Black Hawk's recrossing of the Mississippi into Illinois in early April 1832 ended a period of rising tensions that stretched back at least to the spring of 1828. In May 1828, the Sauks and Foxes' agent, Thomas Forsyth, informed the tribal chiefs that they should begin making preparations to abandon their villages, homes, and farms east of the Mississippi in accordance with the treaties of 1804, 1816, and 1825. The chiefs denied that they had ever ceded any of their lands east of the Mississippi and north of the Rock River. This position strained the relations between the tribes and both the federal government, which wanted to start selling the land on the Rock, and the state government, which wanted to clear all of the remaining Native Americans from Illinois.
As the pressure from Forsyth and William Clark, the federal superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis, mounted over the next two years, tensions also emerged among the Sauks and Foxes. Some chiefs still insisted that the tribe had never knowingly ceded its Illinois lands. If a treaty said otherwise, they claimed, it must be the product of American trickery: the U.S. commissioners must have told the native negotiators (who could not read english) that the treaty said one thing, but actually written into it something else. By the spring of 1829, Black Hawk had become a constant and forceful supporter of this view. Other chiefs decided that, since the Sauks and Foxes could not possibly resist the United States by force, removal across the Mississippi was necessary, even if undesireable. Keokuk, Black Hawk's principal rival, accepted this argument. After remaining in Saukenuk in the summer of 1829 to preserve peace and order, he crossed the Mississippi in the fall vowing never to return.
According to Forsyth, Keokuk and the chiefs who had removed to Iowa permanently viewed Black Hawk and the Sauks and Foxes who remained east of the Mississipi as "Mutinous." Both American and Sauk and Fox observers frequently called them the "British Band," a term that derived from their occasional visits to Canada and that distinguished them from the rest of the tribes. "If any Indians did attempt to return [from their winter hunting west of the Mississippi] to reside at Rocky River" in the spring of 1830, Keokuk informed Forsyth, "they must take their chances." They could no longer expect the protection of the tribal council and all of the Sauks and Foxes. Still, Black Hawk and other Sauk and Fox warriors and families did return in the spring of 1830 and, after another year of increased tension, in the spring of 1831.
By the spring of 1831, even Black Hawk had recognized that the white settlers who had begun to purchase Sauk and Fox lands--including parts of Saukenuk itself--were not going to leave. The few hundred who returned that year did so because they viewed it as a sacred place and a home that could not simply be abandoned without being removed by force. They also tried to use the 1804 treaty to their advantage. It had said that the Sauks and Foxes could stay on their lands as long as they were in the possession of the United States. Since not all of the lands had sold, Black Hawk and others claimed the right to return to the others.
To Illinois Governor John Reynolds, however, the return of Black Hawk's band in the spring of 1831 could only be viewed as an "actual invasion of the State." Many of the settlers along the Rock agreed, fleeing their farms for safety further east. A war scare emerged. Reynolds quickly informed Superintendent Clark that he had decided to call out a militia force of seven hundred mounted soldiers, who would remove the Sauks and Foxes "dead or alive over to the West side of the Mississippi." Clark immediately passed this letter on to General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, the commander of the Western Division of the U.S. Army. Gaines assured the governor that he would send his troops from St. Louis to Saukenuk and would take charge of the discussions with the Sauks and Foxes east of the Mississippi. But he also accepted Reynolds's offer of mounted militia in case the crisis got out of hand.
By early June 1831, Gaines had moved his headquarters to Rock Island, within a few miles of Saukenuk, and begun meeting with the Sauk and Fox chiefs and leading warriors. The chiefs still claimed that they had never ceded the land north of the Rock. But Gaines's unwillingness to allow them to remain even long enough to harvest their corn, coupled with his acceptance of Keokuk's proposal that he provide the Sauks and Foxes with corn for the winter, led many families to recross the Mississippi after these early meetings.
The Sauks and Foxes who remained by mid-June insisted that they would not leave the homes of their forebears. "My fathers were great men," Black Hawk angrily reminded Gaines at one point, "and I wish to remain where the bones of my fathers are laid." With many of the Sauks and Foxes about to leave or already gone, Black Hawk sought support from some of the nearby Kickapoos, Potawatomis, and Winnebagoes (including a Winnebago prophet, White Cloud, whose village was further up the Rock River).
