Makataimeshekiakiah or Black Hawk

Black Hawk
Makataimeshekiakiah, Or Black Hawk,
Original name Black Sparrow
A Saukie Brave (Sauk)
1767 – 1838

Few Indians have obtained a celebrity so widely extended as that of the individual now before us. Without being a chief, or a person of remarkable abilities, he became known to the American public as the principal person engaged in the brief and hopeless war, waged by a fraction of the Sauk tribe against the United States. Having been taken prisoner at the close of that contest, he was conducted with a few companions to Washington, and some other of our cities, where his fame and his misfortunes excited so much curiosity, that he was every where visited by crowds, while his propriety of deportment was such as to sustain the reputation that had preceded him. He was the greatest lion of the day; and the public will probably be disappointed at the discovery that, although a respect able person, he was by no means a hero. The events of his early life we extract from a small volume published at Cincinnati in 1833, and said to have been dictated by himself, and which we know to be acknowledged by him as authentic. The Black Sparrow, or, as he is now called, Black Hawk, whose unpronounceable Indian name we shall not attempt to repeat, was born at the principal village of his tribe on Rock River, in Illinois, about the year 1767, and was the great grandson of a chief called Nanamakee, or Thunder. At the early age of fifteen, having had the good fortune to wound an enemy of his nation, he was admitted to the rank of a brave, and allowed to paint himself and wear feathers. The chief of a neighboring tribe coming to the Saukie town shortly after, to raise recruits for an expedition against their common enemy, the Osages, he was permitted, in company with his father, to join the war party. A battle was fought in which the Sauk and their allies were successful, and Black Hawk signalized his valor by killing and scalping a warrior. On the return of the party he was permitted, for the first time, to join in the scalp dance. Having now established a reputation as a brave, he was enabled, a few months afterwards, to raise a party of seven young men, who went forth with him in search of adventure, and, falling in with a camp of a hundred Osages, he boldly attacked them, killed one of their warriors, and retreated without losing a man. This exploit gained him so much reputation, that when he next offered to lead a war party, a hundred and sixty braves placed themselves under his command. After a long march, they approached an Osage village with great caution, in the expectation of surprising it, but found it deserted; and the dissatisfied warriors, with the exception of five, abandoned their leader and returned home. The little remnant of the war party continued to pursue their enemies, determined not to return without a trophy; and, after some days, succeeded in killing a man and a boy, with whose scalps they marched back in triumph.

The defection of his braves on this occasion injured the standing of Black Hawk with his nation, who supposed him deficient in good fortune, or in conduct, and he was unable for some time afterwards to obtain a command. At length, at the age of nineteen, he succeeded in raising a party of two hundred warriors, whom he led against the Osage, and, meeting with an equal number of the enemy, a desperate battle ensued, in which the Sauk were victorious, and slew a hundred of their enemies, with a loss on their side of but nineteen. Black Hawk says he killed five braves and a squaw, and took four scalps.

After this decisive battle, active hostilities with the Osages ceased, and the Sauk turned their arms against the Cherokees. Black Hawk accompanied a small party commanded by his father, who met the Cherokees near the Merrimac river, the latter having the advantage in numbers. The Cherokees are said to have lost twenty-eight men, and the Sauk but seven. The father of Black Hawk being among the slain, he assumed the command, took possession of the great medicine bag of the deceased, and led the party home. This expedition was considered so unfortunate, that our hero blacked his face, fasted, and for five years abstained from war, praying frequently to the Great Spirit, and engaging in no manly exercises but those of hunting and fishing.

After this period, the Great Spirit having taken pity on him, or in other words, his people believing that he had sufficiently atoned for his bad luck, he led out a small party against the Osages, but could find only six men, whom he captured and delivered up to the Spanish commandant at St. Louis. In his next expedition he was more fortunate. At the head of a large party, he surprised an encampment of forty lodges of the Osages, all of whom, without distinction of age or sex, were put to death, except two squaws, who were taken captive. He declared that in this battle he killed seven men and two boys with his own hand.

