The Black Hawk War of 1832: Summary & 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.

The U.S. government has a long history of conflict with Native Americans. In 1832, this conflict resulted the Black Hawk War, fought over land in Illinois. Learn about the key events of the Black Hawk War, and then test yourself.

Before the War

The United States government and Native Americans have a long history of miscommunication and unfair agreements; this is largely how the Black Hawk War of 1832 got its start. In 1804, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of 1804 (also called the Treaty of St. Louis) with four members of the Sauk and Fox tribes. The treaty gave the tribes $1,000 a year and various other gifts in exchange for all of their land east of the Mississippi River. $1,000 may not sound like a lot of money, and it's not: when you adjust for inflation, that amount comes out to about $15,000 today.

Money, however was not the issue with this deal. The chiefs of the Sauk and Fox tribes claimed that the tribe members who made the deal weren't leaders and they didn't have permission to make the treaty. But in the eyes of the U.S. government, the treaty was valid and they planned to enforce it. The tribes were allowed to stay on the land until the government was able to sell it to white settlers; the land was mostly free of settlers until after the War of 1812. By the 1820s, however, an influx of settlers had moved to the area, and many Native Americans began abandoning their homes and moving west of the Mississippi.

Black Hawk Takes a Stand

In 1828, the U.S. government gave the remaining Native Americans a warning that it was time for them to pack their things and go. One of the Sauk leaders, a man named Black Hawk, refused to leave, claiming that the Treaty of 1804 was not valid and that his people had been cheated out of their land. Another Sauk leader, a younger man named Keokuk, disagreed with Black Hawk's stance. In any case, the government had a large army, and there was no way the Sauk and Fox could defend themselves. Keokuk left the tribe's summer home in Illinois and led a large group of followers across the Mississippi River into their winter home in Iowa in 1830. Black Hawk followed, determined to return to Illinois the next year.


The Corn Treaty

In summer of 1831, Black Hawk and about 1,000 Sauk and Fox went back to Illinois, but found their tribal home filled with white settlers. General Edward Gaines, a local military leader, considered Black Hawk's return an invasion. In reality, Black Hawk just wanted to come back to his home so the Sauk and Fox could plant and harvest crops so they could survive the winter, not to start a conflict. Gaines, along with a militia of about 700 men, forced the Sauk and Fox back across the Mississippi. To add insult to injury, Black Hawk was forced to sign the Articles of Agreement and Capitulation, also called the Corn Treaty, which stated:

  • Black Hawk and his people would stop crossing the Mississippi River
  • The Sauk and Fox would stop visiting British trading posts in Canada
  • Black Hawk had to submit to the other Sauk leader, Keokuk

You're probably wondering where the 'corn' part of the Corn Treaty comes in. In addition to outlining what Black Hawk and the tribes were not allowed to do, the treaty also promised the tribes that the government would provide them enough corn to survive the winter because they were no longer allowed to harvest their crops east of the Mississippi River.

Black Hawk
Black Hawk

Crossing into Illinois

Black Hawk and the tribes quickly realized that the corn promised to them in the treaty was nowhere near enough to get them through the winter. Along with about 1,000 followers, Black Hawk decided to reenter Illinois in April 1832 so he and his people could plant and harvest food. The white settlers in Illinois panicked when the Native Americans showed up and automatically assumed they were there to pick a fight. Black Hawk was instructed by the U.S. Army to leave immediately, but he refused and did his best to communicate his peaceful intentions.

The band of Native Americans proceeded to head north to start farming. In May, Black Hawk realized that they were being pursued by a militia of about 1,600 and thought it would be a smart idea to send a small delegation of Sauk to let the militia know they meant no harm. Three Sauk approached the militia waving a peace flag, but the militia didn't understand what they were trying to do. They open-fired on the three men, killing one and capturing the other two. Five other Sauks witnessed the event and tried to communicate their peaceful intentions, but were met with the same result. The Sauk who managed to escape the militia ran back to Black Hawk and told him what had happened. Black Hawk was outraged; peace was no longer an option, he and his followers would have to get ready for war.

The Militia Closes In

Shortly after the violent meeting between Black Hawk's peaceful delegation and the militia, the two groups ran into each other a second time. The militia, led by Major Isaac Stillman, followed Black Hawk's small group up north. At the time, Black Hawk only had about 40 followers with him; the militia had just shy of 300 men. Black Hawk's men managed to hide themselves and ambushed Stillman. The Native Americans managed to kill about 10 of Stillman's men before the militia panicked and ran away. Known as Stillman's Run, the retreating militia was convinced that Black Hawk had a large army of followers with him.

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