Reluctant to start a war until he was certain that his force far outnumbered Black Hawk's, Gaines waited. But the arrival of Governor Reynolds and fourteen hundred Illinois militiamen near Rock Island on June 25, 1831, gave Gaines a more-than-adequate force. He sent the armed steamboat Winnebago up the Rock, placed his artillery near Saukenuk, and readied his troops. During the night, the remaining Sauks and Foxes recrossed the Mississippi. Gaines demanded that they come to Fort Armstrong for a council meeting. On June 30, Gaines and Reynolds forced Black Hawk and the chiefs of the "British Band" to sign "Articles of Agreement and Capitulation." Under this agreement, the humiliated Black Hawk agreed to remain west of the Mississippi, to stop visiting British posts in Canada, and "to submit to the authority of the friendly Chiefs & Braves," including Keokuk. When he signed this agreement, Black Hawk later recalled, he "was determined to live in peace."
Even with Black Hawk and all of the Sauks and Foxes removed west of the Mississippi, tensions remained high in the summer and fall of 1831. Anti-Native American sentiment raged in Illinois and throughout the West. Settlers dug up native graves, beat up native men, and shot at native livestock without any real reason. The Sauks and Foxes who had reluctantly left their villages and homes resented such treatment. They also grew frustrated when the government failed to provide all of the corn that they would need to survive the winter. A few men recrossed the river to harvest whatever corn, beans, and squash they could from their old fields, leading to new conflicts.
When combined with this anti-Native American sentiment, the governor's views insured that any new dispute would end in an explosion. Governor Reynolds had emerged from the 1831 crisis even more worried about the few Native Americans who remained in Illinois. Writing to the secretary of war in July 1831, Reynolds alerted the federal government to "a village of bad Indians on Rock River"--the home of the Winnebago prophet White Cloud. The governor made it perfectly clear what would happen in a future crisis. "If I am again compelled to call on the Militia of this State," he warned, "I will place in the field such a force as will exterminate all Indians, who will not let us alone."
If Black Hawk had known Governor Reynolds's intentions, he might not have led eight hundred or so Sauks and Foxes, along with about two hundred Kickapoos, back across the Mississippi nine months later. He did not want war, certainly not a war of extermination directed against his people and their allies. But he was prepared to defend his people.
At least four factors fueled Black Hawk's return. For one thing, he clearly hated the idea of submitting to the authority of his rival Keokuk and the tribal chiefs who had abandoned their homelands without a fight. During 1830 and 1831, however, most of the dissident chiefs whose authority Black Hawk did respect died. They were succeeded by a number of young men, who lacked the caution and experience of their predecessors. The most important of these was Napope, a member of the Sauk tribal council. With Napope and the Winnebago prophet White Cloud at their head, Black Hawk, the other dissident Sauks and Foxes, and distinct groups of Kickapoos and Winnebagos formed themselves into what was effectively a separate tribe with its own council and war leaders.
While this step freed the British Band from the restraining hand of the Sauk and Fox leaders, other developments brought them back east of the Mississippi. First, White Cloud invited them to settle permanently at his village on the Rock (now Prophetstown, Ill.). Even though it was not Saukenuk and did not include the lands where their forebears were buried, the prophet's village was near their old homelands and far from the Sauk and Fox tribal council. Second, Napope, who had visited the British at Fort Malden in the summer of 1831, returned with pledges of British support, though he had clearly invented them. Still, he reported that the British believed that the Sauks and Foxes had a right to their Illinois lands and that they would provide aid--including men, guns, powder, and shot--if the Americans tried to drive them off by force. Finally, in the spring of 1832, White Cloud told Black Hawk that, if the Americans attacked the Sauks and Foxes, they would be joined by other tribes and by a British force that would come down Lake Michigan.
Stirred up by the lies of Napope (a chief) and White Cloud (a prophet), Black Hawk took his dramatic step in April 1832. He hoped to return his people to their homes, or at least to lands on the Rock River, and to restore his honor as a warrior, which had suffered from the humiliation of capitulating to Gaines and Keokuk nine months earlier. And he believed that he could force the Americans to accept the justice of Sauk and Fox claims and to admit the injustice of their own demands and actions.