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By Madison Black June 28, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • Kim Reynolds, speaking to the Carroll Times Daily Herald, said teaching the history of Sauk and Meskwaki leader Black Hawk is appropriate “as long as it is balanced and we are giving both sides…”
  • She was asked about Black Hawk because Iowa has a law now that prohibits teaching that the United States or Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist.
  • Black Hawk skewered white Americans in a surrender speech, basically calling them systematically racist.

The Carroll Times Daily Herald raised an interesting question in a June 14, 2021, story: could the life of Iowa historical figure Chief Black Hawk be taught under a new Iowa law that prohibits scapegoating anyone based on race or sex to highlight current problems that exist?

The law, passed by the Republican-led Legislature along party lines and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, prohibits teaching that one race is superior to another, but also prohibits teaching that the United States or Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist. It also prohibits teaching that any "individual, solely because of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

Well then, how to teach about Black Hawk? He torched white Americans in clear racial fashion when surrendering 1832 after warring with them.

"The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes," Black Hawk said.

He called white men "school-masters" who "carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the snake."

Pretty harsh, and aimed at a white-led nation’s policy of oppressing, segregating and discriminating against North America’s native tribes. So, the Times Daily Herald reporter asked Reynolds, who had visited Black Hawk Lake in northwest Iowa before signing the new restrictions into law, whether Black Hawk’s story could be taught.

"As long as it is balanced and we are giving both sides, I think it is part of history and they should be able to teach that," she replied. She said the teaching has to be balanced so that "we are having a conversation, and we are educating children, not indoctrinating, and actually giving them the chance to learn and to make their own decisions."

The governor’s spokesperson, Pat Garrett, told PolitiFact Iowa that Reynolds’ intention when answering the question was that all sides of a historical event, not just Black Hawk’s story, be taught, and not just two sides.

The entire exchange seemed like a good opportunity to pass on a few things about this famous statesman-leader-warrior but also reluctant Iowan from the state’s past.

A fighter early in life

Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, known in English as Black Sparrow Hawk, Chief Black Hawk, or simply Black Hawkwas born in 1769 in Saukenuk near present-day Rock Island, Illinois. Saukenuk was the capital of the Sauk Nation.

The village was the site of the western-most battle of the Revolutionary War, but destroyed by U.S. settlers in 1780 after some of the Sauk gave their support to the British.

At 15, Black Hawk joined his father on a raid against the Osage, an enemy of the Sauk. It was in this battle that Black Hawk killed and scalped his first enemy, winning him approval back home and earning him the right to paint his face and wear feathers.

Following this raid, Black Hawk continued to prove himself as a warrior. He led raids and war parties, eventually becoming a trusted leader of large war parties.

Despite being known as Chief Black Hawk, he never was a tribal chief.

Treaty cedes land to US

In 1804, Saukenuk was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of St. Louis or the Treaty of 1804. Signed on Nov. 3, 1804, by four Sauk and one Meskwaki, the treaty gave to the still-new country more than 50 million acres. The Sauk and Meskwaki lost all of their tribal lands in Illinois, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Missouri. In return, the United States gave a one-time payment of $2,234.50 in goods and was to pay an annuity of $1,000 each following year.

The treaty also promised a pardon for a Meskwaki warrior who had killed an American settler, as well as protection for the Sauk and Meskwaki against the Osage.

Black Hawk claimed that the treaty was fraudulent and meant nothing because it didn’t follow the Sauk procedure for selling land, and that the men who signed the treaty had no authority to do so.

The correct process is much lengthier and more thorough than what occurred. First, an invitation to enter a treaty was to have been sent to the Tribal Council. If the Tribal Council agreed, a full tribal meeting of men, women and children would decide how much land would be sold and for what price. The sale required the women’s approval.

If the final sale was agreed to, a large tribal delegation would attend the signing. Many speeches would be made and wampum belts would be exchanged. Ultimately, disagreement over the validity of this treaty led to the Black Hawk War in 1832.

Before that, though, Black Hawk fought for the British during the War of 1812. He led Sauk warriors in numerous attacks against the United States, including an attack at Frenchtown in January 1812, Fort Madison in September 1812, Fort Meigs in May 1813, and Detroit in July 1813. During the war, the Sauk – who wished to remain neutral – moved west. Upon his return, Black Hawk found that almost a third of his people had left.

In 1816, Black Hawk was a member of the council that signed a peace treaty with the United States. The treaty included a section that confirmed the cession of land from the Treaty of 1804. Black Hawk claimed later to be unaware of this section and what it meant. He traveled to British posts to receive gifts after the War of 1812.

White settlers arrive

In the late 1820s, white settlers began to arrive in Saukenuk and the surrounding area. The settlers demanded that the Sauk and Meskwaki already living in the area move west across the Mississippi River. Black Hawk and his followers, known as the British Band, refused to leave and stayed in Saukenuk, living alongside the new settlers.

Illinois Gov. John Reynolds sent troops to remove Black Hawk and his followers from Illinois in June 1831.

"I am a Sauk…I am a Warrior," Black Hawk declared as he was forced out of Illinois.

Black Hawk and several others escaped across the Mississippi River. Shortly after, Black Hawk and the others were required to attend a council meeting at Fort Armstrong. It was here that, on June 30, they signed "Articles of Agreement and Capitulation." Under these articles, Black Hawk was forbidden to return to Illinois or to continue to visit British posts in Canada. He was also required, the articles said, to "submit to the authority of the friendly Chiefs and Braves," including his rival, Keokuk.

Black Hawk and his followers relocated to southeastern Iowa along the Des Moines River, but were unhappy and wanted to return to their homeland. In April 1832, Black Hawk led around 1,500 warriors, women, children, and elders across the river into Illinois. He had allies.

