By Chuck Sweeny
Of the Rockford Register Star
First, let’s get his name straight. It was Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak. In English, he was Black Hawk, war chief of the Sac and Fox tribe who lived most of his life in the Rock River Valley in northern Illinois.
Black Hawk was born in 1767 in Saukenuk, a Sac and Fox village on the Rock River in northwestern Illinois. He built his reputation as a war fighter leading his tribe in skirmishes against the Osage tribe.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a new enemy appeared — Americans, relentlessly moving west from the Eastern states, claiming the land for themselves as they went, building homes and villages and fencing off the fields.
The U.S. Army and state militias accompanied the settlers and protected them against the people who had been there for thousands of years. Treaty after treaty was made between the native people and the U.S. government, and they were regularly broken.
One of those documents was the Treaty of 1804, signed in St. Louis by representatives of the Sac and Fox tribe and U.S. officials. Black Hawk, who had not been at the signing, thought the treaty merely ceded some of the tribe’s ancestral hunting grounds to the American settlers.
But the Sac and Fox had been snookered. Actually, the treaty required the Sac and Fox to vanish forever from 50 million acres, their entire homeland east of the Mississippi River.
Black Hawk was so angered that he allied with the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh to fight alongside the British in the War of 1812, which the Americans started in an attempt to take over Canada. The war ended in a draw in 1815. Black Hawk became increasingly agitated as white settlers streamed into his northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin homeland, protected as always by militia and U.S. troops. However, he wasn’t popular among all of his tribe's men and women.
Most Sac and Fox had resettled in Iowa by 1830 under the leadership of the moderate Chief Keokuk, who was more of a politician than a warrior. He favored negotiating with the U.S. rather than fighting what he knew was a superior force.
In early 1832, Black Hawk decided to return to Illinois to resettle in the Sac and Fox homeland once again. Because about 160,000 whites now lived there, skirmishes broke out, prompting calls by the fearful Americans to rid the area of “Indians.”
In April 1832, Black Hawk “led some 1,000 Sac and Fox and Kickapoo men, women and children, including about 500 warriors, across the Mississippi River to reclaim land in Illinois that tribal spokesmen had surrendered to the U.S. in 1804,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
They weren’t seeking war. In fact, Black Hawk, now 65, hoped to enjoy a peaceful retirement in Illinois. After the cold, hard winter of 1831-1832 they wanted to come back to their old grounds and plant corn where they knew it would yield a bountiful harvest.
Only about one-fifth of the Sac and Fox returned; most stayed in Iowa.
Illinois Gov. John Reynolds requested U.S. troops and called up the state militia, eventually assembly a force of 7,000 soldiers, both regulars and militia members, to fight the Sac and Fox. Meanwhile, throughout the spring and summer of 1832, Americans burned or otherwise destroyed Sac and Fox fields.
One of the sorriest battles in the war took place near what today is Stillman Valley, Illinois. Maj. Isaac Stillman and 275 men were pursuing Black Hawk’s warriors. Black Hawk could not persuade other tribes to join him, so he sent emissaries to Stillman to surrender. But the militiamen were drunk; they fired on the delegation and killed two warriors. Black Hawk planned an ambush in return. In the Battle of Stillman’s Run, 40 Sac and Fox warriors routed Stillman and his 275 men.
The battles of the Black Hawk War claimed about 70 U.S. troops and militiamen as well as settlers. An estimated 500 Sac and Fox were killed.
Among the Americans who took part in the battles were Abraham Lincoln, the future president of the U.S., and Jefferson Davis, the future president of the confederation of rebellious states that seceded from the U.S. in 1861.
As the war proceeded into the summer of 1832, the Americans pursued Black Hawk and his warriors into southern Wisconsin, defeating them finally in August at Bad Axe on the Mississippi River.
On Sept. 2, 1832, the Black Hawk War ended when U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott and Sac and Fox leaders signed a treaty forcing the tribe to cede 6 million acres of land west of the Mississippi River and 50 miles west of the river.
Black Hawk lived out the rest of his life in Iowa, dying near Des Moines in 1838. He was 72.
In his autobiography, Black Hawk addressed his conquerors, saying: “May the Great Spirit shed light on your path, so that you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to. This is the wish of a man who, in his native forests, was once as proud and bold as yourself.”
The chief is honored in a 40-foot statue by Lorado Taft, above the bluffs of the Rock River at Oregon, Illinois. Although he didn't specifically call the statue "Black Hawk," that's what it's commonly called.
Chuck Sweeny of the Rockford Register Star can be reached at [email protected]
*Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.