There are a number of reasons people leave their traditional homes. We generally refer to these as the push—pull factors of human migration. Push factors might include weather phenomena, disease, an encroachment by stronger groups, insufficient food, water, or other resources needed to sustain human life. Pull factors are almost a no-brainer: abundance of food and water, safety, availability of resources, little resistance from other human settlements, or the presence of human groups weaker than themselves. We also know that whenever groups of people square off against one another, the winner is almost always the group that possesses the more sophisticated technology. The losers of such contests are either killed off or assimilated by the stronger.
Human migration is a key element in the story of humankind. In the pursuit of food, hunters discovered new sources of water —finding new places to dwell for a time. As human beings developed an understanding of agriculture, their tendency of following animal herds diminished over time, particularly when humans learned how to domesticate animals. Still, there is always something that pushes human beings in new directions; if not the quest for richer lands, a longer growing season, or human conflict, then something else.
Two-hundred years ago, Americans migrated westward; today they migrate toward large cities. Human migration is part of the story of America. Two-hundred years ago, white settlers moving west gradually pushed native Americans out of their traditional homes. It set into motion periods of great conflict between these two peoples. Think of it as a long line of falling dominoes. As white settlers pushed Indians out of one area, those Indians moved further west and fell into conflict with other native tribes.
Portrait of Massika and Wakusasse by Karl Bodmer, 1833
The Sauk  Indians are an Algonquian-language group that initially developed along the St. Lawrence River, driven there by other tribes —notably the Iroquois. The Sauk eventually settled in present-day Michigan near the Saginaw Bay, but over time the Huron, armed with firearms provided to them by the French, and seeking to stabilize that area under Huron hegemony, pushed the Sauk further west and south.
In 1730, French-allied Indians attacked a tribe known as the Meskwaki (or Fox) Indians. The marauders killed Hundreds of Fox warriors; women and children were taken captive, and the survivors escaped to take shelter with the Sauk. The Sauk realized that in their decision to take in Meskwaki survivors that French allied tribes would target them, as well. It was an act of kindness that prompted the tribe to move even further west into present-day Iowa and Kansas.
Two important Sauk leaders emerged between 1790 and 1830; their names were Keokuk and Black Hawk . Given the numbers of white settlers pushing west, Keokuk concluded that the loss of their traditional lands was inevitable. His policy was to preserve what land he could for his people and maintain peaceful relations with the whites. Black Hawk, on the other hand, had earned a reputation as a stubborn yet fierce and courageous fighter in the frequent skirmishes between the Sauk and their principle enemy, the Osage. By around 1800, Black Hawk had concluded that the real threat to his people were not other native tribes, but rather the rapidly growing numbers of whites streaming into the region.
In 1804, representatives of the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians signed a treaty that ceded to the United States all of their land east of the Mississippi River. Black Hawk later claimed that the treaty was invalid because at the time he signed the treaty, he was inebriated. In 1816, however, Black Hawk confirmed the treaty with his own signature and then claimed he did not understand the meaning of the words —that he would one day have to cede his home village of Saukenuk on the Rock River.
Over the next fifteen years, the US Army was busy constructing forts, needed to protect even more settlers. This activity and its meaning was not lost on Black Hawk. He knew that settlers would push his people even further west. He grew angrier with the passage of time. Finally, when settlers began to occupy the village of Saukenuk in 1831 (later known as Rock Island, Illinois) Black Hawk announced to his people that it was time to prepare for war.
In May 1830, a band of Dakota (Santee Sioux) and Menominee Indians killed fifteen Meskwakis attending a treaty conference at Prairie du Chien. Meskwakis and Sauks retaliated by killing 26 Menominee, including their women and children. The United States government wanted to discourage further revenge killings but western bands of the Menominees formed an alliance with the Sioux to strike the Sauk and Meskwakis. As the US Army saw it, this problem had but one solution: arrest the Meskwakis who perpetrated the murder of 26 Menominees .
