Press "Enter" to skip to content

Chief Black Hawk at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights

Surface of morainal drift north of Blackhawk Bluff.  (from

Throughout the whole Black Hawk war, chief Black Hawk and his men were mistreated and oppressed, the same way many other natives and their tribes had been when the state men wanted to expand their land.  The Battle of Wisconsin Heights was a prime example of how state men would oppress the natives and convince the public that what they were doing was justified.

Cited from chief Black Hawk’s very own autobiography,  “I met them with fifty warriors, (having left the balance to assist our women and children in crossing) about a mile from the river. … I was on the rise of a hill, where I wished to form my warriors, that we might have some advantage over the whites. But the enemy succeeded in gaining this point, which compelled us to fall into a deep ravine, from which we continued firing at them and they at us, until it began to grow dark.” (Jung, P. J. 2011) This depicts the bravery and courage of Chief Black Hawk.  It also shows how he was smart in choosing to wait and fight until he had a tactical advantage of having the high ground in the battle.  The Black Hawk tribe had fought this way since the beginning when they started to get pushed west along the rock river.  The battle of Wisconsin Heights was very significant in that it marked the beginning of the end for the Sioux tribe in Wisconsin.  After the battle of Wisconsin Heights there was a lack of morale under chief Black Hawk’s command, but they would still continue to fight bravely and tactically.

There was not supposed to be a battle the day this battle started.  Everything stemmed from a couple natives patrolling around the grounds when they encountered a group of state militia men.  The state militia men claimed the Indians were set up in a position that they had seen as a typical position Indians are in before they strike battle on their enemies.  Out of reaction of feeling threatened, the state militia men attacked the Black Hawk warriors.  Chief Black Hawk would eventually retreat up to Black Hawk bluff for the majority of the fight.  The Black Hawk troops were pushed off the bluff and down into a ravine.  They fought bravely into the night until it was too dark to see (Young, O, 1954).  They then retreated back to other Indian tribes that would accept them.  The state militia men claimed to be able to see them escaping but were out of firing range and the militia men did not know the lands as well as the Black Hawk warriors, so they decided to wait until the morning to pursue them.  This was yet another very smart and tactical move by Chief Black Hawk, using his vast knowledge of the lands to retreat at night time and gain land between them and the militia.   There was also a group of natives that crossed back in the early hours of the morning asking the militia for peace and saying they did not want to fight anymore.  There was no one there to translate at the time, however,making the militia men think it was Chief Black Hawk ordering an attack on them in the middle of the night, which was quite the opposite of what was going on.

Illustration of Chief Black Hawk
Illustration of Chief Black Hawk, from first edition published by E.C. Biddle, Philadelphia, 1836.; Volumes 2-3 published by D. Rice and J.G. Clark, 1842-44.

This instance of Black Hawk and his men fleeing the white militia men had occurred several times before.  In many instances before this Black Hawk had tried to surrender and try to explain he was not trying to fight with them anymore, and time after time there was misunderstandings or miscommunication’s which lead to confrontations and battles between Black Hawk’s men and the militia men.  This can be traced back to even the beginning of the Black Hawk War, when chief Black Hawk looked to take his people back to Saukenuk, their tribal land, modern day Rock Island, Illinois (Jung, 2011).

This land had previously been taken from them by the United States government and Black Hawk was looking to work out some details on them getting some of their tribal land back.  The land was sold off by a Sauk chief to a group of settlers and Black Hawk gathered Sauk men that had not agreed with the land being sold, to move onto Illinois.  When Black Hawk moved into Illinois he was under the impression that he was going to be backed by the British (Bracken, Sarah, 1832).  When he realized the British would not be backing him he realized he and his men would eventually use up all of their supplies.  There were not many options left other than to ask the militia men for assistance and supplies.  With this same realization, Black Hawk came to the conclusion he would have to retreat back to the land the United States government had designated for them, so he planned for talks of truce with the militia men.

As talks of a truce grew and Black Hawk and his men grew to trust the militia men, tensions of a full on war declined; or so Black Hawk and his men thought.  On May 14th Illinois militia men were to leave supplies behind for Black Hawk and his men so they would have supplies to get back to their designated land.  The supplies that they would be giving him and his men were old supplies that they did not need.  Normally they would have taken the supplies out of the camp, but weather conditions made it very hard to remove the supplies so they decided to leave them there for the natives.  The militia men however were very reluctant to leave the supply of alcohol for the natives, so they decided to stay another night and finish off the supply.  Some of Black Hawks men had stumbled upon the gathering of the militia men and reported it back to Black Hawk.  Black Hawk thought this would be a decent time to send some of his men over with white flags to talk about the truce he had been thinking about and what would be the best route for them to go back to their designated land.

