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Black Hawk in Lee County, Iowa


Posted By: John Stuekerjuergen (email)
Date: 2/26/2015 at 11:24:50

With the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup several years ago, it reminded me of the team’s namesake. Black Hawk, the great Sauk war chief, was born in 1767 at what is now the south side of Rock Island, Illinois. Black Hawk spent considerable time in Iowa, as most of the Sauk tribal lands were there. He was a resident of Lee County near the end of his life, spending the winter of 1837-38 along Devil’s Creek. His home was no more than 8 miles southeast of West Point or 11 miles east of Donnellson.

Tribal Beginnings

The Sauk (sometimes called Sac), meaning People of the Yellow Earth, is one of the Algonquian tribes that originated in the northeastern part of the U.S. and southeastern Canada. They became closely affiliated with the Fox (Meskwaki) tribe, which was almost wiped out through various conflicts. Together, they were driven further and further westward by white settlers and military actions during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the early 1800s, there were Sauk villages at Rock Island (Saukenauk), Oquawka (Yellow Banks), and Lee County (Des Moines rapids of the Mississippi River). The Sauk would typically live in one place during the warm months to raise corn, squash, and other crops. They would move to another place for winter hunts and fur trapping. At the completion of “sugar making” in early spring, the tribe would move back to summer quarters.

Sauk skirmishes with other tribes were common and bloody. Black Hawk killed his first man by the time he was 15. He led war parties to victory before his 18th birthday. The first time he fought directly with U.S. forces, however, was at Fort Madison. During the War of 1812, he fought on the side of the British, participating in actions as far away as the banks of Lake Erie.

The Construction of Fort Madison

The Sauk chiefs were called to St. Louis by the U.S. government in 1804. The purpose of their visit was to obtain the release of a Sauk man who was imprisoned there. Upon their arrival, the chiefs were told the prisoner would only be released if they signed a cession for 50 million acres of land east of the Mississippi. The treaty also allowed the government to build a “factory” (trading post) in Sauk territory west of the Mississippi. The government hoped this new facility would weaken the Sauks’ reliance on the British for their merchandise. Black Hawk claimed later that the government did not fully disclose the terms of the treaty to the Sauks, who could not read. In any case, the treaty caused bitter, ongoing relations between the parties.

Four years after the treaty was signed, white men came up the Mississippi from St. Louis to build the trading post and a fort to guard it. Black Hawk was uncomfortable with their presence from the beginning. As he himself recalled it, “…a war chief, with a party of soldiers, came up in keel boats, and encamped a short distance above the head of the Des Moines rapids (in other words, upriver from Montrose) of the Mississippi River, and commenced cutting timber and building houses. The news of their arrival was soon carried to all the (Sauk) villages, when council after council was held. We could not understand the intention, or reason, why the Americans wanted to build houses at that place. But (we) were told that they were a party of soldiers, who had brought great guns with them—and looked like a war party of whites!”

“A number of our people immediately went down to see what was doing—myself among them. On our arrival, we found they were building a fort! The soldiers were busily engaged in cutting timber; and I observed that they took their arms with them, when they went to the woods. And the whole party acted as they would do in an enemy’s country!” The officers at the new fort told the chiefs they were building houses for a trader, who was coming there to live, and would sell the Sauk reasonably priced goods. That did not impress the Sauks, as they had previously found American goods to be inferior to those they bought from the British.

Uprising at Fort Madison

Fort Madison became the first U.S. military post in the upper Mississippi. The garrison originally numbered about 60 men of the First U.S. Infantry Regiment, and trading post employees lived outside the fort. In the spring of 1809, when the fort walls were still incomplete and only about five feet high, Black Hawk’s band made an unsuccessful attempt to rush the main gate. Black Hawk also participated in at least one assault on the fort in 1811.

During the War of 1812, Black Hawk again attacked Fort Madison. Sauk braves and about 200 Winnebagoes stealthily marched to the vicinity, arriving during the night (probably September 5). According to Black Hawk, “The spies that we had sent out several days before to watch the movements of those at the garrison, and ascertain their numbers, came to us and gave the following information: A keel arrived from (downriver) this evening with seventeen men. There are about 50 men in the fort and they march out every morning to exercise. It was immediately determined that we should conceal ourselves in a position as near as practicable to where the soldiers should come out, and when the signal was given each one was to fire on them and rush into the fort.”

