for the 1832 war that bears his name, the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River. The Indians’ defeat ended 200 years of armed resistance to American encroachment on Indian lands. For thousands of years the Sauk and Fox Indian tribes lived in the Rock River Valley, but by the 19th century, moving Indians off land they had occupied for centuries — to make room for white settlers – became government policy. In 1804, Sauk and Mesquakie chiefs were tricked into signing a treaty with the US government ceding nearly 51 million acres of tribal lands in Illinois and Missouri. The Indians could remain on the lands only until they were needed for white settlements. By 1828, white pioneers began moving in, and demanding that the U.S. government move the Indians out. In 1830, the Indians were forced out of Illinois, to Iowa. The Sauk and the Fox tribes were driven across the Mississippi River. Black Hawk’s people suffered so in the harsh Iowa winter of 1831-32 that he decided to return and reclaim the land, so his people could farm, hunt, and live in peace. In April 1832 he led many families, including women and children, back to the area.
It was clearly no war party, but the US sent troops to meet them. Among the volunteers were Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Zachary Taylor. The Black Hawk Indian War began in 1832 just north of Oregon, and ended just 15 weeks later with Black Hawk’s surrender. The troops encountered Black Hawk’s people at Bad Axe River in Wisconsin and massacred most of them. Fewer than 150 of the 500 Sauk men, women and children survived the war, described as one of history’s most shameful episodes in the white man’s dealings with the Indians. In August 1832, Black Hawk said: “Black Hawk is an Indian. He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses against the white man who came year after year to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all the white men. They ought to be ashamed of it.”
President Andrew Jackson brought Black Hawk east in 1833, where he attracted great crowds. Just before he died in 1837, he said “Rock River was beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. It is yours now. Keep it as we did.”