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Chief Black Hawk: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Did you know that Chief Black Hawk was not actually a real chief? In this lesson, you will learn about the powerful warrior-leader of the Sauk and Fox tribes, including his early life, his role in the War of 1812, and the Black Hawk War of 1832.

Chief Black Hawk

Because Black Hawk was one of the reasons behind the Black Hawk War in 1832, Americans assumed that he must be extremely powerful and rule over the Sauk and Fox tribes. In reality, Black Hawk was a strong and influential warrior, but never a chief.

Growing Up and Family Life

Black Hawk was born around the year 1767 in Saukenuk, a Sauk village located in Virginia. The name 'Black Hawk' is the English translation of his Native American name, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak...that's quite a mouthful to say! A member of the Thunder Clan, Black Hawk came from a long line of Sauk warriors. Fighting and warfare were commonplace in Sauk and Fox culture, so there was plenty of opportunity for Black Hawk to establish himself as a young warrior. At just 15 years old, he was already fighting in battles. Most 15-year-olds today are worried about getting their homework done and hanging out with their friends, not becoming a warrior!

In the Sauk culture, it was pretty common for men to have more than one wife. Black Hawk, however, married only one woman. He and his wife, Singing Bird, had a total of five kids, two girls and three boys. Around the year 1820, two of Black Hawk and Singing Bird's children died. According to Sauk tradition, Black Hawk spent two years of his life mourning the loss of his kids by living alone and fasting.

1837 illustration of Black Hawk
1837 illustration of Black Hawk

War of 1812

Black Hawk, like many other Native Americans, was not a fan of the United States government. In 1804, the government and representatives of the Sauk and Fox tribes signed the Treaty of St. Louis. The treaty gave the U.S. roughly 50 million acres of land east of the Mississippi River in exchange for giving the Sauk and Fox $1,000 a year. Black Hawk, however, considered the treaty to be unfair and invalid because the representatives who signed the treaty weren't tribal leaders.

As a result, Black Hawk and others wanted to undermine the U.S. government and fought alongside the British during the War of 1812. Black Hawk and his followers were dubbed the British Band because of their willingness to fight for Great Britain. In 1813, the British Band fought in the Battle of Detroit and played a key role in winning conflicts on Campbell's Island and Credit Island, located in the Mississippi River. At the end of the war, Black Hawk made yearly trips to Ontario, Canada, to receive gifts from the British.

Leading Up to War

After the War of 1812, tensions grew as a result of the Treaty of St. Louis. According to the treaty, the Sauk and Fox could stay on the land they had sold up until white settlers began moving into the area. In 1828, a large number of settlers moved into the area and wanted the Sauk and Fox to leave.

A Sauk leader named Keokuk decided to take the path of least resistance and led the tribe back across the Mississippi River. Black Hawk departed to Iowa with his fellow tribe members in 1830, but returned to Illinois in 1831. Black Hawk was forcibly removed by the Illinois militia and sent back to Illinois. Meanwhile, Keokuk signed a treaty with the U.S. promising that his people would never go back to Illinois in exchange for a yearly supply of corn.

Black Hawk War of 1832

After the winter of 1831, Black Hawk realized that his people were starving. He and about 1,000 of his followers returned to Illinois in April of 1832 with the intention of farming at their old settlements. However, they were confronted by the Illinois militia and U.S. troops. Even though his original intentions were peaceful, Black Hawk quickly found himself in the middle of the Black Hawk War of 1832.

Black Hawk and the Americans fought several battles throughout the summer of 1832, including the Battle of Stillman's Run. Despite an early victory, Black Hawk's followers started dropping: people died from battle wounds and starvation, while others abandoned Black Hawk's cause. The Black Hawk War ended in August after the Battle of Bad Axe. Black Hawk and his followers tried to cross the Mississippi River. Even though Black Hawk managed to escape, he was turned over to the Americans by people he thought were his allies.

Battle of Bad Axe
Battle of Bad Axe

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