The Black Hawk War: Interpretive Essays

By James Lewis, Ph.D.

On April 5, 1832, a band of roughly one thousand Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo men, women, and children crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois near the mouth of the Iowa River. They moved north along the eastern bank of the river and then turned to the northeast along the Rock River. At the mouth of the Rock, they passed the remains of Saukenuk. For roughly one hundred years, Saukenuk had been the principal village of the Sauks; now, it lay in ruins, with just a scattering of cabins, barns, and fields marking the homes of a few white settlers. Beyond Saukenuk lay the fields where Sauk and Fox women had planted and harvested corn, squash, and beans for generations. Beyond them, just three or four miles from Saukenuk up the Mississippi, stood the main Fox village, which had also been abandoned. Surely saddened by the sight of their old homes, the members of the band continued north and east along the Rock, headed for the village of a Winnebago prophet named White Cloud.

In the eyes of most contemporaries, whether Native American or white, the leader of this mixed band was Black Hawk, a sixty-five-year-old Sauk warrior. Black Hawk had led Sauk, Fox, and other native warriors against his people's enemies, including Americans, for nearly fifty years. In April 1832, however, Black Hawk sought not honor, horses, captives, and scalps, but freedom and peace on the lands of the Winnebago prophet. He was prepared to fight, but whether he would have to or not would be decided by whites. Black Hawk's dreams of a peaceful retirement were quickly shattered, however. His band's presence in Illinois quickly spurred fear and then hysteria among white settlers. The U.S. Army, the Illinois militia, and groups of Sioux and Menominee warriors started to pursue Black Hawk's band within just a couple of weeks of the crossing of the Mississippi.