Black Hawk and the first published Native American autobiography

March 26, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writing.

We naturally associate the name of Black Hawk with war and fighting (think: Black Hawk helicopter), but the real history of Chief Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk Nation of Native Americans, encompasses not only war but a literary tradition: Black Hawk was the first Native American to have an autobiography published in the United States.

The title of his book was Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation… and was published in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1833. When it appeared, it became an immediate best-seller and went through numerous editions.

The man we have come to know as Black Hawk was born sometime around 1767 in the land that we now call Illinois and Iowa and through which ran the Mississippi River. His tribe, the Sauk Indians, occupied that land but not without conflict with other Native American tribes who were in the area.

Black Hawk knew war and conflict from the very beginning of his days. He became famous as a war leader, and in the complicated structure of his tribe was only that. He was never considered a political or civilian leader. He did not inherit any of his leadership positions. Rather, he earned them through his ability to lead people into battle.

By the time he had come of age, the white men of the east coast American colonies had expelled the British, but the British remained very much present to the north in Canada. As white settlements spread to the west, the British believed they had some rights to the territories that the white people of America were beginning to occupy.

New conflicts inevitably ensued, and the Native Americans were caught up in those fights. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk joined with other Native Americans—though not all—and helped the British fight American forces in the Great Lakes area.

When the war finally ended, the British left the territory, and disputes then followed among the Native American tribes and between those tribes and the white settlers. Black Hawk had been part of a settlement between the Native Americans and the new settlers about which lands could be occupied by what people. He later came to believe that the settlement was fraudulent and that his tribe leaders did not know or realize what they were giving away. 

Consequently, he seemed to be in constant conflict with settlers and settlements as white men and women moved steadily west. In 1832 that conflict expanded into what we now know as Black Hawk’s War. Militia from the territories of Illinois and Wisconsin were formed to do battle with Native American warriors, the main group led by Black Hawk himself. This war provided the only military experience for a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

The war itself elevated Black Hawk to the status of a major leader of Native Americans. His name, during his lifetime, became a symbol for conflict with the white settlers.

The war finally ended with the capture and imprisonment of Native American leaders including Black Hawk. They were brought to the eastern United States by then President Andrew Jackson, and they toured several cities in the east, where large and interested crowds gathered to see them. Jackson’s purpose was to impress these leaders with the power and might of America and to help them to understand that opposing the government was a losing battle.

Before they were released from custody and were able to return to their homeland, Black Hawk told his personal story to an interpreter, Antoine LeClaire. LeClaire’s notes were then edited by a local newspaper reporter, J.B. Patterson, and in 1833 they were published as Black Hawk’s autobiography. The publicity that Black Hawk’s tour of the eastern United States generated meant that the public was ready for such a book, and it helped make his memoirs a best-seller. The accounts in those memoirs have come under some dispute by critics, some of whom believed Black Hawk enhanced his own actions and others who believed that the white men who wrote and edited the memoirs did not do justice to what Black Hawk had said.

When Black Hawk finally made it back to his lands along the Iowa River, he was more than 50 years old and was determined to live in peace with his new white friends. In a speech given a year before his death, Black Hawk said:

I thank the Great Spirit that I am now friendly with my white brothers, and we are here together, we have eaten together, we are friends. It is His wish and mine, and I thank you for your friendship.

I was once a great warrior. I am now poor. I am now old. I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. . . . I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now. I shake hands with you, and as it is my wish, I hope you are my friends.

Black Hawk died in 1838, but his legacy lives on in many ways today. His name in particular has been attached to many elements of American society including a military helicopter and the nickname of several sports franchises, including the Chicago Blackhawks professional ice hockey team.

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