Black Hawk was born in Saukenuk, Illinois. A member of the "Sauk" (present-day Sac & Fox) tribe, he belonged to the Thunder Clan. An accomplished war leader and dignitary, Black Hawk has left a legacy and a long list of sites that carry his name. The most recognizable eponym would be the professional hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk, as Black Hawk was also known, was famed for his reputation as a warrior and his campaign to resist the takeover of his people's homelands. The largest known village on the Upper Mississippi, Saukenuk was more of a small city, comprising more than 100 lodges and some 5,000 residents.
It was in the Treaty of 1804 that the homelands of Black Hawk and his people were ceded to the United States by Quashquame, a Sauk chief. The treaty was resented by the Sauk people and especially Black Hawk, who felt that the chief was not in a position to sign the treaty that led to many Sauk siding with the British during the War of 1812.
Following the Treaty of 1804, most of the Sauk and Fox people had resettled to present-day Iowa. By 1830, the tribes fell under the leadership of Black Hawk's younger opponent, Keokuk. Recognized for his moderation and cooperation, Keokuk was more of an ally for the relocation of the Sauk and Fox tribes. Black Hawk did not acknowledge these treaties, and the war leader began his campaign to fight against its terms so the tribes could return to their homelands.
In 1831, displaced to present-day Iowa, Black Hawk joined with some of his followers to cross the Mississippi and reclaim their home in Illinois. This did not sit well with officials in the territory. Militia units used the threat of force to cause Black Hawk to sign the "Corn Treaty". This would, once again, push Black Hawk and his people to retreat to Iowa.
In April 1832, following a harsh winter, Black Hawk led 400 warriors and their families to the Rock River, where they would plant corn for the coming year. The Illinois governor again called up the militia and requested regular U.S. Army soldiers, even though the majority of these followers were children, women and the elderly. In search of allies, Black Hawk and his band continued up the Rock River, only to be met by uncooperative tribes and skirmishes.
On Aug. 1, under a flag of truce, Black Hawk made an attempt to surrender to the forces aboard the steamboat "Warrior." The soldiers upon the boat opened fire, killing many of his followers. Black Hawk pleaded with his people to retreat with him north, convinced that safety lay among the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe people. His plea was ignored, and many of the band chose to stand their ground. On Aug. 2, over an eight-hour period, Black Hawk's band was massacred with no discrimination for any man, woman or child. His refuge with the Ho-Chunk people was brief, and he later surrendered to United States forces.
Following a brief imprisonment in St. Louis, Black Hawk was sent to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Jackson before being returned to Fort Armstrong. The return route to Illinois was circuitous, passing through all the large cities where tremendous crowds came to see him.
He lived the remainder of his life on tribal lands in Iowa until his death in 1838.