By James Lewis, Ph.D.
Ultimately, the Black Hawk War was a conflict over land. By 1832, the federal and state governments insisted that the Sauks and Foxes had no remaining rights to land in Illinois. Black Hawk and his band of Sauks and Foxes insisted that they had never given up their claims to the lands that they had lived on for one hundred years.
At the center of this dispute was a treaty between the Sauks and Foxes and the United States that had been signed in St. Louis in November 1804--almost three decades earlier. This treaty included a number of provisions that were intended to promote peace, friendship, order, and trade between the two parties. In Article 2 of this treaty, however, the Sauks and Foxes agreed to cede to the United States all of their lands east of the Mississippi and some of claims west of it. In exchange, they would receive one thousand dollars in goods from the United States every year.
From the American perspective, this treaty was binding and legal. It had been negotiated by William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory (which included Illinois in 1804), who had been officially authorized for this purpose. Once he submitted the treaty to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn (the cabinet official responsible for Native American affairs at the time), it had gone through the same process as any other treaty. It was submitted by President Thomas Jefferson to the Senate, approved by at least two-thirds of the Senators, and declared formally ratified in January 1805.
The Sauks and Foxes saw things very differently. On their part, the treaty had been negotiated and signed by four men. But none of them were important chiefs; furthermore, none of them had been authorized by the Sauk and Fox tribal councils to negotiate a land cession. They had gone to St. Louis and met with Harrison to quiet the tensions created when some of their young warriors had murdered a number of white settlers. After the treaty was signed, they insisted that they had not intentionally ceded away any land. The Sauk and Fox tribal council, moreover, informed the Americans that the four negotiators had been in no position to do so.
What the Americans saw as a perfectly valid treaty, the Sauks and Foxes viewed as the invalid result of either an honest misunderstanding or deliberate fraud.
In the thinking of Governor Harrison, Secretary Dearborn, and President Jefferson, the November 1804 treaty with the Sauks and Foxes represented a successful end to a policy that had been set in motion almost two years earlier. In early 1803, Jefferson had written Harrison outlining a new policy for the Native Americans east of the Mississippi. His thinking was influence by his belief that the French would take possession of Louisiana, the vast province that extended from the western bank of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to British Canada.
Jefferson hoped to live in peace with both the French and the Native Americans. This seemed much easier to achieve with the latter than with the former. Peace between Americans and Native Americans, Jefferson believed, would happen once the Native Americans changed their ways. They would have to stop hunting, commit all of their efforts to farming, begin spinning thread and weaving cloth, and end their wars with other tribes. By doing these things, they could blend with other Americans and become one people. As they made this shift, moreover, they would be willing to abandon much of the land that they kept as hunting grounds, but would no longer need as farmers.
Jefferson eventually expected all of this spare land to be made available to American settlers. In early 1803, however, he urgently wanted Native American lands on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. By placing American settlers along the river from its source to its mouth, Jefferson hoped to have, within just a few years, enough militiamen on the frontier to protect the United States from French Louisiana. He recognized that many of the Native Americans in this critical strip along the Mississippi might not be ready to abandon their culture; if they preferred to continue hunting, however, they would have to agree to remove west of the river.
In early 1803, Jefferson assigned Harrison a major role in putting this policy into execution. Harrison was responsible for the east bank of the Mississippi from the Ohio River in the south to the Canadian border in the north. By the time that he signed the treaty with the Sauks and Foxes in late 1804, however, the diplomatic context had changed. The United States, not France, possessed Louisiana. But Harrison still seized his opportunity to advance Jefferson's original policy.
The Treaty of 1804 did not lead to the immediate removal of the Sauks and Foxes from the lands east of the Mississippi; under Article 7, they could remain on their land as long as it was in the possession of the U.S. government. But it did change their relations with many of their neighbors--American, Native American, and British.
The Sauks and Foxes had not been pleased when the Americans replaced the Spanish in Louisiana in early 1804. Their economic and diplomatic interests had benefitted from having an option of trading with the Spanish or the Americans. When Harrison and other U.S. officials insisted on the validity of the Treaty of 1804, it placed a great strain on an already tense relationship.
