History of the Quad-Cities, Part 1: Black Hawk



Black Hawk

For many of us living in the Quad Cities, the names and places that surround us have become commonplace and perhaps, overlooked. Places like Black Hawk College, the Rock Island Arsenal, and the city of Davenport bear the names of the historical figures and structures on which rest the foundation of the Quad Cities. But because we see them every day, we may not always realize what they truly stand for, and what actions took place to construct the Quad Cities we know today.

Whether we are talking about the international happenings that shape our global society, or the regional events that form our local society, we must first study the history that shaped us. Knowing our history will give us an idea of where we came from, so that we can better direct where we are going. Like all great stories, to fully understand them, we need to start at the very beginning.

Before the streets were developed and thousands of Americans settled in the area, Native Americans inhabited the area we now know as the Quad Cities. Migrating to the area from other parts of the Midwest and Canada, the Sauk and Fox Indians formed an alliance after conflict with the French almost annihilated the Fox tribe. The allied tribes settled next to the Mississippi River, on land that would later become Illinois and Iowa. Finally, it seemed the two tribes would be able to enjoy peace and growth in an area of great value.

The Indians in the area traded and had friendly relationships with the European fur traders of the area. By the time the American Revolution erupted, the Indians’ trading association with the British had grown strong enough for the Indians to support the British cause in the war. To the revolutionary Americans, anyone found supporting the British deserved punishment. Around 1781 or 1782, an angry American force reportedly burned down the Sauk village near the river. Their act would forever be ingrained in the minds of the Sauk and Fox people, especially the Sauk warrior, Black Hawk.

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution. Among the repercussions of the war was the Northwest Territory, a territory including much of the Midwest, which was given to the Americans. Despite their loss, the British traders continued their business with the Indians and even provided weapons to an Indian confederacy which formed to resist the American traders and settlers who came to do business.

Though their connections with the British continued after the Revolution, the real troubles between the Americans and the Sauk and Fox tribes truly began in 1804. In November 1804, four Sauk chiefs and two Fox chiefs traveled to St. Louis to negotiate the release of a Sauk brave charged with killing a white man. The chiefs met with the Governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, a future President of the United States. During their visit, Harrison convinced the men to sign a treaty promising the U.S. the land currently inhabited by the Sauk and Fox tribes on both sides of the Mississippi River.


William Henry Harrison

 According to the treaty, the tribes would be allowed to live on the land as long as it remained government property, meaning that if the land ever went up for sale and was purchased by settlers, the tribes would be required to leave. In many accounts of this story, Harrison is accused of using unethical means to gain the chiefs’ approval of the treaty, including intoxicating them. Regardless of the ethical dilemmas, the treaty was signed, and the chiefs went on their way. In addition, after the Indians again fought the British in the War of 1812 and lost, other Indian leaders signed another treaty, confirming the terms of this 1804 treaty in an ethical way. Unfortunately, the Sauk brave in American custody had been shot while trying to escape.

At first, the consequences of this treaty seemed to be nonexistent. Until the late 1820s, nothing changed in the American treatment of the Sauk and Fox tribes or in the tribes’ way of life. But after the building of Fort Armstrong on Arsenal Island, American settlers felt the area was safe enough for development. The actual private settlement of the land by citizens of the United States was a complicated affair. For years, a dispute would arise over whether the land in what would later be Rock Island could be purchased by citizens or whether it still belonged to the government. But while the Americans fought among themselves, the Sauk and Fox tribes found their claim to the land completely overlooked by both parties.


          Painting of Fort Armstrong

Confusion ensued each year, when the Indians would leave for their annual winter hunting trip, leading settlers to believe they had left for good. In spring, when the tribes returned, they would find more and more settlers had taken their land. Naturally, conflicts arose. Both the settlers and the tribes appealed to the United States government. To avoid a military removal of the Indians, the Federal Government instead tried to nudge the Indians out by putting Sauk land up for public sale. Included among those who bought the Sauk land were Colonel George Davenport and Russell Farnham, who together purchased 80 percent of the land.

Wanting to evade conflict, the Sauk chief, Keokuk, a rival of Black Hawk’s, urged his people to cross the river and settle on the Iowa lands. A majority of the Sauk and Fox tribes followed him. But a defiant group, led by Black Hawk, refused to leave the Illinois lands they had held for years. Black Hawk still harbored the resentment of the burning of his village by American troops. This resentment, combined with the distress of leaving his home, pushed Black Hawk to be uncooperative. After a brief dispute with the American military, Black Hawk finally signed a treaty, promising to leave Illinois and never return.


Black Hawk’s rival, Chief Keokuk of the Sauk tribe

Black Hawk and his followers crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa lands but did not stay there for long. In early 1832, Black Hawk was mistakenly informed of tribes around the area that were willing to help his band of Sauk braves to reclaim their land. Black Hawk had even been told that the British could supply them with weapons and support.

In April 1832, a hopeful Black Hawk and company once again entered the Illinois lands, telling the worried American officials of their plans to live and farm with another tribe in the area. Black Hawk made his way to a local tribe, hoping they would support his cause. Unfortunately, he found no support from any tribe. By this time, the American troops of Fort Armstrong had assembled and followed Black Hawk’s band. Discouraged, Black Hawk sent messengers to the American troops to discuss a peaceful return to Iowa.

The troops assembled for this mission consisted of a few volunteers eager to fight Indians. Upon seeing the peaceful Sauk messengers, these anxious men fired and sparked what would soon be known as the Black Hawk War. In retaliation to his men being shot, Black Hawk and his braves attacked the Americans, and though they were greatly outnumbered, the braves managed to frighten the inexperienced troops enough to win the first battle.

The Black Hawk War, however, would prove to be incredibly detrimental to Black Hawk’s followers. After 15 weeks of fighting, the War culminated at the Battle of Bad Axe, where the majority of Black Hawk’s band, including women, children, and the elderly, were killed. Black Hawk and a few braves escaped but were captured and brought to St. Louis to discuss the war ending treaty.


Native Americans fleeing at the Battle of Bad Axe

The Treaty of 1832, also known as the Black Hawk Purchase, ceded about 6 million acres of land to the United States government, including land in eastern Iowa. The treaty also recognized Keokuk as chief of the Sauk Indians, provided food to the Sauk and Fox women and children whose husbands and fathers were killed in the war, and gave portions of land to Antoine LeClaire, the American interpreter, for the kindness he showed to the tribes.

The Black Hawk War, whose purpose had been to reclaim Sauk and Fox land, actually caused the further loss of Indian land. Following a trip to the East Coast, including a stop in Washington, D.C. to meet with President Andrew Jackson, Black Hawk returned to Iowa lands, where he eventually died. The War ended over 200 years of armed Indian resistance to American advance.

The land so carefully settled and farmed by the Sauk and Fox Indians now belonged to Americans with big plans of their own. The fight for private ownership versus government reservation of the Rock Island lands would continue for years among other citizens of the area.

Still, there were those whose plans and prestige proved ambitious enough to gain government approval of their ownership of the land. Two of them, Colonel George Davenport and Russell Farnham, already owned 80 percent of the desirable land the government had put for sale. One of them, Antoine LeClaire, had recently gained large portions of eastern Iowa. And on a quiet 1836 day, these men and others met to discuss the future of Sauk and Fox lands.


An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island: Parts One and Two

by Thomas J. Slattery



Author: Sarah Francisco

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