General Edmund P. Gaines  commanded the US Army’s Western Department, but as he was ill, he assigned the task of arresting the murdering Indians to Brigadier General Henry Atkinson. Atkinson was an able administrator, but he had never served in combat. He set out on April 18, 1830 with 220 soldiers from Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Completely by chance, Atkinson’s steamboat passed Black Hawk’s canoes as he crossed over into Illinois.
At this point a more technologically advanced human group is about to push out a less advanced society. It may be true that Black Hawk was provided with intoxicants in 1804, or that he was prompted to sign a document he couldn’t read, but as a practical matter, it didn’t matter. From the standpoint of white culture, “let the buyer beware,” but this would not be something said or understood by a native American. On the other hand, Indians handled misunderstandings through warfare. To them, this was the natural order of things. It is perfectly understandable that native Americans would apply this same standard to whites. Black Hawk was going to war to right and wrong.
In April 1832, Black Hawk led a group of Sauk, Meskwaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Ottawa Indians (collectively known as the British Band ) from Iowa across the Mississippi River into Illinois. Black Hawk may not have had a clear plan of action beyond his intention to reclaim ceded land, but with a total population of only six-thousand or so Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, it is hard to imagine he was seriously thinking about general war. According to some historians, it is rather likely that Black Hawk wanted to recoup his land with minimal bloodshed if possible. If this supposition is true, then one is forced to conclude that Black Hawk’s did not consider the likely consequences of his actions.
When General Atkinson arrived at Fort Armstrong on 12 April 1832, he learned that Black Hawk and the British Band was already in Illinois —which meant that most of the Indians he intended to arrest were with Black Hawk. Every snippet of intelligence available to Atkinson led him to conclude that Black Hawk intended to start a war. With only 220 troops, Atkinson corresponded with Governor Reynolds of Illinois asking for reinforcement of state militia. Even if Atkinson exaggerated the situation, Reynolds, who wanted a war with the Indians, could not have been more pleased. Reynolds promptly called for volunteers to assemble at Beardstown by 22 April to begin a thirty-day enlistment. More than two thousand men volunteered. They were organized into a brigade of five regiments serving under militia Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside .
Meanwhile, Atkinson consulted with Keokuk and a Meskwaki chief named Wapello, who agreed to send emissaries to the British Band . Black Hawk rejected the envoys and advised them to turn back. Atkinson knew that Black Hawk’s presence in Illinois was in contravention to an agreement he made with the United States government, and that Gov. Reynolds was assembling a large force to dislodge him. Of course, should anything go awry, it wouldn’t be his fault. Blame would be laid at the feet of General Whiteside.
Native Americans organized themselves in several ways. Generally, however, Indian tribes consisted of several bands and frequently disagreed among themselves about almost everything. This is the reason why Indians held councils before deciding important matters. In Indian culture, bands had no obligation to follow the orders of their tribal chief. It was through council that Black Hawk learned that the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi did not support war. He regarded the Ho-Chunk as fence sitters: on the one hand, voicing support to the Sauk without taking any actions that might provoke the Americans. The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk well-remembered their losses to the Americans in the 1827 Winnebago War. The Ho-Chunk also had ties to the Dakota and Menominee and was well aware that these two groups were eager for a fight with Black Hawk. The Potawatomis wished to remain neutral; they worried that should any member of their tribe join with Black Hawk the whole would receive punishment.
The Potawatomi declared their neutrality and informed Black Hawk that neither they nor the Ho-Chunk would come to his aid. Without provisions from these two groups —without allies, or with no chance for reinforcements— Black Hawk understood that he was isolated. Some historians argue that Black Hawk was at this point ready to negotiate with Atkinson to end the crisis, but an ill-fated encounter with Illinois militia pushed outright war to the front burner.
On May 14, 1832, Major Isaiah Stillman and Major David Baily jointly commanded a detachment of 275 militia. They were encamped near Old Man’s Creek and the confluence of the Rock River. Stillman and Bailey were unaware of their proximity to the British Band. Black Hawk’s scouts brought word to him regarding the near-proximity of state militia. He thereupon sent three emissaries under a flag of parley in order to assure them of the Indian’s peaceful intentions. There being no trust between most white and red men, the militia were suspicious of the offer of parley, but nevertheless invited the emissaries into camp; during the proceedings, a militia outpost signaled the presence of several Sauk warriors in the surrounding wood. They appeared to be observing the activities of the soldiers. Suspecting a trap, the soldiers shot at the three envoys, killing one, sending two scampering back to Black Hawk.
