The Black Hawk War (1832)

The Black Hawk War was a series of skirmishes in 1832 between U.S. Army and frontier militia units against the followers of Sauk Chief Black Hawk. Fought in Illinois and Wisconsin, the war was one of many conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers over western land. White Americans at that time were unsympathetic to the forced loss of land by of Native Americans through numerous treaties always favoring the settlers.

The War Began with a Treaty

The origins of the Black Hawk War begin with the Treaty of 1804. It forced Native Americans to surrender all land east of the Mississippi River to the U. S. government. In exchange for their land the Native Americans received $2,234.50 in goods and a $1,000.00 annuity each year thereafter. In addition, they received promises of no further white settlement on Native American lands. But four years later in 1808 the U.S. government established Fort Madison on the western banks of the Mississippi near the present day Ft. Madison, Iowa.

The Sauks Misunderstand

Many members of the Sauk and Mesquakie tribes thought the construction of the fort on Native American land meant the end of the treaty conditions of 1804. In addition, many Sauks did not feel the chiefs who signed the 1804 treaty were authorized to transfer tribal lands. Among them was Chief Black Hawk.

In 1830 when Chief Black Hawk and about 1,000 tribe members returned from an annual hunting trip west of the Mississippi they discovered white settlers occupying their village of Saukenuk. The village was located on the east bank of the Mississippi River near present day Rock Island, Illinois.

Black Hawk expelled the white settlers from the village by threatening violence. Scared and angered by their forced removal the white settlers asked Illinois Governor John Reynolds for help. Reynolds requested that U.S. Army General Edmond Gaines with a force of mounted soldiers retake the village.

The Sauks are Forced to Iowa

Gaines’ troops removed the Sauks from the village in June 1831. They were removed to the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. General Gaines then called a treaty conference with the Sauk Chiefs. According to the “Corn Treaty” of June 30, 1831 the Sauks were instructed not to return to the east side of the Mississippi River without permission of the U.S. Government.

Upon signing the treaty Chief Black Hawk was expected to recognize rival Chief Keokuk as senior tribal leader. He was to end all contact with the British in North America. And he was to allow the construction of roads and forts on Sauk land in Iowa. By this late point in the year Black Hawk’s people were unable to plant corn and crops. As a result, they suffered from shortages of food the following winter.

The Sauks Disobey

In April 1832 Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi River near his old village grounds headed for the Winnebago village at Prophets Town, Illinois. The U.S. Army ordered the Sauks to return to the western bank of the Mississippi. Black Hawk refused. He and his tribe moved northeast. He stated his peaceable intensions to grow a crop of corn at the Winnebago village.

Illinois Governor Reynolds responded by calling out 1,600 Illinois Militiamen. Among them was militia Captain Abraham Lincoln, future president of the United States. Lincoln received a land grant in Tama County, Iowa for his service in the war.

The U.S. Army Misunderstands

The militia began pursuit of Black Hawk’s followers. An advanced detachment of about 75 militiamen scouted the Sauk camp. Black Hawk sent a party of three warriors with a flag of peace to meet the advancing soldiers. They were planning to arrange a meeting to communicate his peaceful intentions.

One warrior was shot. Two were taken prisoner. The action was witnessed by five other Sauk warriors sent to observe the initial contact. When the five warriors peacefully approached the militia camp, they too were fired upon by the Illinois militiamen. Two warriors were killed. The three survivors escaped and reported the events to Black Hawk. The chief prepared for battle.

A Slight Exaggeration

Meanwhile, the Illinois militia organized to advance on the Sauk village. In anticipation of attack the outnumbered Sauk warriors concealed themselves in the brush awaiting the approach of the 300 militiamen. The two groups made contact near Dixon, Illinois, in May. The Illinois militia delivered the first musket fire. When the Sauk warriors killed 11 soldiers. The militia retreated. When the terror stricken militiamen reached safety, they spread untrue reports that a force of 2,000 Sauk were in close pursuit.

By early June 1832 Illinois militia and U.S. Army troops renewed the pursuit of Black Hawk and his warriors through northern Illinois. Correctly presuming that more bloodshed was in the future, the Sauk traveled northward. They kept ahead of their pursuers and raided settlements at Ottawa and Galena, Illinois. They fought skirmishes at Stillman’s Run and Apple River, Illinois, and Pecatonca and Wisconsin Heights in Wisconsin Territory.

The Sauk are Slaughtered

The climax of the Black Hawk War occurred on August 1-2. The Sauk suffered from lack of food and supplies. They included wounded. Two columns of soldiers chased them. The Sauk attempted to surrender and cross the Mississippi River in present day Wisconsin.

As Black Hawk’s tribe prepared to cross the river, they were discovered by the crew of the government steamship Warrior. The Warrior fired cannon at their camp on the beach. In addition, the pursuing troops caught up with the Sauk—including women and children—the following day. They opened fire as the Sauk swam and canoed across the Mississippi. Approximately 300 reached the west bank where they were attacked by their Sioux enemies. The Sioux killed about half of the surviving Sauk. An additional 50 Sauk were captured on the east bank before they could flee.

Black Hawk managed to escape. He joined the Winnebago at the Dells of Wisconsin only to be turned over to U.S. custody on August 27, 1832. While a prisoner he was taken to visit President Andrew Jackson at Washington D. C. He later toured several eastern states as a curiosity. In 1833 he was released into the custody of his rival Chief Keokuk.

Iowa is Open to Whites

The Black Hawk War was the last armed resistance to white settlement in Illinois and Wisconsin and cost the lives of 70 settlers and soldiers as well as the lives of hundreds of Native Americans. Although none of the battles of the Black Hawk War were fought west of the Mississippi River, Iowa Territory benefited from the results. The Black Hawk Purchase Treaty of 1832 opened for settlement the eastern edge of Iowa Territory.


  • Gue, Benjamin F. History of Iowa. Volume 1 - The Pioneer Period. New York, New York: The Century History Company, 1903.
  • Jackson, Donald. Ed. Black Hawk: An Autobiography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1955.
  • Nichols, Roger L. Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1992.
  • Sage, Leland L. A History of Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
  • Seerley, H. H. and L. W. Parrish. History and Civil Government of Iowa. New York, New York: American Book Company, 1908.
  • Whitney, Ellen M. Ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. 3 Volumes. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970.


Written for Iowa Pathways by Michael Vogt.