Black Hawk Of Saukenuk.

As we discuss in another post, the Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox) tribes – while combined today into one Native American group – The Meskwaki Nation, living near Iowa City in Tama County – were, for most of their history, two separate tribes which shared many common experiences.

The word Sauk (Sac, Asakiwaki) means “people of the yellow earth,” while the Fox people (Meshkwahkihaki, Mesquakie, or Meskwaki) were known as “people of the red earth.” Both tribes are Algonquin-speakers – a word that comes from “alligewinenk” which means “come together from distant places.” The Algonquin (Sauk/Fox) language is unique, described by one historian as “soft and musical in comparison with the harsh guttural Narcoutah (language) of the Sioux.”

According to their oral traditions, both tribes were living in Canada 12,000 years ago at the time of the last glacial retreat. Many centuries later they were displaced from their Canadian home by the Iroquois, migrating through New England and New York to the area near Niagara Falls. By 1640, the Meskwaki (Fox) had settled at the west end of Lake Erie, near present-day Detroit, and the Sauk near Saginaw Bay in Michigan. In 1712, the decades-long Fox Wars began between the French and the Meskwaki, which almost led to the tribe’s extinction. Read more here. By 1735, the Meskwaki (Fox) had been driven southward into the Mississippi River Valley – what is now Iowa, Illinois and Missouri – where they joined with the Sauk tribes who had come here earlier – allied now to fend off Europeans and other hostile Native American tribes.

Over nearly a one-hundred year period (1735-1830), as the Meskwaki (Fox) people allied closely with the Sauk tribe, the Meskwaki settled, primarily, on the western sides of the Mississippi, while their friends – the Sauk people – lived on the east. During this season, both tribes traded freely with each other and with the French, and fought alongside the British, providing a lifestyle that was partially Native American, and partially European. While their villages and hunting grounds extended up and down the Great River from the Wisconsin in the north to well below the Des Moines in the south, there was one central location where, particularly the Sauk people, and many from the Meskwaki (Fox) tribe, called home. Today, we call this area – located near the Mississippi River – the Rock River Valley (see map above).

Here, on the shores of the Rock River, there were several Native American villages. According to Ferrell Anderson, a local archaeologist, one Meskwaki community – with a population of about 1,600, and made up of two rows of huts, about 30 total – was located in, what is today, downtown Rock Island. It’s this village where Chief Poweshiek was likely born in the late 1780’s. You can read more here.

And then, there was the amazing village of…

For nearly 100 years (1735-1830), the community of Saukenuk was well-known as one of the largest Native American villages in North America, Over the latter part of the 1700’s, the Sauk people had developed several villages in the Rock River Valley that were corporately called Saukenuk, but in 1808, the decision was made to consolidate into one city. In 1824, Thomas Forsyth, the U.S. agent for Native American affairs, stationed in Rock Island, wrote a report detailing this astonishing place…

Two miles up from the mouth of the Rock River was the grand Sauk village where the principal chiefs, braves and warriors reside … and where all the affairs pertaining to the Sauk Nation of Indians were transacted. Indeed, I have seen many Indian villages, but I never saw such a large one or such a populous one.

Other historians report that Saukenuk, in the 1820’s, had a population of around 6,000 souls. In the center of the city, there was a north-south and an east-west esplanade that formed a “T” intersection, with the east-west road defined by the river and the bluffs, and the longer north-south avenue – lined with 100 lodges and ending at a large gathering area and council lodge. The Sauk chief lived in a lodge located at the highest point of the city while the rest of the homes were multi-family lodges – as large as 40 ft. x 150 ft. – built of arched poles covered with bark or mats.

Behind the town, on the side of the ridge, were the amazing Sauk gardens – which extended about two miles, and was estimated to be about 800 acres of cultivation. Here, they grew a huge selection of corn, squash, beans, and melons. Records indicate that the Sauk lived what might be described as an affluent lifestyle by Native American standards. Many of the people dressed in European clothes and hunted with rifles, and when they did use arrows, they had metal tips, not stone. In the summer months, Saukenuk was a thriving metropolis, and in the fall, crops from their farms were stored in food pits. When winter came, the Sauk people crossed the Mississippi, wintering in southern Iowa and Missouri – near the Des Moines River – and returning to Saukenuk in the spring.

Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, as he was making his exploratory trip up the Upper Mississippi Valley, made a short stop in Saukenuk in August 1805. Read more here.

Finally – here’s how Saukenuk’s War Chief – Black Hawk described his hometown…

Our village was situated on the north side of Rock River, at the foot of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock River and the Mississippi . . . The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with blue-grass, which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out of the bluff nearby, from which we were supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock River furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes. We always had plenty – our children never cried with hunger, nor our people were never in want. Here our village had stood for more than a hundred years.

Now, allow me to introduce you to Black Hawk – whose name in the Algonquin language is Mahkatêwe-meshi-kêhkêhkwa (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak), which means Black Sparrow Hawk.

Born in Saukenuk in 1767, this Sauk war chief was the son of Pyesa – the tribe’s medicine man – and a descendant of Nanamakee (Thunderer) – a Sauk chief who, according to tradition, met an early French explorer, possibly Samuel de Champlain. At about age 15, Black Hawk distinguished himself by killing his first Osage warrior, placing him in the ranks of the braves. At age 19, he successfully led 200 men into another battle against the Osage, giving him more honor within his tribe. Soon after, he joined his father in a raid against the Cherokee along the Meramec River in Missouri, but when Pyesa died from wounds received in the battle, Black Hawk, while celebrated for his bravery, was now faced with a great deal of uncertainty when it came to his ongoing role within the tribe.

It’s important to identify here, before we go any further, how a young man such as Black Hawk could advance himself into Sauk tribal leadership roles. When Pyesa died, the young brave, after a season of mourning, was required to resume his work in leading raiding parties against their enemies. You see, being the son of an important tribal leader meant nothing to Black Hawk, because there was no leadership guarantees based on family. The only way to achieve status in the Sauk tribe was through your personal exploits as a warrior, so that’s why Black Hawk was ultimately called a war chief or war leader, since the nature of his office and the power that it wielded was based on his ability to enter into and win battles.

Read more about how Chief Black Hawk played a huge part in giving us our state’s name – Iowa.

That’s why, when the War of 1812 broke out, Black Hawk, now age 45, led a band of Sauk warriors to fight alongside the British against the United States. No doubt, he viewed the Brits as the lesser of two evils, but because of his victories – he led his group into battles at Campbell’s Island and Credit Island – Black Hawk came home hoping to be given more honor, despite the fact that the British lost the war. But much to his dismay, when the brave warrior returned back home to Saukenuk, he found that his arch rival – Keokuk – had become the tribe’s new war chief! But that was soon to become the least of his problems…

According to his autobiography, Black Hawk states that, after returning home from the war, he quickly realized that the victorious Americans, who had taken their victory over the British to heart, were now fully determined to conquer the West – pushing aside everyone and everything that stood in their path. By the end of the 1810’s, Illinois had become a U.S. state, and white settlers were flooding westward toward Saukenuk. Over the next decade, the Sauk people were surrounded by white men who wanted “those red devils” removed as quickly and efficiently as possible. And then it happened…

In the Fall of 1827, Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards called on President John Adams to remove all remaining Sauk & Fox (Meskwaki) tribes from his state. His demand was seen as “lawful” because, apparently, several representatives from the tribes had signed a treaty ceding their Illinois land (see map below) to the U.S. back in 1804!

Now, according to Black Hawk’s recollection (see below), this news came as a complete shock to the Sauk people living in Saukenuk. But, as it turned out, records show that on November 3, 1804, a Sauk tribal leader named Quashquame and three others traveled to St. Louis to rescue a tribesman who had been put in jail. While there, U.S. Representative William Henry Harrison gathered the men in a smoke-filled room, poured a lot of whiskey, and sweet-talked Quashquame to transfer all of the Sauk and Fox lands seen on the map above to the U.S. Government at such a time in the future when the United States asked for it. In return, Harrison guaranteed the Sauk & Fox tribes would be paid a ridiculous sum of only $1,000 per year!

Now, many historians to this day believe that this agreement was not a complete surprise to the Sauk tribe, but regardless, the deal truly sucked. And now, twenty-three years later, Illinois Governor Edwards was calling in his chips and making all of the remaining Sauk & Fox tribes vacate his state – including Saukenuk – by May 31, 1829!