Now, among native Americans, firing upon emissaries was an unforgiveable act. Hostilities having begun, a highly disorganized militia began a pursuit of surrounding Indian scouts. Black Hawk concealed his force within dense vegetation, and just as the soldiers approached, the Indians ambushed them. Stillman, believing his militia confronted thousands of Indians ordered a retreat; it was anything but orderly. Guarding the withdrawal of the militia force to Dixon’s Ferry was Captain John Giles Adams, who ultimately forfeited his life along with those under his command .
Observing Indians serving alongside whites in the militia against him must have irritatedBlack Hawk to no end, even though inter-tribal conflict was always part of native American culture. Tribal warfare was a perpetual contest to determine which tribe should reign supreme in the area of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. Dominant tribes controlled the hunting grounds.
Tribal bickering had nettled British administrators and military leaders for years; now it was an American problem. Americans believed that it served no useful purpose to have Indian tribes warring with one another. Combating tribes made it more difficult for the US to acquire Indian land and move Indian groups further west. Before Andrew Jackson, the people responsible for mediating tribal disputes were senior military officials or high-ranking civilian commissioners. Jackson’s election created the “spoils system,” where important posts went to Jackson supporters, whether qualified or not. These Jacksonian Democrats frequently did more harm than good . Historian Lyman Draper opined that there may not have been a Black Hawk War had it not been for the incompetence of President Andrew Jackson. On the other hand, young braves needed to engage in hostilities in order to advance their social positions within the tribe.
After the battle at Stillman’s Run, Black Hawk intended retribution for the way in which Major Stillman treated his envoys while under a flag of parlay. After the Battle of Stillman’s Run, President Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass were determined to make an example of Black Hawk.
Black Hawk’s first priority was to move the women, children, and elderly to a place of sanctuary. He accepted the offer of the Rock River Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and moved his people to Lake Koshkonong. With his noncombatants secure, Black Hawk and his British Band initiated a series of raids against White settlements. The raids distressed Potawatomi Chief Shabonna, who sent riders out to warn the settlers of an impending attack. The first attack came on 19 May 1832 when Winnebago warriors ambushed six men near Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Killed was William Durley, whose scalped and mutilated body was discovered by federal Indian Agent Felix St. Vrain . St. Vrain was himself murdered a few days later at Kellogg’s Grove, Illinois.
As previously mentioned, not all Indian bands agreed with tribal policies, which was their right as members of a band or tribe. Certain Winnebago and Potawatomi warriors wanted nothing whatever to do with Black Hawk’s confused campaign.
Other Indians, however, were able to justify Black Hawk’s crusade based on their own experiences with white settlers. In the spring of 1832, Potawatomi living near Indian Creek became unsettled when settler William Davis dammed the creek, preventing fish from reaching their village. Davis ignored their protests and even assaulted a Potawatomi man attempting to dismantle the dam. The Black Hawk War provided an ideal opportunity to fix the problem of white settlers and dammed-up creeks.
On May 21, fifty Potawatomis and three Sauks from the British Band attacked the Davis settlement, murdering fifteen settlers, including women and children . The marauders also kidnapped two teenaged girls and took them to Black Hawk’s camp; the Winnebago Chief White Crow, who was one of the fence sitters in this conflict, negotiated their release two weeks later.
News of Black Hawk’s successes triggered a panic among white settlers —but they were not alone. Indians also surged toward the Chicago settlement to avoid being caught up in the bloodshed. Chicago was soon overpopulated with hungry refugees. These Indians were accepted into the settlement, fed, nurtured, and protected. Meanwhile, white communities quickly organized militias and began constructing fortifications. Regular Army and militias continued looking for Black Hawk but could not locate him. When militias in the field learned of the Indian raids, many of the men returned home to defend their families. Morale plummeted. Governor Reynolds was forced to ask his officers to poll the men to see whether the Black Hawk campaign should be continued. Whiteside, disgusted with the militia’s lack of resolve, cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of disbanding. The brigade disbanded at Ottawa, Illinois on May 28th. Three hundred men, including Abraham Lincoln, agreed to remain in the field for twenty more days until the formation of a new militia. When the new organization was formed, Lincoln reenlisted as a private.
