Modern History Sourcebook:
Chief Black Hawk
Chief Black Hawk (17671838) of the Sauk, or Sac, was
an opponent of United States expansion into his nation's territory.
His opposition, was of no avail, and his nation, like others,
was forced to resettle on reservations. Some idea of pre-reservation life survives because Chief Black
Hawk left an autobiography, dictated to a government interpreter
in the region, and edited by John B. Patterson, an Illinois journalist,
who published it in 1833. As a transcribed and edited oral source, its authenticity has
been questioned, but even though some of the language seems to
be Patterson's, there is much to suggest it does represent the
views of Chief Black Hawk.
The great chief at St. Louis having sent word for us to go down
and confirm the treaty of peace, we did not hesitate, but started
immediately, that we might smoke the peacepipe with him.
On our arrival, we met the great chiefs in council. They explained
to us the words of our Great Father at Washington, accusing us
of heinous crimes and divers misdemeanors, particularly in not
coming down when first invited. We knew very well that our Great
Father had deceived us, and thereby forced us to join the British
[Note: The Sauk supported the British in the War of 1812],
and could not believe that he had put this speech into the mouths
of these chiefs to deliver to us. I was not a civil chief, and
consequently made no reply: but our chiefs told the commissioners
that "what they had said was a lie!-that our Great Father
had sent no such speech, he knowing the situation in which we
had been placed had been caused by him! " The white chiefs
appeared very angry at this reply, and said they "would break
off the treaty with us, and go to war, as they would not be insulted." Our chiefs had no intention of insulting them, and told them so-"that
they merely wished to explain to them that they had told a lie,
without making them angry; in the same manner that the whites
do, when they do not believe what is told them!" The council
then proceeded, and the pipe of peace was smoked.
Here, for the first time, I touched the goose quill to the treaty-not
knowing, however, that, by that act, I consented to give away
my village. Had that been explained to me, I should have opposed
it, and never would have signed their treaty, as my recent conduct
will clearly prove.
What do we know of the manner of the laws and customs of the white
people? They might buy our bodies for dissection, and we would
touch the goose quill to confirm it, without knowing what we are
doing. This was the case with myself and people in touching the
goose quill the first time.
We can only judge of what is proper and right by our standard
of right and wrong, which differs widely from the whites, if I
have been correctly informed. The whites may do bad all their
lives, and then, if they are sorry for it when about to die, all
Is well! But with us it is different: we must continue throughout
our lives to do what we conceive to be good. If we have corn and
meat, and know of a family that have none, we divide with them.
If we have more blankets than sufficient, and others have not
enough, we must give to them that want. But I will presently explain
our customs, and the manner we live.
. . .
Our village was situate 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. In its front, a prairie extended to the bank
of the Mississippi; and in our rear, a continued bluff, gently
ascending from the prairie. [ In the 1882 edition the following
sentence appears here: "On its highest peak our Watch Tower
was situated, from which we had a fine view for many miles up
and down Rock River, and in every direction."] On the
side of this bluff we had our cornfields, extending about two
miles up, running parallel with the Mississippi; where we joined
those of the Foxes whose village was on the bank of the Mississippi,
opposite the lower end of Rock island, and three miles distant
from ours. We have about eight hundred acres in cultivation, including
what we had on the islands of Rock river. The land around our
village, uncultivated, was covered with bluegrass, which made
excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out
of the bluff, near by, 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,
during all which time we were the undisputed possessors of the
valley of the Mississippi, from the Ouisconsin to the Portage
des Sioux, near the mouth of the Missouri, being about seven hundred
miles in length.
At this time we had very little intercourse with the whites, except
our traders. Our village was healthy, and there was no place in
the country possessing such advantages, nor no hunting grounds
better than those we had in possession.
If another prophet had come to our village in those days, and
told us what has since taken place, none of our people would have
believed him. What! to be driven from our village and hunting
grounds, and not even permitted to visit the graves of our forefathers,
our relations, and friends?
This hardship is not known to the whites. With us it is a custom
to visit the graves of our friends, and keep them in repair for
many years. The mother will go alone to weep over the grave of
her child! The brave, with pleasure, visits the grave of his father,
after he has been successful in war, and repaints the post
that shows where he lives! There is no place like that where the
bones of our forefathers lie, to go to when in grief. Here the
Great Spirit will take pity on us!
But, how different is our situation now, from what it was in those
days! Then we were as happy as the buffalo on the plains-but now,
we are as miserable as the hungry, howling wolf in the prairie!
But I am digressing from my story. Bitter reflection crowds upon
my mind, and must find utterance.
When we returned to our village in the spring, from our wintering
grounds, we would finish trading with our traders, who always
followed us to our village. We purposely kept some of our fine
furs for this trade; and, as there was great opposition among
them, who should get these skins, we always got our goods cheap.
After this trade was over, the traders would give us a few kegs
of rum, which was generally promised in the fall, to encourage
us to make a good hunt, and not go to war. They would then start
with their furs and peltries for their homes. Our old men would
take a frolic (at this time our young men never drank). When this
was ended, the next thing to be done was to bury our dead (such
as had died during the year). This is a great medicine feast.
The relations of those who have died, give all the goods they
have purchased, as presents to their friends-thereby reducing
themselves to poverty, to show the Great Spirit that they are
humble, so that he will take pity on them. We would next open
the cashes [sic], and take out corn and other provisions, which
had been put up in the fall,-and then commence repairing our lodges.
