Lesson Plan 12: Diplomatic Misunderstandings: Indian Treaties and the Black Hawk War

By Tara Dirst

  • Students will discuss the U.S./Native American treaty process of the early 19th century.
  • Students will evaluate Black Hawk's interpretation of the signing of 2 treaties.

Materials Needed:

  • Overhead projector or a laptop with Internet access and a projector
  • Computer with internet to play the James Lewis video clip 
  • Primary document packet which contains:
    • Excerpts from Treaty with the Sauk and Foxes, Nov. 3, 1804, 7 Stat., 84
    • Indian Agent Felix St. Vrain's My 15, 1831 letter to General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs
    • Excerpts from Black Hawk's account of the signing of the 1804 treaty
    • Excerpts from historian Benjamin Drake's response to Black Hawk's account of the 1804 treaty
    • Excerpts from Treaty with the Sauk and Foxes, May 13, 1816, 7 Stat., 141
    • Excerpts from Black Hawk's account of his signing of the 1816 treaty

Time Required:

One 50 minute class period. This might go over to the next period depending on the amount of discussion.

Student Preparation:

Students should read the appropriate textbook section that deals with the Black Hawk War.

Example textbook: Danzer, Gerald, et al. The Americans. "Settlers and Native Americans." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 281.

If the textbook does not include information specifically about the Black Hawk War, this lesson plan can optionally be used during any discussion about American Indian treaties in the early 19th century, or during discussions of Indian removal west of the Mississippi in the 1830s, or during a discussion about the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Notes for the Instructor:

  • If the internet is not available, the introduction video can be skipped. Instead, ask the students to reiterate what the textbook had to say about the origins of the Black Hawk War.
  • Some possible answers to the suggested questions are in italics after the questions.
  • The words Native Americans and Indians are used interchangeably throughout this lesson.
  • The full text of Black Hawk's Autobiography and of the 2 treaties are available on Lincoln/Net (under Texts).


Watch the Real Video available online: James Lewis, Ph.D. Origins of the Black Hawk War. (2:08 minutes -- FYI, the video stops abruptly).

After watching the video, ask the students to reiterate what James Lewis said were the major reasons for the Black Hawk War. [Questions on the validity of the 1804 treaty, increasing western settlement]

Class Discussion:

Show the excerpt from the 1804 treaty on the projector.

Suggested Questions:

  • What do you think the meaning of Article 7 is?
  • Might this have anything to do with what James Lewis said about the treaty not being enforced immediately?
  • Why have the treaty if it wasn't intended to be enforced immediately? [The U.S. wanted to create the foundation for the U.S. being the only legitimate diplomatic partner with the Native Americans -- part of the conflict with the British (think of how the British sought Native American allies to help in the American Revolution).]
  • Might the Indians have been confused about the meaning of Article 7?

Have one student, multiple students, or yourself read aloud St. Vrain's letter to William Clark. (Put it on the projector as well.)

Suggested Questions:

  • If Article 7 may not have been clear to the Indians, what do you make of it not being understood by St. Vrain?

Have one student, multiple students, or yourself read aloud Black Hawk's account of the signing of the 1804 treaty. (Put it on the projector as well.)

Suggested Questions:

  • Ask the students to reiterate Black Hawk's problems with the treaty-making process. (Write this list on the board; leave room for each issue to have a counterargument by Drake.) [Black Hawk stated that the men who went to St. Louis were not authorized to sell land; they were there to get one of the tribe released from prison. Instead of returning with the captured Indian, they returned to state that they had sold land (mostly West of the Mississippi). Black Hawk also says they were drunk most of the time. Black Hawk also states that they certainly would not have sold all of the property stated in the treaty for only $1000/year.]
  • Black Hawk asks the people of the United States "to say whether our nation was properly represented in this treaty? Or whether we received a fair compensation for the extent of country ceded by these four individuals?" From his account, does it seem fair?
  • What are the diplomatic problems you see with this kind of treaty making? [Indians not authorized to make decisions were considered legitimate by the U.S. government. The U.S. government didn't make any effort to determine that these people would have such authority. Alcohol, supplied by the U.S. government, rendered Native Americans ill-suited to participate in such treaty meetings. The U.S. government used other diplomatic missions (trying to secure the release of an Indian prisoner) to seek different objectives (purchase of land.)]
  • British/Colonial American/Indian treaty missions in the 17th and 18th centuries were more akin to the process of Native American treaty missions with other Indians. The different head councils of the tribes would gather and exchange gifts; the agreement would be hashed out over multiple meetings; the agreement was generally not formalized in writing; both groups would be expected to remember the terms of the agreement after much reiteration of the aspects of the treaty -- objects would be given to symbolize the agreement (silver chains, and later medals). What is different about this particular treaty meeting as described by Black Hawk? [It was a more formalized legal document which is unclear how much of the content was really explained to the Indians.]