Colonel Henry Dodge
Brigadier General Atkinson organized his new force in June 1832; he called it the Army of the Frontier. His force now consisted of 630 regular infantry, and 3,196 mounted militia volunteers divided into three brigades. Commanding the Brigades were Brigadier Generals Alexander Posey, Milton Alexander, and James D. Henry. Given that many of these men were assigned to guard duty and reconnaissance patrols, only 450 regular troops and 2,100 militia were available for campaigning. Colonel Henry Dodge, a Michigan territorial militia officer proved to be one of the best commanders in the Black Hawk War. He fielded a battalion of 250 mounted volunteers (at its strongest strength).
Atkinson also set about to recruit new Indian allies; a reversal of previous policy that had been designed to help prevent inter-tribal warfare. Atkinson found that several bands of tribes were in fact eager to go to war against Black Hawk. By June 6th, Indian Agent Joseph M. Street assembled 225 Indians at Prairie du Chien, including 80 Dakota, 40 Menominees, and several bands of Winnebago. The Indian units had their own leaders, of course, but Street placed them under the overall command of William Hamilton, the son of Alexander Hamilton, who proved to be an unwise choice. Young Hamilton was a petulant man who was unsuitable for military service and unqualified to lead any organization. The Indians soon became frustrated marching around in the sun and never seeing any action, and so they deserted Hamilton and fought the war on their own terms.
Indian raiders attacked farmers in the field
After hearing that Atkinson was forming a new army in June, Black Hawk began sending out raiding parties westward with the hope of leading the Americans away from his camp at Lake Koshkonong. The first major assault occurred on 14thJune near present-day South Wayne, Wisconsin. In this engagement, a band of 30 warriors attacked a group of farmers, killing and scalping four. The attack prompted Colonel Dodge to gather a squadron of 29 mounted volunteers and pursue these Indians. Dodge cornered eleven warriors two days later: all were killed and scalped. It was the American’s first success, known today as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and as the Battle of Pecatonica River.
On the same day, another skirmish took place at Kellogg’s Grove where militia forces occupied a base in order to intercept war parties. In the first battle, the militia pursued a British Band raiding party of about thirty warriors. Three militia and six raiders died in the fighting. Two days later, a militia force encountered another war party near Yellow Creek; it was a hard fought, hand-to-hand encounter resulting in deaths on both sides.
Black Hawk and around 200 warriors attacked the hastily constructed fort at Apple River on 24 June. Local settlers, warned of Black Hawk’s approach, took refuge in the fort, which was defended by around 30 militia. The battle lasted approximately 45 minutes. The women loaded muskets and molded bullets as the fighting raged. After losing several braves, Black Hawk broke off the siege, looted nearby homes, and disappeared from the field.
The second battle of Kellogg’s Grove occurred on 25 June, when Black Hawk’s party encountered a militia battalion under Major John Dement. Black Hawk’s force drove the militia into the fort and commenced a two-hour siege. After losing nine warriors, he broke off the engagement and returned to Lake Koshkonong. Militia loses were five killed. It was Black Hawk’s last military success in the war. Since the Indians were low on food, Black Hawk led them back across the Mississippi River.
President Jackson, meanwhile, became very displeased with General Atkinson’s performance. Jackson ordered Atkinson relieved of his command and replaced him with Major General Winfield Scott. Scott gathered around 1,000 troops from eastern posts. But as Scott began to muster his force, a cholera pandemic spread through the eastern United States. En route to Chicago, many of Scott’s men came down with the disease and died. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to desert, many of Scott’s men took advantage of it. When Scott arrived in Chicago, the effective strength of his command was 350 men.