He then led an expedition against the Cherokees, to revenge his father’s death; but finding only five of their people, he states, that having captured these, he afterwards released four, and carried the other one home, being unwilling to kill so small a party. This assumption of mercy on an occasion when revenge was his sole object, succeeding so closely the narrative of an indiscriminate massacre, in which he killed two boys, is not easily reconciled. We give the story as we find it, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. The details of several other battles, in which Black Hawk describes himself as having borne a conspicuous part, we pass over.

The treaty made by Governor Harrison with the Sauk and Foxes in 1804, by which they ceded their lands east of the Mississippi, is alluded to in this volume, as having been executed by a few chiefs, without the knowledge or consent of the nation. As we have not the means of deciding this question, we shall not enter upon it

The erection of Fort Madison, upon the Mississippi, is mentioned, the dissatisfaction of the Indians at this encroachment of the Americans, and an unsuccessful attempt which was made by the Sauk and Foxes to surprise and cut off the garrison. The visit of the enterprising traveler, Pike, at Rock Island, is noticed, and we are told that when this officer presented them with an American flag, they received and hoisted it, but when he required them to pull down the British flag, they declined, as they “wished to have two fathers.”

At this time the Sauk and Foxes were in the practice of trading with the British posts on the northern lakes, and Great Britain having adopted the policy of retarding the expansion of our settlements, much exertion was used by the officers of that power to conciliate the Indians, and to gain an influence over them. The state of affairs on the western frontiers of the United States was very unsettled. The emigration to the valley of the Ohio had pushed the settlements into contact with numerous and warlike tribes of Indians, and although the latter had sold the lands that were now becoming occupied by the whites, they saw with jealousy the rapid increase of a population so essentially different from their own. Occasions were sought to rescind or deny the treaties by which territory had been ceded, and the American government, to avoid even the appearance of injustice, in various instances purchased the same tract of country over and over from the same tribe, and extinguished successively the conflicting titles of different titles; while, on the other hand, intrusions were often inconsiderately committed on the hunting-grounds of the Indians.

For several years previous to 1811, the prospect of a war between the United States and Great Britain, produced an irritable state of feeling on the frontier, and opened a wide field for the machinations of those persons who thought their own interests promoted by ex citing the Indians to hostilities. The British officers and traders, therefore, co-operated in their exertions to attach the Indians to their country, and to alienate them from the American people and government. Colonel McKee, Colonel Dixon, and Simon Girty wore the most active agents in this unwise and unchristian warfare, and were busily employed, for several years, in holding talks with the Indians residing within the United States, supplying them with arms, making them liberal presents, and inciting them to make war upon the American settlements. Several interviews were held with these officers by Black Hawk, and on one of these occasions we find him, for the first time, dignified with a title. His own relation is as follows: “In the encampment, I found a large number of Potawatami, Kickapoo, Ottawa, and Winnebago. I visited all their camps and found them in high spirits. They had all received new guns, ammunition, and a variety of clothing. In the evening a messenger came to me to visit Colonel Dixon. I went to his tent, in which were two other war chiefs and an interpreter. He received me with a hearty shake of the hand, and presented me to the other chiefs, who shook my hand cordially, and seemed much pleased to see me. After I was seated, Colonel Dixon said: ‘General Black Hawk, I sent for you to explain to you what we are going to do and the reasons that have brought, us here. Our friend, La Gutrie, informs us .in the letter you brought from him, what has lately taken place. You will now hold us fast by the hand. Your English Father has found out that the Americans want to take your country from you, and has sent me and his braves to drive them back to their country. He has likewise sent a large quantity of arms and ammunition, and we want all your warriors to join us.’

“About the same time a deputation from the Sauk and Fox nation visited Washington, and on their return, reported that President Madison had said to them, that, in the event of a war with Great Britain, he wished them not to interfere on either side, but to remain neutral. He did not want their help, but wished them to hunt, and support their families, and live in peace.”