Have one student, multiple students, or yourself read aloud Drake's (a 19th century historian) account of the 1804 treaty. (Put it on the projector as well.)

Suggested Questions:

  • What does Drake say in response to Black Hawk's criticisms of the 1804 treaty? (Write his counterarguments on the board next to Black Hawk's assessment.)
  • So what does Drake have to say about the legitimacy of the Indians who made the treaty? ["It has not been the practice of our government, it is believed, in its negociations with the Indians, to institute particular enquiries for the purpose of ascertaining, how far the chiefs were authorized to act by their people"] What do you think of his argument? Should the U.S. government have tried to assess the authority of the given Indians who were signing treaties?
  • Does Drake say anything about the alcohol abuse that Black Hawk talked about? [No, but he does state "the treaty was publicly made, and a number of high-minded and honorable men, are parties to it, in the character of commissioner, secretary, and witnesses" which may insinuate a level of competency - even on the part of the Native Americans, although not explicitly stated.]
  • What does Drake say about why the Indians would be eager to participate in this treaty?["They owned a very large extent of territory, and had, comparatively, but a limited population. It was natural that they should wish to dispose of some portion of it, for the purpose of receiving an annual supply of goods and money."] Does this seem like a legitimate argument to you?
  • Why does Drake think that the Indians didn't really have a problem with the treaty? ["They never disavowed the treaty, but have regularly received their annuity, and, on more than one occasion, have recognized it, as binding."] What do you think about this argument? Think about what we said about Indian treaty expectations to remember and reiterate the nature of such treaties (as stated above.)
  • What does Drake think specifically about Black Hawk not recognizing the legitimacy of the 1804 treaty? ["Even Black Hawk and his band, made this recognition, in the treaty of peace which they signed with the United States, at Portage des Sioux, in 1816."] Does this seem like a logical argument? Think about Article 7 of the treaty.
  • Overall, what do you think of Drake's claims? Do they adequately counter Black Hawk's statements? Do you think Black Hawk still had a legitimate grievance?

So, Black Hawk and St. Vrain didn't understand the 1804 treaty. St. Vrain was writing in 1831, long after an 1816 treaty which was signed by Black Hawk himself (as described by Drake). Drake thinks Black Hawk's criticisms of the 1816 treaty are invalid. Let's look at the 1816 treaty, and Black Hawk's comments on that!

Show the excerpts from the 1816 treaty on the projector.

Suggested Questions:

  • Mucketamachekaka (Black Sparrow Hawk) is Black Hawk's mark of signature. How does this impact your view of Black Hawk's contention that the 1804 treaty was illegitimate when he signed this treaty in 1816 reaffirming the content of the 1804 treaty?
  • Does this treaty clarify the point of Indian removal? [St. Vrain didn't say anything about this treaty in his 1831 letter, and presumably he didn't think it did clarify anything - since really all it says is that it reaffirms the 1804 treaty (which still has the unclear Article 7.)]

Have one student, or yourself read aloud Black Hawk's account of the signing of the 1816 treaty. (Put it on the projector as well.)

Suggested Questions:

  • What do you think of Black Hawk's argument?
  • Do you think it would be likely that the Indians would sign a treaty and not understand what they were agreeing to?
  • Black Hawk doesn't describe any consensus-building, or active discussions, just that the treaty was signed. Does this indicate a change in diplomatic relations between the Indians and the U.S. government from the 18th to the 19th centuries?
  • If so, why do you think this might be?

Conclusion Questions:

  • Do you think the U.S. government engaged in deceitful negotiation practices with the Native Americans?
  • What societal changes (both in Indian society and U.S. society) caused the Native Americans to lose their ability to conduct treaty activities with a positive outcome for themselves?
  • What role does power play in these kinds of interactions? Economics?
  • Are there examples today that you can think of where weaker nations accept agreements with stronger nations that are not in their best interest? Why do you think that occurs?


Have the students write a 1-page essay describing the events behind the 1804 and 1816 treaties, and their assessment of U.S. diplomatic interactions with the Indians.

State Standards Addressed:

  • 16.A.5a Analyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings).
  • 16.C.3b (US) Explain relationships among the American economy and slavery, immigration, industrialization, labor and urbanization, 1700-present.
  • 16.D.3a (US) Describe characteristics of different kinds of communities in various sections of America during the colonial/frontier periods and the 19th century.

References Used:

Deloria, Vine, Jr. "Native American Treaties: Diplomacy and Legality." Native Americans. Ed. Donald A. Grinde, Jr. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002. 29-36.

Hallwas, John E. "Black Hawk: A Reassessment." The Annals of Iowa 44.8 (Spring 1981): 599-619.

Metcalf, P. Richard. "Who Should Rule at Home? Native American Politics and Indian-White Relations." Journal of American History 66.3 (December 1974): 651-665.

Acknowledgments: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this lesson plan under the We the People Project.