Napope, a leader among Black Hawk’s followers, returned from visiting the British claiming that the British had pledged their support to Black Hawk in battle against the United States. Additionally, White Cloud, a Winnebago prophet, invited Black Hawk and his followers to settle in his village, known today as Prophetstown, Illinois. While not Saukenuk, this village was near their old homelands.

White Cloud informed Black Hawk in spring 1832 that the Sauk and Meskwaki would receive aid from other tribes and the British if attacked by American forces.

Almost immediately after crossing into Illinois, Black Hawk and his group were pursued by American forces. Arriving at White Cloud’s village, Black Hawk learned that they would not be able to live there in peace. Black Hawk and Napope met with two Sauk chiefs who had been sent by the United States government, who said Black Hawk and his people would not be permitted to remain east of the Mississippi.

War begins

At first, Black Hawk refused to leave. However, the Winnebago did not want Black Hawk and his people to remain in their village, and no help from the British was going to arrive. So, Black Hawk moved on. He led his followers further up the Rock River, searching for allies. Finding none, he decided to attempt to peacefully return down the Rock to the Mississippi.

While on this return journey, Black Hawk sent a group of warriors to meet with the American militia who had been following them. Due to the language barrier, the two groups could not communicate and blood was shed. Later called the Battle of Stillman’s Run, this squirmish ended the possibility of a peaceful retreat.

Several more battles followed. One such battle, the Indian Creek Massacre, ended with 15 white settlers dead and two teenage girls taken hostage. The girls were held for 11 days before being returned in exchange for horses, wampum and corn.

On July 21, 1832, a large militia reached Black Hawk’s group following a lengthy pursuit. What followed is known as the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. As many as 70 of Black Hawk’s followers were killed, either in battle or by drowning in the river. The following day, the language barrier again prevented successful negotiation, leading Black Hawk and his followers to run from the pursuit of the military again. Napope abandoned the group following the failed negotiation.

Black Hawk’s band shrunk rapidly, the result of both abandonment and death. The group was attacked again as it tried to cross the Mississippi, losing two dozen members. Following this attack, Black Hawk took 30 to 40 people still following him north to hide in a nearby Wisconsin village. They were attacked on Aug. 1, 1832 in the Battle of Bad Axe, also known as the Bad Axe Massacre, which ended the following day.

Most Native Americans at the battle were killed. This included the women, children, and elders. Some escaped across the Mississippi, while others were taken prisoner. Most who crossed the river were tracked down and either killed or taken prisoner.

On Aug. 27, 1832, Black Hawk and the remainder of his followers surrendered, ending the Black Hawk War. As a result of the war, the Sauk and Meskwaki lost much of their land in Iowa.

Legend grows

Black Hawk was imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri until April 1833. He was taken to Washington, D.C., to meet President Andrew Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass and, then, to Fort Monroe in Virginia, where he remained until his release on May 30, 1833.

Cass demanded that, after Black Hawk’s release, he was taken  on a tour of some of the major cities on the East Coast, including Baltimore, Philedelpia and New York City. He was met with large, enthusiastic crowds in the eastern United States, where he was erroneously referred to as Chief Black Hawk. The Americans who came to see him assumed that anyone who was powerful enough to wage war against the United States must be a chief, and the name stuck.

Crowds in the then-western portion of the nation were not so excited to see him. They were angry toward him.

Following the tour, Black Hawk was held for a short period of time at Fort Armstrong at Rock Island. He was released into the custody of Keokuk in August 1833. For the following five years, Black Hawk lived with his wife and children along the Iowa River. In 1838, he relocated to an area along the Des Moines River, where he died of a respiratory illness that October. He was 71 years old.

He died a celebrity among many white Americans but disgraced among his own people because of the disastrous wars he led that resulted in death and loss of land.

Black Hawk was buried sitting upright in a small mausoleum along the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. His grave was robbed in 1839. Eventually, his remains were given to a museum in Burlington, but the museum burned down in 1855, destroying the remains.

Today, a gravemarker for Black Hawk remains in the Iowaville Cemetery in Van Buren County along the Des Moines River in southeastern Iowa.

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Our Sources

Carroll Times Herald, "Can Black Hawk’s horror story be told in Kim Reynolds’ Iowa? What freshly signed law on teaching of race, diversity means for schools," by Katherine Kealey, June 15, 2021

HF802, Iowa Legislature, Black Hawk Indian Chief, 1767-1838", "Surrender Speech," Black Hawk, 1832

Encyclopedia Britannica, "The Black Hawk War: Indian Removal and Growing Tensions in Illinois"by James Lewis

Text exchanges with Pat Garrett, spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, June 23, 2021

Native American Indian Facts, Chief Black Hawk Facts website

Black Hawk State Historic Site, Treaty of 1804Sauk and Meskawki (Fox)Black Hawk

DocsTeach, Sauk and Fox Treaty

Iowa State University Library, "A social history of the Meskwaki Indians,1800-1963," by Richard Frank Brown.

Northwest Illinois tourism website, "Meet Chief Black Hawk — our region’s namesake"

University of Michigan Library exhibit website, "Great American Chiefs"

Northern Illinois University Digital Library, "The Black Hawk War Phases""Background"

Wisconsin Historical Society, "Black Hawk, chief (1767-1838)," website; "Bad Axe, Battle of" website

Fort Monroe website

Davenport Public Library, "Makataimeshekiakiak: Black Hawk and his War"

Iowa Gravestone Photo Project – Iowaville Cemetery website

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Madison Black

Explaining the many sides of Chief Black Hawk’s story