There seems to have been at this time a difference of opinion among these Indians, as to which side they should take in the approaching war. Individual chiefs may have had their predilections towards one side or the other; but most probably they hesitated only to ascertain which party would offer them the most advantageous terms. When the war actually broke out, a large party went to St. Louis, and offered the services of the tribe to the American government. The offer was promptly declined, because our government had resolved that they would not employ the savages. A small party claimed protection, and, separating from the nation, were sent to a new home provided for them on the Missouri, where they still live; but the great body of the Sauk and Foxes joined the British standard, and fought with their troops during the war.

An anecdote which Black Hawk relates as having occurred about this time, has probably many parallels in frontier history. A friend of his, who was old and crippled, had an only son, who had been adopted by Black Hawk, though he continued to live with his father. He had called to see his old friend on his way to join the British. Their next meeting was on his return, and is thus described: “We were in the vicinity of our village, when I discovered a smoke ascending from a hollow in the bluffs. I directed my party to proceed to the village, as I wished to go alone to the place from whence the smoke proceeded, to see who was there. I approached the spot, and when I came in view of the fire, saw a mat stretched, an old man sitting under it in sorrow. At any other time I would have turned away without disturbing him, knowing that he had come there to be alone, to humble himself before the Great Spirit, that he might take pity on him. I approached, and seated myself beside him. He gave one look at me, and then fixed his eyes on the ground. It was my old friend. I anxiously inquired for his son, my adopted child, and what had befallen our people. My old comrade seemed scarcely alive; he must have fasted a long time. I lighted my pipe and put it in his mouth. He eagerly drew a few puffs, cast up his eyes, which met mine, and recognized me. His eyes were glassy; he would again have fallen off into forgetfulness, had I not given him some water, which revived him.” The wretched man who was thus mourning in solitude, told the cause of his sorrow. His boy had gone out alone to hunt. Night came, and he did not return. The alarmed parents passed a sleepless night. In the morning, the mother applied to the other lodges for assistance, and all went in pursuit of the absent boy. There being snow on the ground, they soon came upon his track, and after following it some time, found also the trail of a deer which he had been pursuing. They came to the place where he had stood and fired, and found a deer which had been skinned hanging upon a branch of a tree. But here they found also the tracks of white men. They had taken the boy prisoner. Their tracks led across the river, and then down towards a fort; and after following the footsteps for some distance, the boy was found dead. His body was shot and stabbed, and his head scalped! The mother died soon after, and the old Indian, left alone in the world, and, perhaps, destitute of the means of subsistence, hied him to a solitary place to die. This recital exhausted his strength, and Black Hawk had only time to promise to avenge the murder of his son, when the eyes of the old man closed in death. Such are the atrocities of border warfare when national animosity becomes embittered by private injuries; the invasion of dwellings, and the destruction of private property plant the feeling of revenge deep in the heart, and one deed of violence is retaliated by another, until mercy and generosity are wholly forgotten.

Shortly after this occurrence, Black Hawk, with a party of eighteen warriors, descended the Mississippi in canoes, and landed near Cap au Gris, in Illinois. They struck into the country, until they came to one of those rude fortresses of logs, which the settlers of the frontier erect for their protection, near which they concealed themselves. Presently two white men, riding upon one horse approached, when the Indians fired and killed the horse and one of the riders, while the other escaped into the fort. The Indians retreated, but were immediately pursued by a party of mounted men, who surrounded them, and forced them into one of those funnel-shaped cavities, which in this country are called sink-holes. Taking advantage of this position, the Indians threw themselves on the ground, and, being covered as by a breastwork, fired from the brink of the hole. The backwoodsmen were not to be thus foiled. A part of them retired, and soon returned with an ox-cart, the body of which was tilted so as to be nearly perpendicular, and pushing this moveable rampart forward to the edge of the cavity, they fired from behind it. Such was the ingenuity displayed mutually, that but one man was killed on each side at this spot; when, night coming on, the Americans retired to their fort, and the Indians retreated. The incident thus related by Black Hawk in his autobiography, is substantially confirmed by a narrative repeated to us some years ago by one of the white men who was concerned in the affair, and who is now an affluent citizen of Illinois.

