Article abstract: Black Hawk was a leader in the last Indian war of the old Northwest; he also dictated one of the most interesting Indian autobiographies, Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk (1834).
Black Hawk (or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) was the adopted brother of a chief of the Foxes and was brought up by the Sauk (Sacs)—“Sac” was the original French spelling. The Sauk and Foxes were small tribes which formed an alliance, sometimes including the Potawatomi and Winnebago, to defend themselves against larger neighboring nations. Black Hawk was already a warrior and a leader among his people at the age of fifteen. In his autobiography he described how he became chief at the death of his father when they were fighting together against the Cherokee near the Meramec River, a short distance below modern St. Louis. Black Hawk fell heir to the chieftainship but was obliged to mourn, pray, and fast for five years in what he called a “civil capacity,” hunting and fishing. When he was twenty-one he became head chief of the Sauk and Foxes. The two tribes were united and lived together as a single group.
Black Hawk’s early years were spent in warfare against neighbors, primarily the Osage, Kaskaskia (a member of the Illinois Confederacy), and Chippewa. According to Black Hawk, there were two major reasons for warfare among the Indians: the preservation of hunting grounds and revenge for the deaths of relatives. Despite Black Hawk’s renown as a warrior, there was a highly developed ethical and spiritual side of his character, and he tried to do what the Supreme Spirit directed.
Black Hawk’s personality was complex, and it would be a mistake to over-simplify the main events in his life. Probably he should not be considered a great leader. He was highly individualistic, often impulsive, colorful, and emotional. His policies did not significantly help his nation, and other Indian leaders such as Pontiac and Crazy Horse were greater than he. It could be argued that his leadership was shortsighted and brought disaster on his people. The Black Hawk War could have been avoided.
Black Hawk never liked the American settlers, and for this he may be easily forgiven—during his lifetime the Sauk continually suffered from white armies, white officials, white traders, and white settlers. His adopted son was murdered by white American settlers. He liked the British. He was on good terms with a British trader and with Robert Dixon, British agent in the War of 1812, during which Black Hawk took an active role against the Americans. Most of Black Hawk’s life prior to his capture in 1832 was marked by his dislike of Americans. The experience that contributed to this attitude more than any other was the St. Louis treaty of 1804, which Black Hawk rejected. In his own words, “It has been the origin of all our difficulties.”
Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803; soon after, United States officials arrived in St. Louis to claim control and sign treaties with Indian tribes in the area. According to Black Hawk, the treaty with the Sauk was fraudulent. The Sauk had sent four representatives to St. Louis to obtain the release of a Sauk imprisoned there for killing an American—these were negotiators with a specific mission, not diplomats or chiefs. Much later they returned dressed in fine coats and wearing medals, and they could not remember much of what had happened. They were drunk most of the time they were in St. Louis. They also signed a treaty ceding all the Sauk lands east of the Mississippi to the United States. Black Hawk and the rest of the Sauk were indignant. Not long after, a United States Army detachment came to erect Fort Madison near the Sauk villages. Black Hawk was scandalized by the treaty, asserting that the Sauk and Fox signers of the treaty had no authority from their nations. Twentieth century historian Milo Quaife, however, claims that “no more than the usual cajolery of the Indians was indulged in by the white representatives in securing the cession.” The rejection of this treaty by the Indians, and the acceptance of its legality by the United States, says much about the quality of American law during this period.
The second major event in Black Hawk’s life prior to his battles in the 1830’s against the Illinois militia and the United States Army was his rivalry with another Sauk chief, Keokuk. Although not a chief by birth, Keokuk rose by the exercise of political talents to a position of leadership in his tribe. He was more of a realist than Black Hawk, and although he may not have liked the Americans any more than Black Hawk did, he tried not to antagonize them. As a nation the Sauk were divided, some favoring Black Hawk and others, Keokuk. In 1819, Keokuk and other members of the nation were persuaded by American authorities to leave the Sauk home on Rock Island and go to the western side of the Mississippi. Keokuk ultimately triumphed over Black Hawk after the war of 1832, which placed Black Hawk under the governance of Keokuk.
(The entire section is 2103 words.)