Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006

In early April 1832, Black Hawk's band of Sauks—some two thousand men, women, and children, including several hundred well-armed warriors—crossed the Mississippi near the mouth of the Iowa River and began making their way north toward Saukenuk, their traditional summer village, at the junction of the Mississippi and Rock rivers (now within the city limits of Rock Island, Illinois). A startled American settler encountered them along the river road. They had come in peace to reclaim their village, the Sauks told him, "but if the Whites want War they shall have it."

That was precisely what many Americans wanted. Historian Kerry A. Trask makes this clear in Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, both a biography of the Sauk leader (Makataimeshekiakiak—"Black Sparrow Hawk"—in the Sauk language) and a history of the war that took his name, a war that was nothing short of an instance of American genocide. Trask quotes General Henry Atkinson, commander of a small force of US Army troops sent to patrol the northern Illinois frontier: "I will treat them like dogs," he sneered. "If Black Hawk's band strikes one white man[,] in a short time they will cease to exist!" Atkinson was blustering—he was unwilling to take on such a large force—but his rhetoric was commonplace. Indian hating, Trask understands, was part of the very character of American settler society. Atkinson wrote Illinois governor John Reynolds for assistance, warning that "the frontier is in great danger." Reynolds responded quickly. Facing reelection and sensing the political advantage of a quick and violent strike against a despised enemy, he called out the militia.

It was mid-May by the time several hundred disorderly volunteers, including a young captain named Abraham Lincoln, caught up with the Sauks along the Rock River. Thus far there had been no violence. Black Hawk had expected support from other tribes, possibly from the British in Canada as well, but none materialized. Now uncertain of his course and fearing for the safety of the women and children, he sent a delegation out to parley with the American officers under a flag of truce. Here was an opportunity to end the crisis. But eager for a fight, the Americans attacked, killing two of the Sauks. Believing himself (erroneously) to be greatly outnumbered, Black Hawk nevertheless thought he had no choice but to order his men to charge. It quickly turned into a rout. Confronted with fierce warriors, the undisciplined settlers panicked and fled in wild confusion. Soon Indians were raiding isolated settler cabins in the area, killing, scalping, taking captives, and terrorizing the entire region. There was an outcry for revenge. One editor urged Reynolds to "carry on a war of extermination until there shall be no Indian (with his scalp on) left in the northern part of Illinois." The modern term for extermination is genocide.

Like most violent conflicts between American settlers and Indians, the Black Hawk War was fought over land. There had been a long lead-up to this confrontation. The American position was that the Sauks had ceded their territory years before, in 1804, when General William Henry Harrison cajoled several minor chiefs to sign a treaty giving up all their lands east of the Mississippi, as well as some of their claims to the west, reportedly using whiskey to smooth the negotiations. Legitimate Sauk leaders protested as soon as they got news of the treaty, making it perfectly clear that as far as they were concerned it was null and void. The Americans ignored them.

This was typical American conduct, as legal historian Stuart Banner demonstrates in his important new study, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. "Fraud had been a basic element of Indian land purchasing since the seventeenth century," he writes. Not that legal procedure was unimportant. Despite the common belief that colonists simply took what they wanted by right of conquest, Banner shows that English colonial policy recognized Indians as legitimate owners of the land. That policy was continued by the American nation-state. If the colonies—or, later, the US federal government—wanted Indian land, it had to be purchased or otherwise obtained by cession through legitimate treaty. This policy, Banner argues, developed not out of respect for Indians but out of concern for settlers. After all, it was far less expensive to purchase land than to expend the blood and treasure required to seize it. And deeds of sale or treaties of cession provided a much firmer legal foundation for a property system than did wars of conquest. Banner acknowledges that raw power was important. As settlers grew stronger in relation to Indians, he argues, fraud and violence became more widespread. Yet the legal formalities were preserved. "What kind of conqueror takes such care to draft contracts to keep up the appearance that no conquest is taking place?" Banner asks. "A conqueror that genuinely does not think of itself as one."

The conduct of the Americans compelled the Sauks to fight alongside the British in the War of 1812. Black Hawk, then a vigorous man in his forties, led his warriors in many battles. Although not a hereditary chief, he established himself as a notable leader of his people. When the British withdrew from the region at the war's conclusion, Black Hawk was among those who placed their marks on a treaty of friendship with the Americans. Later, however, learning that the text of the treaty confirmed the 1804 cession, the Sauk leaders protested once again. During the negotiations, Black Hawk asserted, no mention had been made of land: The Americans "must have inserted in the treaty what was not explained to him and [his] friends." Since the Americans controlled the written record, it's difficult to know the truth. Trask takes the Sauks at their word, a conclusion fully supported by Banner's account.

In the aftermath of the war, the western country was overrun by American settlers (Illinois became a state in 1818). But for several years the Sauks lived in peace at Saukenuk. They grew and prospered. Sauk women worked the fields while Sauk men hunted for furs and hides to exchange with American traders for manufactured goods. Drawing on new scholarship (particularly the work of historian Lucy Eldersveld Murphy), Trask details the ways in which the Sauk were moving toward integration into the western economy, detailing the participation of Sauk women and men in mining and smelting lead, a resource abundant in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. There was strong local demand—lead was essential for making ammunition—and in 1820 alone the Sauks brought more than 500,000 pounds of it to market.

