By the 1830s the process of removing Indian tribes from lands in the eastern United States to accommodate white settlers had been embraced by President Andrew Jackson, many in Congress and the bulk of the population at large. Few were apologetic, believing that the tribes and their homes were obstacles to the spread of a superior civilization.
Native claims to eastern lands had often been guaranteed "forever" in treaties with the U.S. government in the early decades of the 19th century. However, the unstoppable westward drive of white settlers convinced authorities that many of those agreements should be scrapped and new ones negotiated that would assign the tribes to less desirable areas west of the Mississippi River.
Weakened by protracted warfare and motivated by bribes and threats, most tribes could not resist relocation. A few, however, took stands against expulsion and resorted to armed resistance or sought the protection of the courts.
In the Old Northwest, the Sauk and Fox had maintained a homeland in the area along the Rock River, close to where it empties into the Mississippi (the vicinity of modern Rock Island, Illinois). In 1804, under somewhat dubious circumstances, the tribes surrendered their claims and agreed to eventually relocate across the Mississippi.
They were allowed to retain temporary possession of their homeland until white settlers arrived in sufficient numbers to warrant the land's subdivision and sale an event that did not occur until the 1820s. Not all Fox and Sauk supported this treaty and some did not feel bound by its provisions. Skirmishes between the races were frequent.
Black Hawk (1767-1838), a war leader of the Sauk and Fox, was an outspoken critic of relocation and had a history of being a thorn in the side of the U.S. government. He had fought with the British in the War of 1812 and maintained relations with officials in Canada in later years.
By 1830, most of the Sauk and Fox had resettled west of the Mississippi under the leadership of Black Hawk's younger rival, Keokuk, whose moderation and willingness to relocate were welcomed by government officials.
In 1831, Black Hawk, who had briefly moved to present-day Iowa, joined with some of his followers and crossed the Mississippi to reclaim their homes in Illinois. Nervous officials there, and in the neighboring Michigan Territory, summoned militia units. The threat of force was sufficient to induce Black Hawk to sign a new accord, the so-called "Corn Treaty," that recognized the 1804 agreement's validity. Black Hawk retreated again to Iowa.
A harsh winter in 1831-32 reawakened sentiments among the Sauk and Fox for returning to the more hospitable environment of their former home. In April 1832, Black Hawk led more than 400 warriors and their families back to the Rock River where they planted their corn for the coming year.
The Indian intention should not have appeared warlike. Less than one-fifth of the Sauk-Fox population migrated, the majority of them women, children, and older people. Nevertheless, the Illinois governor again called up the militia and requested regular U.S. Army soldiers.
In May, the tense situation began to spin out of control when a Sauk emissary, under a white flag of truce, was shot and killed by a militiaman. In retaliation, Black Hawk and his warriors surprised a militia encampment with a nighttime attack.
The resulting conflict was hardly a war in the traditional sense. The natives under Black Hawk's command retreated northward ahead of the combined militia and regular forces, moving from northern Illinois into present-day southwestern Wisconsin.
One encounter of note occurred on July 21 at Wisconsin Heights, where Black Hawk demonstrated great skill in avoiding a crushing defeat, but paid a heavy price in the lives of his dwindling number of warriors.
The climax came in early August where the Bad Axe River flows into the Mississippi. On August 1, Black Hawk, under a white flag, attempted to surrender to forces aboard the steamboat Warrior, but the vessel's suspicious captain opened fire, killing and wounding a number of Black Hawk's followers.
That evening, Black Hawk decided to continue the northward retreat, but the bulk of the native force chose to remain and make a stand. On the 2nd, the Sauk and Fox were decisively defeated on the banks of the Bad Axe. Over an eight-hour period, soldiers slaughtered fleeing Indians indiscriminately.
Black Hawk took refuge with the Winnebago, but was later handed over to U.S. forces and temporarily imprisoned in St. Louis. He lived out his life on tribal lands in Iowa and died in 1838.
Seventy settlers and soldiers, and hundreds of Black Hawk's band died as a result of the Black Hawk War, which also signaled the end of conflict between settlers and Native Americans in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Native resistance to relocation occurred roughly simultaneously among the Cherokee and Seminole in the South.
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