The then riled up and drunk militia men did not care to have any talk of peace talks at the time.  There were some reports that a translator could not be found or was not in the area at the time, but the natives were carrying white flags.  In the end of that encounter they had killed two of the natives and one had escaped.  They chased the native back to his camp and battled for a bit until Black Hawk and his men retreated further for the night.  Some of the British band was there to help back up the natives at this battle but it would eventually be remembered as the battle of Stillman’s run, as Major Stillman of the British band would retreat away from the state militia men (William E. Less, 1975).  The militia somehow found a way to twist this to their advantage saying the natives convinced many of the camps civilians to fight with them, causing civilian death.  This allowed for the militia to grow as it drew in more people from surrounding states.

Black Hawk and his men met up with another tribe after retreating from the militia men.  As Black Hawk was a prideful leader, he would not take his men being attacked with white flags easily.  He used a tribe’s camp near modern day Lake Koshkonong to rally up other natives to help him fight against the militia men.  The Sauk was a very prideful tribe and believed it was unfair and disrespectful of the militia men to kill two of their men who were trying to surrender (Fonda, John H. 1868).  However as they gained fighting men from surrounding areas, many of their men died from starvation and just a general lack of supplies.  In a decision that was not familiar with Chief black Hawk himself or his Sauk tribesman, he decided it was in their best interest to put their pride aside and retreat back across the Mississippi.  They would start their journey and the further they moved on low supplies the more there numbers decreased.  General Henry used this time to create a militia of around 1200 men to push the Indians back across the Mississippi, as if they couldn’t see that was the direction they were headed in.

As Black Hawk and his men were passing through modern day Madison, WI they decided to stay there for a bit to recuperate and gather food to keep traveling.  The natives attacking strategy was described as the natives hiding behind trees, laying in marshes, or anything to really camouflage and protect themselves.  This is a situation where it really comes down to whose side you believe more.  According to Chief Black Hawk there were men patrolling and gathering goods in the woods as a group of militia men had stumbled upon them and started shooting at the natives.  According to the militia men they thought the Indians were hiding in trees waiting for them to enter the woods so the natives could attack as per their known fighting techniques(Hagan, 1949).  The end result was a small fight occurring with some natives dying and some natives escaping back to report to Black Hawk what the current situation was.  Black Hawk being wise knew the land and his enemy.  He knew if he could cross the Wisconsin River and get up into some of the bluffs he would have a good advantage on the militia men.  He knew this was going to more than likely be the situation given the first time he tried to negotiate peace terms, and the fact that they were already headed west while the militia men continued to hunt them down.  This is where Black Hawk and his men would retreat up to Black Hawk Bluff.

As Black Hawk and his men retreated off the other side of the bluff and across the river, they continued to lose numbers.  The militia chased the natives down the Bad Axe River.  Black Hawk desperately tried to ask for peace one last time as the number of capable men under his command was dwindling, and they did not want to fight anymore.  Coincidentally there was yet another miscommunication and the Militia men broke out into fire at the natives.  This would be known as the Battle of Bad Axe.  Nearly the whole tribe, from women and children to fighting men, were wiped out trying to escape the militia men at this battle.

Time and time again through the Black Hawk War, it would be proved that Indians would be portrayed as the initial conflict starters, where in reality they were trying to escape the land that the power and money-hungry militia men that would eventually kill majority of their tribe.  The battle at Wisconsin Heights is looked at as a very prideful and defining fight of the Black Hawk tribe.  The oppression and violation of human rights the natives faced is an embarrassing moment in American history.  Chief Black Hawk was an inspiring leader, who along with his people, deserved better treatment from the militia.  I would like to say that America as a whole has learned from this moment, but when I look at current news, it seems we are doing the same thing to the natives, whether it’s the Dakota Access pipeline or ignoring the current drug problems that an absurd amount of Native American communities face every day.

(Hagan, 1949)

  1. Primary:
    1. Fonda, John H. “Reminiscences of Wisconsin.” In Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol 5. ed. Lyman Copeland Draper. (Madison, Wis.: The Society, 1907; 1868)
    2. Hagan, William Thomas. Black Hawk’s Route through Wisconsin: report of an investigation made by authority of the Legislature of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1949)
    3. Bracken, Sarah. Letter, July 21, 1832. Manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (File 1832 July 21 )
  2. Secondary:
    1. Jung, P. J. 2011. “Black Hawk War (1832). “The Encyclopedia of War.
    2. Young, O. (1954). The United States Mounted Ranger Battalion, 1832-1833. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 41(3), 453-470.
    3. Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; “Watertown Daily Times”; “Watertown”, “WI”; “1932-11-28”;
    4. William E. Lass ”That Disgraceful Affair, “the Black Hawk War, Western Historical Quarterly Apr 1975, 6 (2) 185-187
    5. Shaw, John. “Indian Chiefs and Pioneers of the Northwest.” Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. 10 (Madison, 1888): 213-222
    6. Armstrong, Perry A. The Sauks and the Black Hawk War, with Biographical Sketches, Etc. (Springfield, IL: H.W. Rokker, 1887)