At the conclusion of the war between Great Britain and the United States, the Sauk and Foxes made peace with the American government, and the latter soon after established a fort on Rock Island. The planting of a military post so near their principal village, was little relished by this warlike community, nor did they willingly give up a beautiful island, which abounded in wild fruits, and was much frequented by them in the summer. They believed that a good spirit had the care of it, who lived in a cave in the rocks, immediately under the place where the fort was built. He is said to have been- often seen by the Indians; and was white, with wings resembling those of a swan, but ten times larger. They were careful to make no noise in that part of the island which he inhabited, for fear of disturbing him. He has never been seen since the building of Fort Armstrong, and is supposed to have been driven away by the din of the drums and cannon, or by the boisterous mirth of a licentious soldiery.

A permanent peace was now established between these Indians and the Americans, which has not since been interrupted by any general war. But many causes of dissatisfaction occurred. The facilities afforded to an intercourse with the whites enabled the Indians to procure ardent spirits more frequently than in former times, and a train of evil consequences ensued. The treaty, by which the lands they still inhabited were ceded, was a subject of bitter reflection; and, as the settlements of the whites expanded from year to year, they saw that the time was rapidly approaching when they must abandon their pleasantly situated village, and the delightful plains of Illinois. Collisions occurred between their hunters and the people of the frontier. The latter were in the habit of suffering their cattle and hogs to roam at large in the woods and over the prairies, and when any of these animals were lost, the Indians were suspected in most instances, we think, unjustly of having stolen them. On one occasion, when Black Hawk was hunting near the settlements, a party of white men seized him, charged him with having killed their hogs, and beat him severely with sticks. At another time, an Indian having discovered a hive of wild bees, cut down the tree for the purpose of taking the honey, and although trees were then considered of no value, but were constantly hewed down by any who pleased, this unfortunate Indian was pursued, and robbed of all the furs he had taken during a winter’s hunting, under the pretense of compensation for the injury he was alleged to have committed.

It is believed that Keokuk regarded these deeds of violence in the proper light, as the unauthorized acts of lawless individuals, who received no countenance from the American government or people. This chief was now at the head of his nation, and, although a distinguished warrior, his policy was pacific, and his professions of friendship towards the Americans sincere. Black Hawk, who viewed him with dislike and jealousy, was at the head of a faction called the “British Band,” who continued to make annual visits to the British post at Maiden, where they made their purchases, and received presents, while the majority of the tribe conformed to the regulations in regard to them made by the American government, and traded at St. Louis. This state of things continued for about twenty years after the war, with but little alteration.

In the mean while, the territory of Illinois had been formed into a state, and the settlements which had commenced in the southern part of this delightful country, were rapidly extending to the north. The Sauk and Foxes still occupied the most desirable part of the state, and around their village in every direction was an immense district of wilderness, over which they hunted. In the extreme north-western part of the state, at Fever river, a rich mineral region was discovered, and began to be occupied, and the flourishing town of Galena sprung into existence.

We shall now turn our attention to the war in which Black Hawk acted a conspicuous part. By a treaty made in 1804, at St. Louis, between Governor Harrison, on the part of the United States, and certain chiefs of the united Sauk and Musquakee nation, the latter ceded all their lands in Illinois to the United States, under a reservation, however, contained in the following words: “As long as the lands which are nov ceded to the United States remain their property, the Indians belonging to the said tribes shall enjoy the privilege of living and hunting upon them.” This treaty was disclaimed by the Sauk and Fox nation, as having been made by persons who were not authorized to treat on that subject; but it was afterwards confirmed by the treaty of Portage des Sioux in 1815, and by another treaty made in 1816.

