Of all the Native American leaders who attempted to resist the westward expansion of the United States and further white settlement during the 19th century, few fought as long or as hard as Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk in the present-day Midwest. Though he is no longer as well known as his contemporary Tecumseh or subsequent Native American leaders like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo, his eventual surrender and trip east as a prisoner turned him into one of the first Native American celebrities in the country.
Long before curious Americans came out in throngs to get a glimpse of him, Black Hawk played a crucial role in some of the seminal events of the 19th century, including the negotiations of several treaties and the War of 1812. Today, of course, he is best known for leading a band of about 1,500 during the Black Hawk War in 1832, a series of small battles fought in the Wisconsin territory after Black Hawk led his people east across the Mississippi River in an attempt to reclaim his people's old lands in Illinois. One of the earliest battles in the war resulted in a shocking defeat of American militia and one of America's most notorious losses before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the fighting ultimately lasted only a few months, culminating in a massacre of Native Americans at the Battle of Bad Axe. During the fighting there, American soldiers literally pushed the Native Americans back to the Mississippi River and then shot men, women and children as they attempted to cross the river to safety.
Given the limited amount of fighting, the Black Hawk War was hardly a war in the traditional sense, but it is still well known among Americans today, and it was truly a seminal moment in American history. Black Hawk's defeat essentially ended all Native American resistance east of the Mississippi River and opened up the rest of Illinois and Wisconsin to white settlement. The war also provided an opportunity for some of the era's most famous Americans to get military experience, including several US senators, several territorial governors, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and, most famously, Abraham Lincoln.
American Legends: The Life of Black Hawk chronicles the life of the Sauk leader who defiantly fought to save his people's homeland, but it also humanizes one of the most famous Native Americans in American history.
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