“With my knife, I dug a hole in the ground deep enough that by placing a few weeds around it, succeeded in concealing myself. I was so near the fort that I could hear the sentinels walking on their beats. By day break I had finished my work and was anxiously awaiting the rising of the sun. The morning drum beat. I examined the priming of my gun, and eagerly watched for the gate to open. It did open, but instead of the troops, a young man came out alone and the gate closed after him. He passed so close to me that I could have killed him with my knife, but I let him pass unharmed.”

“The gate opened again when four men emerged and went down to the river for wood. While they were gone, another man came out, walked toward the river, was fired on and killed by a Winnebago. The others started and ran rapidly toward the fort, but two of them were shot down dead. We then took shelter under the river’s bank out of reach of the firing from the fort. The firing now commenced from both parties and was kept up without cessation all day. I advised our party to set fire to the fort, and commenced preparing arrows for that purpose.”

The Indians kept the fort under siege from September 6-8. However, the efforts failed. Their attempts to set fire to the fort were unsuccessful due to the soldiers’ use of gun barrels as water-filled syringes. Finding they could not take the fort, the Indians returned home, having one Winnebago killed and one wounded during the siege. However, after repeated tries the Winnebagoes, without the assistance of Black Hawk, were finally able to drive the soldiers from the fort in July 1813.

The Black Hawk War

The most significant and documented time of Black Hawk’s life was his involvement in a war in 1832 that came to be named for him. The war was yet another outcome of the dispute over the 1804 treaty that required the Sauk and Fox tribes to vacate their lands in Illinois. Black Hawk and others claimed the treaty was invalid because it had not been approved by the full tribal councils. He could not stand the thought of leaving his beloved Saukenuk village on the Rock River. His band of 500 warriors and 1,000 old men, women, and children chose to fight for the land they believed was theirs.

Starting with a war dance on the Mississippi shore in Keokuk, witnessed by some of the early settlers there, they headed north. However, their fight against the white militias did not end well. After being chased through much of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the Sauks suffered a decisive defeat near the mouth of the Bad Axe River. That is across the Mississippi River from what is now New Albin, Iowa.

He and the other defeated chiefs were stood before President Andrew Jackson on April 25, 1833. He was described as a hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed Sauk whose scalp was plucked bald except for a short tuft of hair on top. After temporary imprisonment at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, he and some of the other chiefs were paraded through many of the large, eastern cities where they drew huge crowds. They were later allowed to return to the Sauk lands, where they encamped along the Iowa River.

On Devil’s Creek

Eventually, Black Hawk was no longer allowed to live with members of his own tribe along the Iowa River, as he was seen as stirring up dissension. At around age 70, he moved to Lee County, spending considerable time along the Skunk River, an area he called his favorite hunting ground. He passed the winter of 1837-38 along Devil’s Creek. The creek starts between West Point and Fort Madison, and flows southward into Sugar Creek. The confluence is just southwest of the current intersection of Highways 2 and 61. During Black Hawk’s time on Devil’s Creek, white settlements extended only 40 west of the Mississippi.

At that time, Black Hawk was described as rather small in stature, and very slight, not weighing much over 125 pounds. He was bald and shriveled. At home, he would dress in the style of the other chiefs and draped a blanket over his shoulders. When in public, he customarily wore a fine broadcloth suit, a high silk hat, and moccasins. He often carried a pipe (and a fan in summer).

He always had but one wife, Asshewequa (Singing Bird), over the course of 40 years. His two sons were Nasomsee and Nasheakusk. The older son was seen as a one of the most promising braves of the tribe. The boys passed their time mainly by hunting deer, wild turkeys, and prairie hens. His daughter, Nauasia, was said to be a great beauty and a popular dance partner at social occasions in Fort Madison.