The provision which allowed the Indians to occupy the ceded territory, occasioned no inconvenience so long as the settlements in Illinois were confined to the southern part of that state; nor would any have occurred, had the citizens of the United States been content to observe the simple and salutary regulations of their own laws. The statutory provisions for the protection of the Indians are numerous and ample.’ White men are strictly prohibited from purchasing or occupying the lands of the Indians, and from entering the Indian country, for any purpose whatever, without a license; and the latter are only granted to a limited number of traders. The lands of the Indians are, therefore, in the eye of the law, sacred from intrusion, and the two races are so separated as to prevent any contact or collision, which might be likely to disturb the harmony of either party. Not less guarded are the laws by which the lands of the government, previous to their conversion into private property, are protected from intrusion. When a portion of the Indian territory is purchased, it becomes part of what is termed the public domain of the United States, and individuals are strictly prohibited from inhabiting, or in any manner occupying, or trespassing upon such lands, until they are regularly offered for sale. The practice of the government has been to remove the Indians from the public lands previous to any measures being taken to bring them into market. A portion of the territory is then surveyed, divided into tracts of a convenient size, by lines corresponding with the cardinal points of the compass, and the lands are then offered for sale. By these cautious enactments, the Indians are not only protected in the enjoyment of their own lands, but, after having ceded them, the progressive steps by which the new population are admitted, oppose barriers, which, if not broken down by lawless violence, would effectually prevent the one race from crowding oppressively upon the other.

Unhappily, however, these humane and wise provisions have been but little regarded; and the greater number of our Indian wars have been incited by the impatience of our own people to possess the hunting-grounds of the receding savage. The pioneers, or first settlers of our country, are a hardy, erratic, adventurous race, uniting the habits of the hunter and the farmer, and among them the desire for new lands is a passion as strong as it is universal. They delight in the wilderness. A fertile uninhabited tract combines the requisites which they deem necessary to happiness : a virgin soil, fresh and luxuriant, which yields an abundant harvest without laborious culture a wide range of natural pasture over which their cattle may roam at large and a country stocked with game. Allured by such advantages, thousands of individuals are constantly in the practice of breaking through the wholesome restraints to which we have alluded, and intruding, not only on the public domain, but the lands of the Indians. Having found a choice spot, the pioneer erects his cabin, as fearless of the law as he is reckless of danger from the savage or the wild brute, and takes quiet possession, in the confidence that when the district shall be brought into market, an indulgent government will grant the right of preemption to those who shall have settled within it in contravention of its laws, or, that those who shall lawfully enter the country at a future day for the purpose of becoming purchasers, will be generous enough to refrain from buying a tract already occupied, and on which the tenant has expended his labor. How ever unreasonable such calculations may seem, they have seldom proved fallacious.

In the winter of 1827, when the Sauk and Foxes were absent from their town on Rock river, engaged in hunting, some evil disposed persons, who were probably impatient to hasten their departure from the ceded territory, set fire to the vacant lodges, of which about forty were consumed. The Indians made no attempt to resent this outrage, but on their return quietly rebuilt their desolated village. In the following year, six or seven families of whites moved out and settled upon a choice tract of land adjoining the village. At that time, nearly the entire northern half of Illinois was a wilderness, with a few scattered settlements thinly dispersed, at distant points, none of which were within fifty miles of Rock Island. There was, therefore, no reason founded upon necessity or inconvenience, nor any limitation of choice which confined the selection to that particular spot; millions of acres, untrodden by the foot of civilized man, and blooming in all the luxuriance of nature, afforded ample scope to the most fastidious choice. But, besides the violation of law and the infraction of a solemn treaty, this intrusion was fraught with the most ruinous consequences to the Sauk and Foxes. The Indians, keeping no domestic animals but dogs and horses, make no fences round their corn-fields, or at best, throw about them slight enclosures of brushwood. The intruders brought with them large herds of cattle, which were turned out to graze upon the open plain, and by which the patches of corn planted by the squaws were entirely destroyed. They even went so far as to extend their fences over the ground in the actual use of the Indians, on which corn was growing, and to plough up the latter in mere wantonness for there could be no reason, nor any apology for such an act, when the surrounding and contiguous country was all unoccupied, except that the corn grounds of the Indians, being already under tillage, were prepared for the use of the farmer, without subjecting him to the labor of breaking the natural sod, as in the new lands. When some of the squaws, not aware of being guilty of any offence, clambered over the fences, thus unlawfully erected, they were beaten with sticks! All these wrongs and indignities were perpetrated by a handful of whites, in the midst of a warlike Indian nation; but so determined were the red men to keep at peace, and such the awe inspired by the over* whelming superiority of the American people, that they submitted without attempting any act of retaliation.

