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America's History in the Making

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Excerpted from Black Hawk's Autobiography

The great chief at St. Louis having sent word for us to come down and confirm the treaty, we did not hesitate, but started immediately that we might smoke the peace pipe with him. On our arrival we met the great chiefs in council. They explained to us the words of our Great Father at Washington, accusing us of heinous crimes and many misdemeanors, particularly in not coming down when first invited. We knew very well that our Great Father had deceived us and thereby forced us to join the British, and could not believe that he had put this speech into the mouths of those chiefs to deliver to us. I was not a civil chief and consequently made no reply, but our civil chiefs told the commissioner that, "What you say is a lie. Our Great Father sent us no such speech, he knew that the situation in which we had been placed was caused by him." The white chiefs appeared very angry at this reply and said, "We will break off the treaty and make war against you, as you have grossly insulted us."

Our chiefs had no intention of insulting them and told them so, saying, "we merely wish to explain that you have told us a lie, without any desire to make you angry, in the same manner that you whites do when you do not believe what is told you." The council then proceeded and the pipe of peace was smoked.

Here for the first time, I touched the goose quill to the treaty not knowing, however, that, by the act I consented to give away my village. Had that been explained to me I should have opposed it and never would have signed their treaty, as my recent conduct will clearly prove.

What do we know of the manners, the laws, and the customs of the white people? They might buy our bodies for dissection, and we would touch the goose quill to confirm it and not know what we were doing. This was the case with me and my people in touching the goose quill for the first time.

We can only judge of what is proper and right by our standard of what is right and wrong, which differs widely from the whites, if I have been correctly informed. The whites may do wrong all their lives, and then if they are sorry for it when about to die, all is well, but with us it is different. We must continue to do good throughout our lives.

If we have corn and meat, and know of a family that have none, we divide with them. If we have more blankets than we absolutely need, and others have not enough, we must give to those who are in want.

Black Hawk, Black Hawk's Autobiography, ed. Roger L. Nichols. 1st ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1964), 86.

Creator Black Hawk and editors
Context Black Hawk had just surrendered after many years of resisting white expansion onto his people's land.
Audience The general public
Purpose To explain the plight of his people and justify the choices he had made

Historical Significance

Indian nations were also forced from the "Old Northwest," the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, during the first decades of the 1800s. Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) emerged by 1808 as a leading Sauk opponent of U.S. expansion in what would become western Illinois. He fought many battles against U.S. settlers and soldiers, and did not surrender until 1832. He dictated his autobiography a year later to a French-speaking interpreter. This version was then edited by an English-speaking newspaperman, who had it published. The excerpt describes an 1816 meeting with representatives of the United States.


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