Native History: Alcohol and Murder Result in Theft of 50 Million Acres

According to the military, Black Hawk’s War began April 6, 1832. However, according to the autobiography of Black Hawk, there was no war at all.

This Date in Native History: On April 6, 1832 Black Hawk’s War began. The “war” was the culmination of a series of events that began in 1804 in a “small settlement of semi-savage white people,” according to Perry Armstrong’s book, The Sauks And The Black Hawk War With Biographical Sketches, Etc. The settlement was populated with very few women and many white traders, and there was a lot of alcohol.

In 1804, there was a party at the settlement to which Indian men and women were invited. A Sauk man became angry at the way a young white man was treating his daughter, and when he said so, the Sauk was thrown out, bodily. All of the participants were intoxicated, and the Sauk killed the white man.

Sandra Massey, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Oklahoma Sauk and Fox Nation, explained that the Sauk man was immediately brought in to authorities by his people, “to cover the blood,” and was sent to prison in Saint Louis. He had been a highly respected man among his people and the Sauks hoped that by speaking with the governor, they would gain his return. “The four men who went to free the man signed a treaty, but had no idea they were signing away so much land,” Massey said.


The Sauk could not get their man released from prison, but they did not want to return without him. With whiskey involved, promises were made, and the result was the Quashquamme Treaty of November 3, 1804, by which the Sauks were robbed of about 50 million acres of land, including Saukenuk, their homeland. The treaty was signed, and their man was finally released. He was shot down in the street almost immediately after.

The treaty went unknown to the Sac and Fox for many years. One of the conditions was that they could remain there until the land was sold. When emissaries came bearing poor quality gifts and a paltry $1,000 each year, it was simply assumed by the Sauks that they were gifts. It was years before they realized the gifts were annuities.

Quashquamme, the Sauk head-man, was among the four who signed the treaty. He insisted that he had only sold land on the east side of the Mississippi River. “You white men may put on paper what you please, but I tell you, I never sold any lands higher up the Mississippi than the mouth of Rocky River,” he said, according to Armstrong’s book.

Further, the treaty was declared illegal by then Missouri Gov. Benjamin Howard, who stated in a report that appears in Armstrong’s book that one of the boundary rivers in the treaty didn’t exist. “Therefore the treaty is null and void, of no effect.”

Once the real purpose of the gifts became clear, Black Hawk refused to accept them. He insisted that neither Quashquamme nor any of the others had authority to sign such a treaty, but the truth was ignored by the authorities. Frustrated, Black Hawk said in his autobiography, “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.”

In 1827, about a dozen white families moved onto the homelands of Saukenuk, and began to destroy the Sauk’s corn crops. They built fences and divided up the property, and abused any Sauk who tried to use the land that was still rightfully theirs to use, according to the treaty. The settlers ignored the Sauk, saying the land would be sold sooner or later, and they wanted their claim to it. Black Hawk appealed to the Indian Agent and the governor, but all of his complaints were ignored.

According to the military, Black Hawk’s War began April 6, 1832. However, according to Black Hawk’s autobiography, there was no war at all. Massey said Black Hawk brought women, children and elderly along, and while the men were prepared to fight if they had to, they were simply returning to their homelands for access to their cached crops. The governor had promised that when they left their homelands, food would be provided. When it was not, Black Hawk led his people home to Saukenuk because they would starve otherwise. The “war” never occurred.

Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma

Black Hawk has been revered by people and cultures throughout the United States for his leadership and integrity.

Known as a strong warrior all of his life, Black Hawk was equally known for fairness. He had spared even those who had threatened his own life. But his fearlessness preceded him, and the terrified settlers petitioned the government for protection when they saw Black Hawk’s band in the area. A month later, a massacre of settlers in Illinois was attributed to Black Hawk’s instructions, although he had nothing to do with it.

U.S. military records show a different story than Black Hawk’s report, as told in Armstrong’s book and other records. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, “The Illinois and Missouri State Militias maintained a presence on their borders to prevent an uprising. In March 1832 hostilities started the second phase. There were only two battles before Black Hawk was defeated and captured in August 1832. During the hostilities, 5,979 troops served for the Federal Government. Of this total, 4,638 were volunteer soldiers, the majority of whom were from Illinois.”

According to all other sources, Black Hawk surrendered. “He turned himself in,” Massey said. “He recognized that there was a government-to-government relationship, and that they had a right to sell their land to the government. He recognized that the treaty was invalid. If this happened today, he would win in a court of law. We pay honor to him on our tribal flag... he had that strong sense of justice.”

Bill Whittaker/English Commons

This statue of Black Hawk is on display at the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois.

In Armstrong’s book, written in 1887, Armstrong states there has never been a Christian who upheld the values, the charity, the forgiveness that Black Hawk did. As for how Black Hawk viewed the whites who had ruined the lives of his people, he said in his autobiography, Black Hawk’s Autobiography, edited by Roger L. Nicols.

“The white men are bad school masters; they carry false looks and deal falsely. They smile in the face of the Indian to deceive and cheat him. They shake us by the hand to gain our confidence, and make us drunk to ruin our wives. We told them to leave us alone, and keep away from us, but they followed on and beset our every path and coiled among us like so many snakes, whose touch was poisonous... My sun is setting... and I hear the voices of my sacred ancestors saying, Black Hawk, come away.”

Black Hawk was released in 1838, and though he rejoined his family and nation, his power as a leader had been completely usurped by another put in place and supported by the U.S. government.

This story was originally published April 6, 2014.