Atkinson, who had learned in early July that Scott would be taking command, hoped to bring the war to a successful conclusion before Scott’s arrival. It was easier said than done because the British Band eluded him. Part of Atkinson’s problem was that some of the Indians upon whom he depended for information were telling him lies. For example, some Ho-Chunk braves, who were sympathetic to the plight of Black Hawk’s people, misled Atkinson into thinking that the British Band was still at Lake Koshkonong.
While many of the Illinois Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk had sought to remain neutral in the war, they later decided to cooperate with the Americans. Tribal leaders knew that some of their warriors had provided aid and comfort to the British Band and hoped that a highly visible show of support for the Americans would dissuade U.S. officials from punishing the tribes at the end of hostilities. Wearing white headbands to differentiate themselves from hostile natives, Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi braves served as guides for Atkinson’s army. While Atkinson’s men were trudging through the swamps behind traitorous guides, and running low on provisions, the British Band had in fact relocated miles to the north. In any case, serving as guides enabled the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi to demonstrate support for the Americans while avoiding battle. What these Indians wanted most was to survive, which is perfectly understandable.
In mid-July, Colonel Dodge, upon learning that the British Band was camped near Rock River rapids, set out in pursuit from Fort Winnebago. At this point, owing to death and desertion, the British Band had been reduced to around 600 people. With the approach of Colonel Dodge’s militia, the Indians headed toward the Mississippi River. Dodge pursued them, killing Indian stragglers wherever he found them.
Dodge caught up with the British Band on 21 July near present-day Sauk City, Wisconsin. Black Hawk needed to buy time for his women, children, and the elderly to cross over the Wisconsin River, so he engaged the militia in a rearguard action that became known as the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Black Hawk found himself hopelessly outnumbered, with fifty-to-seventy Indians opposing 750 Americans. It was a lopsided victory for the militia, who lost one man killed. Black Hawk lost 68 warriors, but he achieved his purpose; much of the British Band were able to escape across the river.
Atkinson and his regular force of 400 men joined the volunteers several days later. This combined force crossed the Wisconsin River on 27 July and resumed their pursuit. The Indians, encumbered by wounded warriors and starving people, moved slowly. Tracking these Indians was relatively easy; all the Americans had to do is follow the growing number of dead Indians along the trail —the militia had no intention of allowing these Indians to re-cross the Mississippi River.
Steamboat Warrior fires on escaping Indians
A steamboat that had been outfitted with artillery patrolled the Mississippi while Americans and their Indian allies surveilled the river banks. On 1 August, the steamboat Warrior arrived at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, which is where Dakota scouts said the Americans could find Black Hawk.
Given the number of Indian raids on settlements, the Americans were in no mood to accept surrender, so when Black Hawk raised a white flag, he was completely ignored. Besides, the Americans no longer trusted the word of anyone from Black Hawk’s band. When the militia was certain that the Indians on land were in fact the British Band, they opened fire. Twenty-five Indians were killed; the militia suffered one injury. After Steamship Warrior departed, Black Hawk decided to seek refuge in the north with the Ojibwe Tribe . Only fifty people agreed to accompany him; everyone else was determined to return to their home in Sauk territory.
Black Hawk was already on his way north when he learned that the militia had closed in on the British Band who were trying to cross the Mississippi River. By this time, the British Band had been reduced to around 500 Indians —of these, only 150 were warriors, all of whom fought a delaying action while women and children frantically tried to complete the river crossing. Many made it to an island in the center of the river but were dislodged when the steamboat returned.
The engagement ended with a massive victory for the Americans, only 14 of whom were killed in action. The Indians lost 260-killed, which included 110 who drowned while attempting to cross the river. Regular soldiers were well-disciplined during the engagement, but the militia took advantage of every opportunity to kill the fleeing Indians. Some historians have described the event of less battle than massacre.
One-hundred-fifty volunteer Dakotas arrived too late to participate in the battle, but they did pursue those of the British Band who made it across the Mississippi into Iowa. On 9-10 August, they attacked the remnants of their enemy along the Cedar River, killing 68 and taking 22 as prisoners. A Ho-Chunk band pursued another group, taking around 60 scalps. This was the last engagement of the Black Hawk War.
