Farewell to Black Hawk – The Grief of a Defiant Leader

Farewell to Black Hawk – The Grief of a Defiant Leader

A hand-colored lithograph of Black Hawk by James Otto Lewis, 1836. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution – https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.79.90

On August 27, 1832, the Sauk leader Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) surrendered to the U.S. 6th Infantry at Prairie du Chien, ending several months of fighting in what is now called the Black Hawk War. The war was a consequence of the U.S. government’s Indian removal policies that continually forced Native peoples from their homes to places further west. In 1832, Black Hawk of the Sauk people, and a number of other Native tribes who joined forces with Black Hawk and came to be known as the “British Band,” returned to their homes in present-day Illinois. The Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox) tribes had ceded the land in the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis and then were forced to remove from the land after the “Corn Treaty” of 1831. But, many Native leaders disputed the Treaty of St. Louis because it had never been authorized by their tribal councils. This dispute, and years of mistreatment, led Black Hawk and his followers to cross the Mississippi into Illinois in 1832 to reclaim their lands. 

Black Hawk and his followers, who included women and children, were eventually met by U.S. militia forces. Without provocation the U.S. forces attacked Black Hawk’s group of non-combative Natives on May 14, 1832 in what has become known as The Battle of Stillman’s Run. Black Hawk responded by going on the offensive and enjoyed many early victories while forcing the white settlers in the area to flee to Chicago. These offensive assaults included some raids that were not directly related to Black Hawk’s objectives. One such raid was the Indian Creek Massacre that resulted in the death of fifteen civilians by a large war party of Potawatomi. But, after U.S. forces reorganized and gained the support of some Native tribes that were enemies to the Sauk and Meskwaki, Black Hawk and his followers were forced to retreat. After U.S. forces caught up with Black Hawk, they attacked him and his non-combatants after they attempted to surrender. Most of Black Hawks followers were then attacked while attempting to flee across the Bad Axe River. Called The Battle of Bad Axe, it is also known as the Bad Axe Massacre because it was a lopsided affair. An estimated 260 Natives were killed while U.S. losses were reported as five killed and nineteen wounded.

Upon his surrender to Indian Agent Joseph M. Street, Black Hawk gave one of the most widely known statements of Native defiance. The speech, which follows, was published in 1882 in a book by historian A.R. Fulton. While it’s impossible to know if these words were reported correctly, they do reflect the sentiment of defiance, anger, and grief expressed by Black Hawk in his autobiography and other statements.  

Farewell to Black Hawk 

You have taken me prisoner with all my warriors. I am much grieved, for I expected, if I did not defeat you, to hold out much longer, and give you more trouble before I surrendered. I tried hard to bring you into ambush, but your last general understands Indian fighting. The first one was not so wise. When I saw that I could not beat you by Indian fighting, I determined to rush on you, and fight you face to face. I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me; it began to look dismal. I saw my evil day at hand. The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire. That was the last sun that shone on Black Hawk. His heart is dead, and no longer beats quick in his bosom. He is now a prisoner to the white men; they will do with him as they wish. But he can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward. Black Hawk is an Indian.

He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, [the women and babies], against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian, and took at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.

An Indian who is as bad as the white men, could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and [eaten] up by the wolves. The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterers, lazy drones, all talkers, and no workers.

We looked up to the Great Spirit. We went to our great father. We were encouraged. His great council gave us fair words and big promises, but we got no satisfaction. Things were growing worse. There were no deer in the forest. The opossum and beaver were fled; the springs were drying up, and our [women and babies] without victuals to keep them from starving; we called a great council and built a large fire. The spirit of our fathers arose and spoke to us to avenge our wrongs or die…. We set up the war-whoop, and dug up the tomahawk; our knives were ready, and the heart of Black Hawk swelled high in his bosom when he led his warriors to battle. He is satisfied. He will go to the world of spirits contented. He has done his duty. His father will meet him there, and commend him.

Black Hawk is a true Indian, and disdains to cry . . . He feels for his wife, his children and friends. But he does not care for himself. He cares for his nation and the Indians. They will suffer. He laments their fate. The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse—they poison the heart, it is not pure with them. His countrymen will not be scalped, but they will, in a few years, become like the white men, so that you can’t trust them, and there must be, as in the white settlements, nearly as many officers as men, to take care of them and keep them in order.

Farewell, my nation. Black Hawk tried to save you, and avenge your wrongs. He drank the blood of some of the whites. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more. He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black Hawk.

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“The Defiance of Chief Black Hawk,” The History Engine, Accessed March 16, 2021, https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4638

Anthony F.C. Wallace, “Prelude to Disaster: The Course of Indian-White Relations Which Led to the Black Hawk War of 1832,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Summer, 1982, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Summer,1982), pp. 247-288.

Bob Blaisdell, Ed., Great Speeches by Native Americans, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000), pp. 84-85. 

“Indian Creek Massacre,” Wikipedia, Accessed March 18, 2021, Last Updated January 14, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Creek_massacre.

“Black Hawk (Sauk Leader),” Wikipedia, Accessed March 3, 2021, Last Updated March 9, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hawk_(Sauk_leader).

“Black Hawk War,” Wikipedia, Accessed March 17, 2021, Last Updated February 20, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hawk_War

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