The Black Hawk War: Turning Points in Illinois History

In 1804, William Henry Harrison, then Governor of the Louisiana Territory, signed a treaty between the United States and the Sauk and Fox tribes. Four more treaties between the US and the Sauk and Fox tribes would be signed. Each treaty pushed the Sauk and Fox further and further west in Illinois and Wisconsin. By 1830, both tribes were to be in Iowa. One man, did not like the treaty and came back to claim the land of the Rock River Valley. His name was Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk.

“How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” ~ Black Hawk in his autobiography

Illinois in 1830  was a far different place than what most people think it was. Illinois was settled from the South to the North. By 1830, the capital had moved from Kaskaskia to Vandalia. The western part of the state was to be reserved for veterans of the war of 1812 and was known as the military tract. The central part of the state had just started to be settled. Springfield, the future capital, was known as Calhoun. Chicago was not even a city yet and the largest town was a settlement known as Saukenuk.

Our village was situated on the north side of Rock river, at the foot of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock river and the Mississippi. . . . The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with blue-grass, which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out of the bluff, near by, from which we were supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes. We always had plenty – our children never cried with hunger, nor our people were never in want.

In 1832, Black Hawk and some 1500 men and women crossed the Mississippi back into the land of the Rock River. The Sauk and Fox had been banished into Iowa earlier after treaties and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

An Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi, not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other.

Black Hawk and his band of 1500 did not recognize this act or any treaty. US and state militias were organized to pursue them. By April, Black Hawk’s band had reached the Winnebago prophet’s village. On April 26, Napope and Black Hawk along with other leaders of the band met two Sauk chiefs. These two chiefs informed Black Hawk that General Atkinson and US forces would not permit the band to remain east of the Mississippi. Black Hawk and Napope initially had no hostile intentions. They would continue living with the Winnebago and fly a British flag over the camp.

Aware of the forces at play, Black Hawk began to make preparations for Battle. Black Hawk soon discovered he had no allies. Initially, Black Hawk thought other tribes would come to his defense be they from Wisconsin or what it now Iowa. He also thought the British would lend support – at least of all weapons and horses if not me.

By May, Black Hawk’s band left the Winnebago continued up the Rock. At the Kishwaukee River (near modern Rockford, Illinois), Black Hawk held a council with some Potawatomi chiefs. They too would not aid in him in his quest. Black Hawk decided in mid-May to return to Iowa. With no supplies or allies on the horizon, Black Hawk knew it was fight he could not win.

However, on the morning of May 14, Black Hawk found out that two or three hundred Calvary soldiers were less than ten miles away. Black Hawk sent three warriors under a flag of truce. His men were set up a meeting to arrange for safe passage back down the Rock.

Unfortunately, not a single one of the soldiers spoke Sauk. Major Stillman’s Illinois militia captured the messengers, took their horses, and pursued after the Black Hawk’s scouts. Some scouts


returned to camp and reported the day’s events. Black Hawk sent more warriors to set up a defensive perimeter in case Stillman’s men followed. They did. When Black Hawk’s men returned fire and attacked, Stillman’s men fled in what has become known as the Battle of Stillman’s run.

Any chance for peace was now gone. Black Hawk and his band were then hunted for the rest of the summer of 1832 ending at the Battle of Bad Axe in Southern Wisconsin. Other Indians disavowed helping Black Hawk. Over the course of that year, most of Black Hawk’s band was destroyed either through conflict or starvation. By 1838, Black Hawk would be dead.

Many of America’s future leaders would participate in the Black Hawk War – even a young Abraham Lincoln from New Salem. Lincoln, however, saw no action, as his militia was always a day behind. When it was all said and done, Illinois had been changed. The newly acquired northern part of the state was now safe for settlement. With tin and lead mines in Galena churning out minerals, settlers moved north. Within ten years, Northern Illinois exploded. Along with John Deere’s plow, the I&M Canal, the coming of the railroad, and the incorporation of Chicago along the lake, the Black Hawk War would change the northern part of the state forever.

Memorial of Stillman's Run in Stillman Valley, Illinois
Memorial of Stillman's Run in Stillman Valley, Illinois

For more information:
Go to Northern Illinois University’s Digitization Project

4 thoughts on “The Black Hawk War: Turning Points in Illinois History

  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


  2. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


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