In 1829, the writer, then occupying a civil office in Illinois, in company with a friend, who had recently filled a high post in the same state, visited Rock Island. The unhappy collision between the intruding whites and the Indians had then reached the most painful state of excitement, and we gathered from the Indian agent, the officers at Fort Armstrong, and the Indians, the particulars of this disastrous contest. Black Hawk, on hearing of the arrival of two strangers, who were, as he supposed, chiefs in their own country, came to relate to them the wrongs of his people. He spoke of the indignity perpetrated upon himself when, upon suspicion of an act that he would have scorned, he was beaten like a criminal, and, pointing to a black mark upon his face, said that he bore it as a symbol of disgrace. The customs of his nation, and their notions of honor, required that he should avenge the wrong he had received by shedding the blood of the aggressor; but he chose rather to submit for a season than involve his people in a war which must be fatal to them. And this was the only alternative; for such is the readiness with which offense is taken against the Indian, that if one of this race should kill, or even strike a white man, the act would be eagerly seized upon and exaggerated, the whole frontier population would rush to war, arid the red men would be hunted from their homes like wild beasts. He spoke of the intrusion upon their fields, the destruction of their growing corn, the ploughing up of the graves of their fathers, and the beating of their women, and added, ” We dare not resent any of these things. If we did, a great clamor would be raised; it would be said that the Indians were disturbing the white people, and troops would be sent to destroy us.” We inquired, “Why do you not represent these things to our government? the president is a wise and good ruler; he would protect you.” The reply was, “Our Great Father is too far off; he cannot hear our voice.” “But you could have letters written and sent to him.” “So we could,” said the old man, “but the white men would write letters, and say that we told lies. Our Great Father would not believe an Indian in preference to his own children.” This interview is alluded to in the biography already mentioned; and Black Hawk says of his visitors, “Neither of them could do any thing for us; but they both evidently appeared very sorry. It would give me great pleasure, at all times, to take these two chiefs by the hand.”

Under these circumstances, the government required the removal of this nation from the ceded tract to their lands west of the Mississippi, and ordered the necessary surveys preparatory to the opening of a new land district; and, although by the treaty of 1804, the Indians had a right to occupy this country until it should be actually sold to individual purchasers, it was, perhaps, best for them that this right should not be insisted upon. The settlements were approaching so rapidly that their tenancy could be but brief. At the end of two or three years, at most, they would be forced to retire The government having determined to sell the lands, the only question was, whether they would insist on remaining during the period while the preparations for the sale should be going forward, or retire voluntarily before the pressure of the expected emigration should elicit new causes of dissatisfaction. Keokuk, sustained by the majority of the nation, took the more prudent view of the subject, and prepared to remove; while Black Hawk, with the British band, determined to remain. It is due, however, to these unfortunate people, to state, that while they decided to insist on a right guarantied to them by a solemn treaty, they neither threatened violence nor prepared for war. They simply resolved to remain on the land during the whole term reserved to them, or until ejected by force.

Biography, Sauk,

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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