Historic Auto Trails

The History of the Black Hawk Trail

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Very little information about the Black Hawk Trail is contained in the Iowa State Highway Commission’s (ISHC) route registration file. What is known about the auto route is that on April 18, 1916, W.J. Henigbaum, president, and Louis G. DeArmand, secretary of the Black Hawk Trail Association submitted their application for registration with the ISHC. They paid the required fee, but did not include a traced route. After some correspondence, the issue was resolved and they received their certificate of registration in September 1916.

The route, 35 miles in length, was located in Davenport in Scott County. Scott County Road F-51 north of the city is still known locally as the Black Hawk Trail.

It is assumed that the auto trail was named in honor of the area’s connection to Chief Black Hawk and the Black Hawk War of 1832. In fact, the auto route may have been part of the trail the Sauk and Fox Indians traveled by foot between Iowa and Illinois.

Historical Background of Chief Black Hawk,

Courtesy of The Wisconsin Historical Society, "The Black Hawk War, 1832"
In the early 1800s the Sauk and Fox Indians lived along the Mississippi River from northwestern Illinois to southwestern Wisconsin. The Sauk leader Black Sparrow Hawk was born in Saukenuk, a large village at the mouth of the Rock River located near present-day Rock Island, Illinois.

In 1830, seeking to make way for settlers moving into Illinois, the United States government ordered the Sauk to move and accept new lands in present-day Iowa and surrender all land east of the Mississippi River to the U.S. government.

According to the "Corn Treaty" of June 30, 1831, the Sauks were instructed not to return to the east side of the Mississippi River without permission from the U.S. government. In the treaty, Chief Black Hawk was expected to recognize rival Chief Keokuk as senior tribal leader. He was to end all contact with the British in North America. He was to allow the construction of roads and forts on Sauk land in Iowa.

Living in the Iowa territory, the Sauk struggled to prepare enough acreage for their crops. The winter of 1831-1832 was extremely difficult. In April 1832, Black Hawk disobeyed the conditions outlined in the Corn Treaty and led about 1,000 Sauk and Fox people back to northern Illinois. Black Hawk hoped to forge a military alliance with the Winnebago and other tribes.

The U.S. Army ordered the Sauks to return to the western bank of the Mississippi. Black Hawk refused. He and his tribe moved northeast with the intention of planting corn on their ancestral farmland.

Fearing the Sauk, Illinois settlers promptly organized a militia and began pursuit of Black Hawk’s followers. Acutely aware of the military forces organizing against him, Black Hawk decided to surrender. He sent a party of three warriors with a flag of peace to meet the advancing soldiers. They were planning to arrange a meeting to communicate his peaceful intentions. Unfortunately, an undisciplined militia ignored the peace flag and attacked the Sauk. The Indian warriors promptly returned fire. The Black Hawk War had begun.

General Henry Atkinson was in charge of U.S. Army forces called in to assist the 4,000 militiamen led by Henry Dodge and James Henry. Traveling with small children and elderly members of the tribe, the Sauk and Fox were unable to move as rapidly as the soldiers. In an effort to distract the soldiers, Sauk warriors raided frontier farms and villages. On July 21, 1832, soldiers led by Henry Dodge caught up with Black Hawk's band near the Wisconsin River. Although greatly outnumbered, Sauk warriors turned the attack on the troops, allowing their women and children to flee across the Wisconsin River. The next morning, the troops discovered that the Sauk warriors had vanished, having quietly crossed the river in darkness. Dodge journeyed north to Fort Winnebago to obtain supplies.

At Fort Winnebago, Dodge joined forces with Atkinson and set out in pursuit of the Sauk and Fox. Most members of the starving band had fled west, hoping to find sanctuary among tribes beyond the Mississippi River.

On August 2, U.S. soldiers attacked the Sauk and Fox as they attempted to cross the Mississippi River. Ignoring a truce flag, the troops aboard a river steamboat fired cannons and rifles, killing hundreds in the band. Many of those who made it across the river were slain by the Eastern Sioux, allies of the U.S. government in 1832. Only 150 members of Black Hawk's band survived the events of the summer of 1832. Survivors rejoined the Sauk and Fox who had remained in Iowa.

Black Hawk surrendered to officials at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. The defeated warrior was imprisoned and sent east to meet with President Andrew Jackson and other government officials. In 1833 he was released into the custody of his rival Chief Keokuk to live with surviving members of the Sauk and Fox nation in Iowa.

The Black Hawk War was the last armed resistance to white settlement in Illinois and Wisconsin. The Black Hawk Purchase Treaty of 1832 opened for settlement the eastern edge of Iowa Territory.


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