So, here’s what Black Hawk said about this shady 1804 deal in his 1834 autobiography…

I guess, I can see why Black Hawk was a bit p-ssed off, can’t you? Again, from his autobiography, the Sauk War Chief explains his predicament…

When I call to mind the scenes of my youth and those of later days – 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 … for any earthly consideration.

So, as it turned out, Sauk Chief Keokuk (above) didn’t want to put up a fight and moved a good portion of the Sauk tribe to the west banks of the Mississippi prior to the May 1829 deadline. Black Hawk, on the other hand, refused to take the news lying down, and led a separate group of the tribe to leave Illinois temporarily, but continued to return to Saukenuk from their winter grounds over the next two years (1830 and 1831). This move obviously angered the Illinois governor, so in the spring of 1831, when Black Hawk returned, planting crops on his old property, the Governor called in 1,500 men from the Illinois militia to force the issue.

Ft. Armstrong on the Mississippi River.

When the militia arrived at Saukenuk on June 20, 1831, they found fresh footprints and fires still burning, but the Sauk had left town without a fight. In response, the militia burned the lodges, destroyed the crops, and vandalized the main cemetery, digging up many Sauk graves. Black Hawk, fearing the increase in violence, went to nearby Fort Armstrong, asking to sign a peace treaty which insisted that he permanently stay out of Illinois.

That treaty lasted only one year, primarily because the Sauk were finding it nearly impossible to grow enough food for their people in the less-than-tillable land they were assigned to. So, once again, in the spring of 1832 – facing starvation – Black Hawk brought about 1,000 of his people back into Illinois, looking to plant crops near their old homestead. This time, there were numerous skirmishes with both the Illinois militia and the U.S. Army, and Black Hawk’s people – on the verge of starvation – finally had to flee into Wisconsin. There, they were trapped at Bad Axe Creek, and on August 2, 1832, as the tribe was attempting to escape across the Mississippi, the end came. Black Hawk and his son – Whirling Thunder – were captured, while the militia killed hundreds of old men, women and children, as well as 150 Sauk warriors. Any survivors were removed to “Indian Territory” to the west, and from the perspective of the U.S. government, the Black Hawk War was “officially” over.

In a drive for more land, yet another set of peace treaties with the Sauk & Fox tribes were broken in the fall of 1832. All of the land the tribes had been “removed to” on the west side of the Mississippi was now purchased by the U.S. government on September 21, 1832 – in what was called The Black Hawk Purchase. Quite honestly, this was nothing short of a land grab, as the United States “purchased” six million acres of prime Iowa farmland from the Sac & Fox tribes for about 11 cents per acre. Ouch.

Above left – Black Hawk dressed for display on his U.S. tour. Above right – Massika, a Sauk tribesman, and Wakusasse, a Meskwaki, pleading for the release of Black Hawk following the Black Hawk War.

There’s so much more we can share with you that should make your blood boil. First, there was the inhumane treatment Black Hawk and others experienced sitting in jail cells at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. And, we won’t even attempt to mention the horrific details of the big U.S. Tour that President Andrew Jackson put together in 1833 as he paraded – and tried to ‘play nice’ – with the defeated and deflated Black Hawk, his son, and other Native American chiefs – all in front of thousands of gawking Americans gathered in big cities back east.

If anything good came out of all this “publicity”, it was near the end of Black Hawk’s imprisonment and tour when Antoine LeClaire sat down with the defeated war chief and recorded, in his own words, his complete story. You can read it for yourself here, and yes, I do recommend it, especially in these times when so many refuse to hear the true American story – one that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly!

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Following Black Hawk’s 1833 tour of the east, he was released and rejoined his people – the Sauk Nation living on the Iowa River in, what was then, unorganized land that eventually became eastern Iowa. When more of that land was sold (1836), he moved southward to the Des Moines River area, where during his last years, Black Hawk lived a calm life, reconciling with many of the white settlers and soldiers with whom he had fought against over the years. His life was one that was celebrated by his many friends, including James G. Edwards – editor of The Burlington Hawk-Eye, who, in 1838, renamed his newspaper and started a state-wide “Hawkeye nickname” campaign just to honor his old warrior friend. Read more here.

On July 4, 1838, Black Hawk gave a short farewell speech at Old Settlers Park in Ft. Madison, Iowa…

I was once a great warrior; I am now poor. Keokuk has been the cause of my present situation; but I do not attach blame to him. I am now old. I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now. I shake hands with you, and as it is my wish, I hope you are my friends.