Discounting militia who perished by disease, 77 white settlers, militiamen, and regular soldiers died during the war. Between 450-600 Indians lost their lives.
A number of American participants in the Black Hawk War became prominent: There were seven future members of the United States Senate, four future governors of Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, and the Wisconsin Territory. What Black Hawk accomplished was to convince the Americans that they needed a regular cavalry, which did not then exist. The only mounted soldiers available to Atkinson were volunteer militia. After the war, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a Mounted Ranger Battalion and appointed Henry Dodge to command it. The Mounted Rangers were re-designated 1stUS Cavalry Regiment in 1833.
Black Hawk and his followers made good their escape to the Ojibwe Tribe. American officials posted a reward of $100.00 and forty horses in exchange for Black Hawk’s capture. A member of the Ho-Chunk tribe observed Black Hawk near present-day Tomah, Wisconsin and alerted his village chief. The village council sent a delegation to Black Hawk’s camp and convinced him to surrender to the Americans, which he did on 27 August 1832. Colonel Zachary Taylor took custody of Black Hawk and ordered him taken by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks (Missouri) in the custody of Lieutenants Jefferson Davis  and Robert Anderson . Black Hawk and nineteen other Indian leaders of the British Band were incarcerated at Jefferson Barracks, but most of these natives were released after a few months. In April 1833, Black Hawk and two others were transferred under guard to Fort Monroe, Virginia.
As a prisoner, Black Hawk had become a celebrity. Large crowds of Americans gathered to catch a glimpse of him while en route to Fort Monroe. He was first taken to Washington, where he met President Andrew Jackson. Black Hawk, Wabokieshiek, and Neapope were treated as celebrities even while imprisoned —being permitted to pose for portraits by noteworthy artists. After a few weeks, the Indians were released from prison. Before their departure, senior officers honored them with a lavish dinner party.
The three chieftains were taken on a tour of several large cities on the east coast. This was a common tactic used by American military officers to demonstrate to their Indian captives that they could not possibly prevail against the United States. It was believed that once Indians observed American strength, they would be discouraged from further hostile behavior. Treating Black Hawk and his companions as visiting royalty, they toured Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
East Coast Americans may have been favorably impressed by Black Hawk, but this was not a view shared by Americans in the west who lost loved-ones to his barbarism. Nevertheless, the Black Hawk War was the last time Indians in the Northwest resisted US expansion. The Indians continued to lose their land and their removal continued to be a policy of the US government.
- Eby, C. That Disgraceful Affair: The Black Hawk War. New York: Norton Press, 1973
- Hall, J. W. Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009
- Nichols, R. L. Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path. Arlington Heights: Harlan Press, 1992
- Trask, K. A. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America. New York: Holt & Company, 2006
 A group of native Americans from the Eastern Woodland culture group who lived in the area of present-day Wisconsin. Today, the Sauk include three federally recognized tribes, and the people of this tribe are primarily located in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
 The logic of this escapes me. It did not serve the interests of the US government to interfere in tribal matters.
 Edmund Pendleton Gaines (1777-1846) served in the US Army from 1799-1846.
 So-called because they fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812
 Brigadier General Whiteside (1783-1866) accepted a commission as an Army ranger in 1813 serving at various times in the state militia, and as a member of the state Indian commissions. Whiteside commissioned as a captain a young volunteer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
 Colonel Zachary Taylor later noted that Atkinson erred in his delay to move on the British Band —before they could do any damage.
 In 1903, historian Frank Stevens described Adams as among the most courageous men who ever lived. Captain Abraham Lincoln participated in the burial of Adams and his men at Stillman’s Run.
 A fact that should surprise no one; Democrat Party policy continues to harm the American people today.
 Felix St. Vrain was the younger brother of noted fur trader Ceran St. Vrain, children of French aristocrats who came to the United States to escape the French Revolution.
 Once more, a reminder that killing women and children was how some Indians fought their wars. White settlers regarded such behavior as barbaric —as indeed it was— and for the settlers, unforgivable.
 Sauk chief Weesheet later criticized Black Hawk for abandoning his people.
 President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865).
 Colonel Robert Anderson commanded Fort Sumpter in April 1861.