Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200Illinois.com.
Saukenuk was well-known as one of the largest Native American villages in North America, but one of its residents, the warrior Black Hawk, was even better known.
Although born in Saukenuk, located where Rock Island stands today, his father Pyesa, mother Summer Rain and other relatives could trace their ancestry back thousands of years. According to their oral traditions, both the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes were living in Canada 12,000 years ago at the time of the last glacial retreat.
By 1640, the Meskwaki had settled at the west end of Lake Erie, near present-day Detroit, and the Sauk near Saginaw Bay in Michigan.
In 1701, the decades-long war began between the French and the Meskwaki, which almost led to the tribe's extinction. Weakened, they joined the Sauk and together they migrated to the Mississippi River, where for nearly 100 years the tribes lived in their own villages and farmed, hunted and traded.
The two tribes were separate nations. The Meskwaki were the smaller of the two, as they numbered around 1,600. In Rock Island, the Meskwaki had a village located across from Arsenal Island in what is now downtown Rock Island.
Over the years, the Sauk had several cities called Saukenuk. In 1808, the decision was made by the Sauk nation to consolidate smaller villages into the city now known as Saukenuk, located near the Rock River in Rock Island.
According to Ferrell Anderson, a local archaeologist, the Meskwaki village was made up of two rows of huts, about 30 total, located where downtown Rock Island is today.
In 1824, Thomas Forsyth, the Indian agent at Rock Island, wrote a report detailing the Indian villages within his jurisdiction.
Two miles up from the mouth of the Rock River was the "grand Sauk village where the principal chiefs, braves and warriors reside, ... and where all the affairs pertaining to the Sauk Nation of Indians were transacted," Forsyth wrote.
Saukenuk was home to as many as 6,000 people, perhaps more, at the time.
For most of the years that the Sauk and Meskwaki lived on these lands, their life was an idyllic one. They lived peacefully in their villages with occasional skirmishes with other Indian tribes. They traded with the French and fought alongside the British, providing a lifestyle that was partially Indian and partially European.
The Sauk lived what might be described as an affluent lifestyle by Indian standards. Many of the Sauk dressed in European clothes and hunted with rifles. When they did use arrows, they had metal tips, not stone. Their village on the shore of the Rock River was a thriving metropolis during the summer.
Unknowingly, the end of this lifestyle had been assured in 1804 when a few chiefs, possibly plied with alcohol, signed a treaty in St. Louis in which they agreed to move west of the Mississippi River in exchange for $1,000 a year, as settlers arrived seeking to live on the land.
In 1830, the Sauk and Fox were ordered to leave their villages in Illinois and move to Iowa, but Black Hawk and others refused to accept the terms of the 1804 treaty.
In the winter of 1830, the tribes left, but faced a winter of near starvation. In spring 1831, Black Hawk defied the government order and returned to Saukenuk and planted crops.
The settlers who now occupied the old village were alarmed. Illinois Gov. John Reynolds sent 1,500 men to move the tribes out. On June 20, the volunteer army moved on Saukenuk.
The Sauk had left without a fight. The militia burned the lodges, destroyed the crops, vandalized the main cemetery and dug up graves, according to a letter from the new Indian agent, Felix St. Vrain, to Indian superintendent William Clark.
Fearing he would be pursued, Black Hawk went to Fort Armstrong and sued for peace. He got it, under the terms that he would stay out of Illinois.
Peace lasted until the next winter when the Indians, unable to grow crops in less tillable land, once again faced starvation. In 1832 they again crossed into Illinois, which marked the second year of the Black Hawk War.
There were numerous skirmishes and Black Hawk's people, on the verge of starvation, fled into Wisconsin. They were finally trapped at Bad Axe Creek where they were slaughtered. Black Hawk and other leaders were captured and the militia killed old men, women and children, as well as 150 braves.
"When I call to mind the scenes of my youth and those of later days — and reflect that the theatre on which these were acted had been so long the home of my fathers, who now slept on the hills around it, I could not bring my mind to consent to leave this country …