Less than three months later – after a short bout with malaria – the brave Sauk warrior, Black Hawk, passed away on October 3, 1838 at age 71. He was given a sacred Native American burial ceremony on the farmstead of his long-time friend, James H. Jordan, a fur trader who owned 3,000 acres of land on the Des Moines River near Iowaville (see map above). His burial place is described in a letter published in Edwards’ Burlington Hawk-Eye in October, 1843:

It is constructed after the Indian mode of burial, by building a pen of round poles about ten feet long, and three feet wide, and about as high as a man’s shoulders when sitting on the ground. In the west end of this pen, the mighty Black Hawk was placed in a sitting posture, with his face toward the rising sun: his gun, tomahawk and blanket were placed at his side, and the pen covered over, leaving the head and neck above, and exposed to the weather.  His face was painted red and striped off with black, just as a living young Indian dandy paints when he goes a courting – thus conveying the idea to the living Indians, that their great chief had gone a courting to another world, where, should he receive the favor of the Great Spirit, he would be united to some squaw, who had passed the bounds of immortality and that there, they would be forever in the green hunting-grounds, where deer and elk abound, and no white man could come to molest them.

One biographer adds, “The writer of the above description of Black Hawk’s burial ought to have added that the old chieftain was buried in a swallow-tailed coat made from blue broad cloth, which was elaborately decorated with brass buttons, epaulets, etc.  After the ‘pen’ was completed, a plug hat, adorned with a broad red ribbon, was placed upon his head, and thus was left all that was mortal of the once powerful and warlike chieftain.”

So now, as we close, allow me one more despicable story that, at least, has a partially-edifying ending. First – the despicable…

In July 1839, an ugly act of profiteering occurred. A grave-robber from nearby Lexington, Iowa in Van Buren County – Dr. James Turner – broke into the burial site, and took, for himself, the head of the corpse, and some believe that he took the rest of the body as well. I will let you read the gory details here if you like, but suffice to say that Turner’s plan was to do with Black Hawk in death what President Andrew Jackson had done in life – parade America’s big-name war chief around the nation for personal profit. ‘Nuff said. Which now brings us to the good news of this horrific story. In February 1840, one-and-a-half years after Turner’s crime, a solid lead seems to have been discovered…

(JP-057) This rare postal cover and letter comes from Stephen H. Burtis of Montrose in Lee County, Iowa, was posted on February 12, 1840, and is addressed to Robert Lucas – Governor of Iowa in Burlington (City), Iowa. The letter was written on February 10 and indicates that Burtis – a farmer and Lee County board commissioner – and William Goodell – a Native American interpreter for Governor Lucas – have stumbled upon a big lead in the ‘Black Hawk missing remains’ case – which has been going on since the late summer of 1838 – just as Lucas was taking office as Iowa Territory’s first governor.

There are some historic records that indicate that Governor Robert Lucas did have an interpreter by the name of Goodell (John?), so it’s very likely that while communicating with the Black Hawk’s family members, Goodell would have certainly been actively involved. Records also indicate that the grave-robber – Dr. Turner – first escaped to St. Louis, before giving Black Hawk’s remains to a friend in Quincy, Illinois. So, the time frame seems to be correct in that records show that there was a good deal of time spent simply trying to hunt down Turner and the stolen remains.

(JP-057) The back side of the letter shows S.H. Burtis (Black Hawk’s remains). Lee County, Iowa historical records indicate that Stephen H. Burtis arrived in Iowa around 1834, built a log cabin very near Montrose – which at the time was Ft. Des Moines (see below), and was elected to the first county board of commissioners in March 1838. The area around Montrose has been occupied continuously since at least the 1780s, when Quashquame’s village (see below) – the Sauk leader who signed the 1804 St. Louis Treaty – was established nearby. The area was strategically important because it is at the head of the Des Moines Rapids, a major impediment to river traffic that caused large boats to land in this area and transfer freight overland to avoid the rapids. Montrose was the location of Fort Des Moines No. 1, a military post from 1834 to 1837. From 1839 to 1846 Montrose was the home of many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This was especially true in 1839 when many people lived in an abandoned barracks at Montrose that served as a good short term residence while homes were being built in Nauvoo. Among Montrose’s residents at this time were Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and Erastus Snow. Despite legends that the streets of Montrose were aligned to allow a direct view of the Nauvoo Temple across the Mississippi River in Illinois, the streets actually align with the 1834 layout of Fort Des Moines. So, with all that said, it’s feasible to reason that our thief – Dr. Turner – had a good friend in Quincy, Illinois who was tied in with this Mormon connection in Montrose.