As soon as this is accomplished, we repair the fences around our
fields, and clean them off, ready for planting corn. This work
is done by our women. The men, during this time, are feasting
on dried venison, bear's meat, wild fowl, and corn, prepared in
different ways; and recounting to each other what took place during
Our women plant the corn, and as soon as they get done, we make
a feast, and dance the crane dance, in which they join us, dressed
in their best, and decorated with feathers. At this feast our
young braves select the young woman they wish to have for a wife.
He then informs his mother, who calls on the mother of the girl,
when the arrangement is made, and the time appointed for him to
come. He goes to the lodge when all are asleep (or pretend to
be), lights his matches, which have been provided for the purpose,
and soon finds where his intended sleeps. He then awakens her,
and holds the light to his face that she may know him-after which
he places the light close to her. If she blows it out, the ceremony
is ended, and he appears in the lodge the next morning, as one
of the family. If she does not blow out the light, but leaves
it to burn out, he retires from the lodge. The next day he places
himself in full view of it, and plays his flute. The young women
go out, one by one, to see who he is playing for. The tune changes,
to let them know that he is not playing for them. When his intended
makes her appearance at the door, he continues his courtingtune,
until she returns to the lodge. He then gives over playing, and
makes another trial at night, which generally turns out favorable.
During the first year they ascertain whether they can agree with
each other, and can be happy-if not, they part, and each looks
out again. If we were to live together and disagree, we should
be as foolish as the whites. No indiscretion can banish a woman
from her parental lodge-no difference how many children she may
bring home, she is always welcome-the kettle is over the fire
to feed them.
The crane dance often lasts two or three days. When this is over,
we feast again, and have our national dance. The large square
in the village is swept and prepared for the purpose. The chiefs
and old warriors, take seats on mats which have been spread at
the upper end of the square-the drummers and singers come next,
and the braves and women form the sides, leaving a large space
in the middle. The drums beat, and the singers commence. A warrior
enters the square, keeping time with the music. He shows the manner
he started on a war party- how he approached the enemy-he strikes,
and describes the way he killed him. All join in applause. He
then leaves the square, and another enters and takes his place.
Such of our young men as have not been out in war parties, and
killed an enemy, stand back ashamed-not being able to enter the
square. I remember that I was ashamed to look where our young
women stood, before I could take my stand in the square as a warrior.
What pleasure it is to an old warrior, to see his son come forward
and relate his exploits-it makes him feel young, and induces him
to enter the square, and "fight his battles o'er again." This national dance makes our warriors. When I was travelling
last summer, on à steam boat, on a large river, going from
New York to Albany, I was shown the place where the Americans
dance their national dance [West Point]; where the old warriors
recount to their young men, what they have done, to stimulate
them to go and do likewise. This surprised me, as I did not think
the whites understood our way of making braves.
When our national dance is over-our cornfields hoed, and every
weed dug up, and our corn about knee-high, all our young men would
start in a direction towards sundown, to hunt deer and buffalo-being
prepared, also, to kill Sioux, if any are found on our hunting
grounds-a part of our old men and women to the lead mines to make
lead-and the remainder of our people start to fish, and get mat
stuff. Every one leaves the village, and remains about forty days.
They then return: the hunting party bringing in dried buffalo
and deer meat, and sometimes Sioux scalps, when they are found
trespassing on our hunting grounds. At other times they are met
by a party of Sioux too strong for them, and are driven in. If
the Sioux have killed the Sacs last, they expect to be retaliated
upon, and will fly before them, and vice versa. Each party knows
that the other has a right to retaliate, which induces those who
have killed last, to give way before their enemy-as neither wish
to strike, except to avenge the death of their relatives. All
our wars are predicated by the relatives of those killed; or by
aggressions upon our hunting grounds.
The party from the lead mines bring lead, and the others dried
fish, and mats for our winter lodges. Presents are now made by
each party; the first, giving to the others dried buffalo and
deer, and they, in exchange, presenting them with lead, dried
fish, and mats.
This is a happy season of the year-having plenty of provisions,
such as beans, squashes, and other produce, with our dried meat
and fish, we continue to make feasts and visit each other, until
our corn is ripe. Some lodge in the village makes a feast daily,
to the Great Spirit. I cannot explain this so that the white people
would comprehend me, as we have no regular standard among us.
Every one makes his feast as he thinks best, to please the Great
Spirit, who has the care of all beings created. Others believe
in two Spirits one good and one bad, and make feasts for the Bad
Spirit, to keep him quiet! If they can make peace with him, the
Good Spirit will not hurt them! For my part, I am of opinion,
that so far as we have reason, we have a right to use it, in determining
what is right or wrong; and should pursue that path which we believe
to be right- believing, that "whatever is, is right."
If the Great and Good Spirit wished us to believe and do as the
whites, he could easily change our opinions, so that we would
see, and think, and act as they do. We are nothing compared to
His power, and we feel and know it. We have men among us, like
the whites, who pretend to know the right path, but will not consent
to show it without pay! I have no faith in their paths-but believe
that every man must make his own path! When our corn is getting ripe, our young people watch with anxiety
for the signal to pull roastingears-as none dare touch them
until the proper time. When the corn is fit to use, another great
ceremony takes place, with feasting, and returning thanks to the
Great Spirit for giving us corn.
Chief Black Hawk, Black Hawk, An Autobiography, ed. Donald
Jackson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), pp. 8691.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997