But rather than provide an avenue to integration, lead mining proved a disaster for the Sauks. Their success sparked the first great rush of Americans to northern Illinois. By 1828 more than ten thousand American miners had crowded into the boomtown of Galena, in the northwest corner of the state. Under cover of the supposed 1804 cession, the Sauks and other Indian miners were expelled from the lead fields. Farmers followed in the wake of
the miners. During the winter of 1828–29, while the Sauks were dispersed for their winter hunt, American settlers invaded Saukenuk itself. Returning the next spring the Sauks found many of their fields fenced and their lodges occupied by squatter families. Through that summer and the next, they made an attempt to live side by side with the Americans. But as one federal official candidly reported, "The squatters tried every method to annoy and trouble the Indians," shooting their dogs, stealing their horses, and destroying their crops, all the while selling them cheap whiskey, against the express wishes of leaders such as Black Hawk. The resulting conflicts—and there were many—were blamed on the Indians. In the spring of 1831, US troops, supported by a large and menacing force of Illinois militia, evicted the Sauks from their lodges at Saukenuk and pushed them across the Mississippi, warning them never to return.

Yet the Sauks retained a powerful emotional attachment to Saukenuk, with its extensive cornfields, abundant grazing meadows, and beautiful prospects. "When I call to mind the scenes of my youth," Black Hawk later recalled in a remarkable autobiography, "and reflect that the theatre on which these were acted had been so long the home of my fathers, who now slept on the hills around it, I could not bring my mind to consent to leave this country." By then a man in his mid-sixties, Black Hawk became the principal advocate for returning to Saukenuk and expelling the squatters, by force if necessary. The Sauks were divided over the issue. Fearing the consequences, many aligned themselves with Keokuk, yet another distinguished veteran of the War of 1812, who argued for remaining in the west, on the Iowa River, where the Sauks could build a new summer village.

In one of the book's most interesting sections, Trask details the role gender played in the decision of the majority to go back to Saukenuk. Taking up the war club and returning to the village, Black Hawk insisted, had become a question of manhood. The whites had brought a storm of injuries and injustices on his people. "Had I borne them longer without striking, my people would have said, ‘Black Hawk is a woman . . . he is no Sac!'" Trask is right to suggest that "such feelings must have been strong among Sauk men who were failing at most of their traditional responsibilities." At the same time Black Hawk made it clear he was acting in accord with the wishes of Sauk women. "Keokuk, who has a smooth tongue, and is a great speaker, was busy in persuading my band that I was wrong—and thereby making many of them dissatisfied with me. I had one consolation, for all the women were on my side, on account of their corn-fields." As one Sauk woman declared, since it was the women who worked the land, it actually belonged to them, not the men, so it was for the women to make the decisions about it. It is likely that women made up a majority of the band that recrossed the Mississippi in the spring of 1832.

After the rout of the Illinois militia, Black Hawk led his band into hiding in the inaccessible swampland of southeastern Wisconsin (then part of Michigan Territory). But facing starvation, after several weeks they made a desperate break to the west, hoping to cross the Mississippi again into safety. Several companies of reformed militia were hot on their trail. The chase ended at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, where the Sauks were attempting to cross. "We killed everything that didn't surrender," one soldier remembered. In fact, even those who attempted to surrender were killed, women as well as men. Children, too, were deliberately targeted. In the infamous words of one shooter, "Kill the nits and you'll have no lice." It is not known how many Sauks died. Dozens had already expired during their long trek, and perhaps as many as two hundred crossed the river successfully. But that left many hundreds stranded on the bank of the river to face the withering fire. Only thirty-nine were taken prisoner. The destruction of the Sauk at Bad Axe River on August 1, 1832, was one of the most infamous massacres in American history, and certainly qualifies as an episode of genocidal violence.

Banner does not mention the Black Hawk War. He allows that the violent seizure of land had become common in the nineteenth century; he also discusses genocidal episodes such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when Colorado militia killed at least two hundred Southern Cheyennes in an effort to remove them to a reservation in Indian Territory, and points to other similarly violent expulsions of Indians from their lands. But the weight of his argument downplays the importance of violent compulsion, weakening his otherwise outstanding contribution. White Americans may have been comforted by legal niceties, but Indian people knew all too well the pressure of the gun pressing against their heads.

In his concluding chapter, Trask is very hard on Black Hawk. It is true that the old man and several other chiefs abandoned the Sauks in the moments before the massacre. How often do generals die with their troops? But he survived only to surrender and be placed in chains. The Americans sent him east in an attempt to awe him with the power of urban America. Instead Black Hawk became a symbol of resistance to those Americans who opposed the violent removal of Indians. He returned to the Sauk village and dictated his autobiography, which in its day was something of a best seller and has since become an enduring classic for its narration of the native side of an important moment. Held back by his contempt for Black Hawk's limitations, Trask misses the opportunity to write more expansively about one of the great figures in American history.

John Mack Faragher, the Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History at Yale University, is the author, most recently, of A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland (Norton, 2005).