But the Sauks and Foxes soon found themselves in the same position as many of the other Native American groups north of the Ohio. Harrison's aggressive treaty-making during Jefferson's presidency (1801-1809) resulted in extensive cessions throughout the region that left a number of tribes disgruntled. The efforts of two Shawnee brothers--the war leader Tecumseh and the prophet Tenskwatawa--helped to transform this resentment into action. Together, they called for a rejection of European tools and ways and an end to land cessions. The Sauk and Fox villages were far removed from the center of Tecumseh's and Tenskwatawa's power in northeastern Indiana. At a time when thousands of men and women from dozens of tribes were moving to or visiting Prophetstown, most of the Sauks and Foxes remained in their villages and never fully accepted the Shawnees' message.
Native Americans were drawn together by their resentment of the aggressive policies of the United States and the rapid influx of American settlers at the same time that relations between the United States and Great Britain were becoming more tense. Closer ties between the British in Canada and the Native Americans north of the Ohio followed naturally. Increasingly, British officials and forts, particularly Fort Malden opposite Detroit, received regular visits from warriors in search of advice and gifts. To American officials and settlers in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky, this development was alarming.
The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain began in June 1812, but fighting between the United States and the northwestern Native Americans had begun six months earlier. In November 1811, Governor Harrison led a force of Indiana and Kentucky militia in the destruction of Prophetstown in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Native resentment against the United States grew. War belts circulated among northwestern tribes even before the War of 1812 formally began.
Still, many tribes did not immediately enter the war on the side of the British. Some, including the Sauks and Foxes, hoped to remain uninvolved. But the war made it very difficult for the U.S. government or American traders to provide the supplies and annual payments expected by the tribes, while the British still offered guns, powder, shot, and other items. Over time, more and more native warriors joined or launched raids on American forts and settlements. Black Hawk led groups of Sauk warriors in a number of attacks during the war: Fort Madison in September 1812, Frenchtown in January 1812, Fort Meigs in May 1813, and Detroit in July 1813.
Many tribes and tribal councils remained divided, however. During the war, American officials persuaded neutral Sauks and Foxes to separate from the rest of their tribe. Roughly 1500 of them moved, first, to the mouth of the Des Moines River on the western bank of the Mississippi and, then, further west up the Missouri River. When Black Hawk returned from fighting with the British, he discovered that almost a third of his people had left their old homes.
Black Hawk and other Sauk and Fox warriors continued raiding during the final two years of the war. But they also found it necessary to devote more attention to defending their own homes and villages from the Americans. In July and September 1814, the Sauks turned back American attacks that even threatened Saukenuk itself.
While the War of 1812 ended in early 1812, many northwestern Native Americans continued to fight for months afterward. Though furious with the British for abandoning them, they still hoped to recover the lands that they had lost in the previous two decades. In 1815 and 1816, these tribes gradually signed treaties with the United States ending the fighting. The Sauks were among the last to do so. After storming out of a peace council made up of many tribes in July 1815, they finally signed a treaty in May 1816.
This treaty, unlike the earlier treaty from 1804, was signed by twenty-two Sauk chiefs and leaders including Black Hawk (under the name "Black Sparrow Hawk"). Intended mainly to reestablish peace between the Sauks and the United States, it also included, as Article 1, a confirmation of the Treaty of 1804 with its immense land cession. Black Hawk would later insist that neither he nor any of the other Sauks understood that, by placing their marks on this treaty, they were acknowledging the earlier treaty.
After the War of 1812 and the Treaty of 1816, the Sauks and Foxes maintained contact with the British, though these meetings no longer had a diplomatic or military component. Every year or two, Black Hawk and other Sauk and Fox warriors visited the British either at Fort Malden or, increasingly, at Drummond's Island in Lake Huron. There, they received gifts and met with British officials and traders and other Native Americans.
These meetings remained a cause of some concern for U.S. officials and American settlers, but were not nearly as alarming as they had been on the eve of the War of 1812. What officials worried about more was the intermittent warfare between various native groups. From the American perspective, warfare between the Sauks and Foxes and the Osages, or the Sioux and the Ojibwas, or the Sauks and Foxes and the Sioux always threatened to spill over into American settlements or to harm American traders. It also seemed to slow the process of transforming Native Americans into "civilized" Americans. American officials regularly called councils to try to arrange peace between various native groups. At one of these councils, in August 1825, thirteen Sauks and sixteen Foxes signed another treaty confirming that they had no land claims east of the Mississippi.