There are three story variations that attempt to tell us what happened next. The first goes like this…

Governor Lucas finally did recover the stolen skull (and body?) of Black Hawk. The remains were found, as our letter correctly states, in Quincy, Illinois. In followup discussions with Black Hawk’s two sons – Nashashuk and Gamesett – the Governor and the family decided that Black Hawk’s remains were to be given to the Burlington Geological and Historical Society. As one author suggests, that decision might have been made in order to remove the possibility of any future grave-robberies that might be planned by others. The tragic part of this story comes when the Society’s building in Burlington burned down in 1855, with Black Hawk’s remains being destroyed as well.

Here’s story alternative #2 –

Once Governor Lucas recovered Black Hawk’s bones from Quincy, and after consultation with the family, he gave them to Enos Lowe, a Burlington physician, who was said to have left them to his partner, Dr. McLaurens. After McLaurens moved to California, workers were reported to have found the bones at his house, and the remains were then buried in Potter’s Field – a grave site in Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington.

And, finally, story alternative #3 –

Black Hawk’s body and skull were separated, so his skull was part of story #1 or #2, while some of his remains are still buried in a unmarked grave near the original Iowaville farmsite. As you can see (below), markers have been placed in two different locations – one in Burlington, and one in Davis County, Iowa, but, whoops, the plaque is dated incorrectly! Sadly, I doubt we will ever truly find Black Hawk’s final resting place short of some DNA samples, etc. But, based on the spiritual views of the Meskwaki – Sauk & Fox – people, I’m guessing the preference would be to simply leave Black Hawk alone – now that he was passed into a better place. In closing, I concur.

Over the years, many Americans of all color have come to admire Black Hawk’s courage in defense of his ancestral lands, and today, the Sauk War Chief has been elevated to the rank of a folk hero. A beautiful statue of Black Hawk was raised near the site of Saukenuk in 1892, and in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps redeveloped and improved the land into a park that today hosts the Black Hawk State Historic Site which includes the John Hauberg Museum of Native American Life. The state park is located in Rock Island, Illinois on a 150-feet high bluff overlooking Black Hawk’s beloved Rock River Valley.

Godspeed, Black Hawk. May we never forget your story.


DYK – January 11, 2023

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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Saukenuk once home to Black Hawk and more than 6,000 Sauk, Roger Ruthhart, Effingham Daily News, October 21, 2018

Saukenuk, Dean Klinkenberg, Mississippi Valley Traveler, 2009

Black Hawk State Historic Site, Wikipedia

Black Hawk (Sauk leader), Wikipedia

Life of Black Hawk – Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Antoine LeClaire,1834

Treaty of St. Louis (1804), Wikipedia

Quashquame, Wikipedia

Black Hawk War, Wikipedia

Black Hawk Purchase, Wikipedia

Fourth of July Remembrance: Chief Black Hawk’s Farewell Speech, ITC Staff, July 4, 2012

Where are Blackhawk’s bones? Historian disputes the final resting place of the Sauk chief, Ashley Duong, The Southeast Iowa Union, September 20, 2019

Where’s Black Hawk’s Grave?, Gary Spurgeon, Davis County Republican, July 5, 1962

Black Hawk–Mistreatment Continues, The Poweshiek Skipper Project

Black Hawk–the Final Days, The Poweshiek Skipper Project

Iowaville, Iowa, Wikipedia

Stephen Burtis, Lee County Pioneers Arriving Before July 4, 1840 Form Old Settlers Association in 1871, Lee County IAGenWeb

Stephen H. Burtis, Story of Lee County edited by Dr. S.W. Moorhead, 1914, p. 76, 104

Montrose, Iowa, Wikipedia

The Sac-Fox Annuity Crisis of 1840 in Iowa Territory, Michael D. Green, Arizona and the West Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1974), pp. 141-156

Black Hawk, Davis County, Find-A-Grave

Black Hawk, Burlington, Find-A-Grave


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