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The Origin of Our Name

Blackhawk Area Credit Union gets its name from the leader of a tribe of Native Americans that once inhabited northern Illinois.

Black Hawk was a much-maligned man during his lifetime. People of the day thought him a "blackguard cutthroat," and as a matter of fact, he did have a few notches on his tomahawk. Throughout his lifetime we was revered as a crafty and courageous warrior. Black Hawk was called "quarrelsome" and "surly" and was accused of causing fear and uncertainly among the settlers in the area bordered by the Rock and Mississippi rivers which included Stephenson, JoDaviess, Carroll, Ogle and Winnebago counties. However, his autobiography shows a different side of Black Hawk.

Life Story is Requested

Near the end of his days, the Indian requested that his life story be written. He wanted the world to know he was not the villain he had been made out to be. He told it to a United States government interpreter.The autobiography has been reedited and published repeatedly and scoured for discrepancies by historians throughout the years. Most believe the book is a fairly accurate account of Black Hawk's involvement in the war. Black Hawk was a Sauk (Sac) Indian noted for his resistance to the westward movement of the white man in Illinois.

People of the Yellow Earth

The tribal name, Sauk, comes from Osakiwug, meaning "People of the yellow earth." The tribe belonged to the Algonquin linguistic stick, as did the Fox and Kickapoo. The Algonquins originated in eastern Ontario, Canada. Black Hawk was born in 1767 near where the Rock River flows into the Mississippi. His native village, known as Saukenuk, was said to be the largest Indian community in the country. The Sauk tribe probably had a population of 11,000 at that time. A residential section of Rock Island reposes there now. The Sauk village was remarkable -- laid out in lots, blocks, streets and alleys. There was a village square surrounded by hodenosotes, or lodges which were long bark-covered loghouses measuring from 30 to 100 feet long and from 16 to 40 feet wide. Many of them housed an entire family, from grandparents down through grandchildren. A point on the bluff, 150 feet high, was called Black Hawk's Watchtower. In surrounding white oak trees, the Sauks built lookout platforms as smoke signal stations. Black Hawk's Indian name was Makataimeshekiakiak. He was the same age as Andrew Jackson, the man whom a dejected Black Hawk would confront before a watching nation when his cause went down in a defeat. Black Hawk was almost six feet tall and in later years thin and hollow cheeked. His nose was hooked at the end like the beak of the bird for which he was named. His eyes were black and beady and his "scalp plucked bald except for a short tuft of hair on top." He usually wore a headdress of animal hair that stood coarse and plumed on the top of his head. In his more virile years he was a formidable-looking personality.

Was He a Chief? A Medicine Man? A Warrior?

Historians differ on his status among the Indians. Some say his father was a chief; others that he was a medicine man. Some say Black Hawk became a chief himself. Tilden's 1880 Stephenson County (Illinois) history calls him a chief of the Sac and Fox nations and a noted warrior. Others say he was never a chief but merely a leader in battle. In his biography Black Hawk tells of falling heir to the great medicine bag of his forefathers and of holding it sacred for the rest of his life. It was likely a bundle made of skins, fabric or birch bark and contained a collection of charms, braids of sweetgrass, a buffalo tail, a hawk skin and other objects thought to have magical powers. Of skirmishes with the Osage Indians "who had committed aggressions on our people" Black Hawk talks openly of "falling upon" 40 lodges killing all their inhabitants "except two squaws whom I captured and made prisoners." He said that during the attack "I killed seven men and two boys, with my own hand." He was about 35 years old at the time. In another portion he told of refraining from attacking a group of six warriors and "thought it cowardly to kill them - so took them prisoners."

His People Suffer Injustice

Treaty of 1804Black Hawk tells of the injustice his people suffered in the negotiation of the Treaty of 1804 which ceded all of the land of the Sac and Fox nations east of the Mississippi and "south of the Jeffreon" to the United States for one thousand dollars a year. The land totaled more than 500 million acres. He said only three Indian representatives were in on the bargaining and they were drunk and could not later recollect what was said and done. Blackhawk blamed this treaty for all the difficulties but there were years of conflict caused by the encroachment of the white settlers on the red men's domain. The Indians were finally forced to cross over the "father of waters" and locate among the Iowa Indians. Black Hawk was staunchly opposed to this but as Illinois and government authorities moved in he was forced to comply. Later in rejection of the terms of the treaty he returned with a band of followers to the Illinois side of the river. A large force of the U.S. Army was raised and marched against him. Black Hawk's band was victorious at first, but the whites were aroused and the battle was on.

Historic battles occurred throughout northwest Illinois and southern Wisconsin but the pitiful numbers of the Indians were soon squelched, and the bloody little war lasted only a few weeks. Indian men, women and children were shot and clubbed to death as they fled in retreat into the waters of the Mississippi. The Black Hawk War is said to be the first in which Indians used horses. In losing the war, the Sauks were forced into the Iowa Territory to join the Fox tribe. In 1842, the tribe ceded this Iowa land in exchange for land in Kansas. Then, in 1867, the Sauks ceded the Kansas land and some moved to Oklahoma Territory and some moved back to Iowa, settling at Tama. In 1831, there were about 6,000 Sauks living at Saukenuk. Today, there are only a few in the nation.

He Contradicts Stories of Murder

"Before I take leave of the public," Black Hawk told the interpreter at the conclusion of his story, "I must contradict the stories that accuse me of having murdered women and children among the whites. This is false I never did, nor have I any knowledge that any of my nation ever killed a white woman or child.." He said his hand had never been raised against any but warriors. "It has always been our custom to receive all strangers that come to our village or camps," he said, "to share with them the best provisions we have, and give them all the assistance in our power. If on a journey, or lost, to put them on the right trail - and if in want of moccasins, to supply them. "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 has none, we divide with them. If we have more blankets than sufficient, we must give to them that want."

Captured Black Hawk Taken on Tour

Black Hawk, along with his two sons, was imprisoned after the war and taken as a captive on a tour of major eastern cities. He was paraded along the streets perhaps in an attempt to discourage further resistance by the Indians. The government's explanation was that it was to show him how useless it was to oppose the might of the United States. Throngs gathered to see him. The old chief, sorrowful but maintaining his dignity, gained the admiration of the country. He became a hero in the eyes of the nation instead of a "bloodthirsty savage." He said in the future the white man would always be welcome as a brother in his nation's villages. "The tomahawk is buried forever." Blackhawk died on Oct. 31, 1838, on a reservation near Des Moines, IA. His body was placed in a small shelter in Indian fashion. Later his bones were removed to a historical society building in Burlington, IA, where they were lost in a fire. Black Hawk may well be remembered by the words he used in speaking to president Andrew Jackson: "I am a man and you are another."

(Main article written by Harriet Gustason; used with permission of The (Freeport, IL) Journal Standard; additional material from other various sources.)