Black Hawk’s home was described as a large wickiup (brush shelter), but must have been more substantial as it contained some furniture and mattresses. He spent considerable time learning to use mechanical tools and improving their dwelling. One room was devoted to his relics and possessions. He had at least 12 large leather trunks with mementoes he brought back from the east. Among his valued possessions were medals from Presidents Jackson and Madison, and the British government.

Black Hawk welcomed visitors to his home, and his wife routinely handed out gifts of maple sugar. He also visited some of the white settlers in their homes and was known to appreciate a good meal, a healthy slice of mince pie, and coffee.

William Carroll Reed, one of the earliest settlers in the Fort Madison area, lived no more than a mile away. He first met Black Hawk in the fall of 1837. One of Reed’s first impressions was that Black Hawk’s disposition was fairly meek and mild for one who had been a fierce warrior and taken scalps in his youth. His spirit seemed to have been broken.

The second time Reed saw him, Black Hawk left his home to go to Fort Madison for whiskey. Later in the day, he returned home. Reed could see that he had been drinking, but was still “walking tall.” Black Hawk, Reed observed, “could drink an awful lot of whiskey and never show any effects of it.” Reed said he did not regard him as a drunkard. Most importantly, Reed came to see him as a good family man and a good neighbor.

Hawkins Taylor, then a resident of West Point, Iowa and later a member of Iowa’s first territorial legislature, was a periodic visitor in Black Hawk’s lodge. Taylor expressed high regard for Black Hawk and his family.

A Sighting in West Point

There were no doubt times that Black Hawk visited West Point, Iowa as it was one of the closest settlements to his home. On one of those occasions, William Patterson, one of the town’s founders, saw Black Hawk ride toward the center of town. He had the same formal dress and soldierly posture described by others. Some ladies sent for him to come to the parlor of a hotel on the square where they had gathered. [Writer’s note: This may have been the inn that Patterson himself started and operated.] Black Hawk went to see them as requested.

An individual by the name of John Stout, described as an “ignorant, rough old countryman,” was already in the room. It was believed that Stout knew only enough of the Sauk language to get himself in trouble. For some reason, he yelled to Black Hawk “Puck-a-chee!” Maybe he thought it was a greeting. Maybe he just wanted to say something in Black Hawk’s tongue. Unfortunately, that word translates as “leave here” or “go away.”

Black Hawk rose indignantly, his eyes flashing fire. He walked out majestically, mounted his horse, and left town at once.

At about the same time, he was introduced in another nearby town to several women, one with very fine hair who gave him a tomahawk. Black Hawk patted her on the head, looked over to his son, and said, “What a beautiful head for scalping!”

His Final Year

In the spring of 1838, the family built a new home along the Des Moines River in Davis County. But Black Hawk was called back to Ft. Madison to deliver an address on July 4, the date on which Iowa became a territory. “It has pleased the Great Spirit that I am here today,” he said. “I have eaten with my white friends…A few winters ago I was fighting against you. I did wrong, perhaps; but that is past, it is buried, let it be forgotten…I was once a great warrior. I am now poor…I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the Great River. I look upon it now.” On October 3 of that year, after a seven-day illness, he died at his home in Davis County.

Black Hawk’s Legacy

The Sauk war chief is the namesake for various colleges and lower-level schools, counties and other governments, and the oldest newspaper in Iowa. The term “Hawkeye State” was suggested in his honor by James Edwards, then editor of the Fort Madison Patriot and later editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye. There are also, of course, the military helicopter and the combat film Blackhawk Down.

First and foremost, Black Hawk was a successful leader of men. He was not a physically imposing man, and was not technically even a tribal chief. However, men eagerly followed him on the warpath. Ultimately, though, he was overwhelmed by the sheer number of white settlers and militias who pushed his tribe from the Mississippi valley.

Sports trivia: I believe Black Hawk is the only individual for whom a major professional sports team is named. Actually, there are two teams. I already mentioned the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL. The other team may be a challenge even for avid sports fans. It is the Atlantic Hawks of the NBA. The Hawks’ franchise descended from the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, started in 1946 in Moline, Illinois. Red Auerbach was their coach. The team later moved to Milwaukee, where the team name was shortened to Hawks. It then moved to St. Louis and, finally, Atlanta.


Lee Biographies maintained by Sherri Turner.
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