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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 the winter. 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.

Source: Chief Black Hawk, Black Hawk, An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), pp. 86­91.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook. (c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997

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