Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Life of Black Hawk (Part One)

Evasive and mysterious throughout his entire life, Black Hawk was stealthy and crafty and sometimes gave the impression that he could be in two places at the same time. He had inherited some of these traits from Pyesa (his father) who was known as a "spirit" or prophet and was a man of influence.

Black Hawk also came from a line of famous warriors. His grandfather was Nanamakee, known as the "Thunderer." Black Hawk gained fame for himself as a warrior at the tender age of sixteen when he brought home scalps from a raiding party. With a group of braves he conquered the Cherokees in 1800, while they were still a part of the Osage nation.

Even his birth date is questionable. History says that Black Hawk was born in the Rock Island village of Saukenuk in 1767 and died in Iowaville in 1838 at the age of 71. His own testimony reveals that he was not that old when he died. Black Hawk’s best friend among the white people was trader James Jordan who lived near Iowaville and was Bill Phelps’ competitor. He told James Jordan that he was born in the year 1775 but did not mention the month or day of his birth. His name was Mu-ca-tah-mich-a-ha-kah, which translated means Black Hawk.

Brave, cautious and ambitious, young Black Hawk had a passion for power and objected to the encroachment of white people into Indian habitats and hunting grounds. Pumped up by ideas promoted by a contemporary named Tecumseh, he allied himself with the British and fought with them against the Americans in the War of 1812. He believed in using strategy on the battlefield. His eloquence in council united his men to make smooth, sudden, fierce attacks that brought him many victories and much respect.

Believing that the Indians had been coerced into making treaties that consequently removed them from their homeland; Black Hawk used his oratory skills to propel his people to return to Saukenuk in spite of objections from Chief Keokuk. Because of drought in Iowa and homesickness for Rock Island, he mustered support quickly and the result of this defiance of treaties was the infamous Black Hawk War.

When Zebulon Pike visited him in Rock Island and offered him an American flag, Black Hawk refused to accept the gift. However, his attitude toward white people changed, as he grew older. Stripped of every possible bit of power after his defeat in 1832, the once proud Indian leader made friends with numerous white settlers and spent more time in his waning years with whites than with his own people.

One of the provisions of the treaty that ended the Black Hawk War was that Black Hawk would not be allowed to live in any major Indian village and must give up any claims of chieftain to Chief Keokuk who was praised by the U.S. government for refusing to fight against the Americans. But his exact whereabouts at any given moment were often rumored and are not always clear.

Black Hawk apparently resided along Devil’s Creek outside Fort Madison for awhile after the war. His daughter was the "belle of the ball" in Ft. Madison, known for her dancing skills, and was often accompanied by her two brothers. During this time, Black Hawk made close friends with important people in Ft. Madison and Burlington.

One of Black Hawk’s friends was Dr. Cresap whose cabin he visited frequently along the creek on the east side of what is now Bonaparte. He is rumored to have resided somewhere near Reed’s Creek where a group of white settlers made their home. In her description of life along Reed’s Creek in 1835 and later in New Lexington in 1837, Sarah Welsh Nossaman names both Black Hawk and his son Naseaskuk as "neighbors."

In August 1837 Black Hawk and about 100 Indians from Iowaville attended the first religious service held west of the Des Moines River just above Chequest Creek near Pittsburg. Yet Black Hawk didn’t actually reside in that area until 1838, after most of the Indian population of Iowaville had moved their village to Wapello County near Ottumwa.

Black Hawk’s last residence appears to have been in what is now Davis County, along the river about three miles below Eldon where he built a lodge. In 1838, Van Buren County extended two or three miles westward and included the present town of Troy in Davis County, thus his last residence was barely within Davis County limits, as if this statistic mattered to the old deposed chief.

On September 1, 1838 Black Hawk came down with a fever and asked his old friend Jordan to send for Dr. Peel at Ft. Edwards (Warsaw, Illinois) with a promise of $300 for his trip expenses. However, the message did not arrive in time because Black Hawk died on September 15. He was buried on the James Jordan farm in a sitting position decorated with all his medals, wearing the soldier’s uniform presented to him by President Jackson.


After Black Hawk’s defeat in 1832, he was literally a wanderer, a vagabond. He was not allowed to reside in Keokuk’s main village along the Iowa River when it was the primary village of the Sauk and Fox tribes between 1832 and 1835, or in Iowaville along the Des Moines River when it was Keokuk’s seat of power.

Nevertheless, Black Hawk visited both villages and appears to have lived in a variety of places. He may have resided somewhere on the Iowa River for awhile in 1832, then lived along Devil’s Creek. Since this location was "within walking distance" of his white friends in Burlington and Fort Madison that included writer James Newhall, this location would be Devil’s Creek in Lee County between Ft. Madison and Montrose.

Within two years, he moved, taking up residence along the Des Moines River, and this can be validated by accounts of those who were his "neighbors." William Reed is said to have been his closest neighbor in 1835, a man who spoke very highly of Mrs. Blackhawk as a housekeeper.

Sarah Welch Nossaman was ten years old when her family settled along Reed’s Creek a short distance below present Bonaparte. In 1837, she and her family moved to New Lexington, a small hamlet located a mile west of Bonaparte. During 1836 and 1837 her "neighbors" were Sammy Reed and his brother Isaac, Black Hawk, Keokuk, Wapello, Hard Fish, Kishkakhosh, Black Hawk’s son Naseaskuk, and trader James Jordan.

The source that places Black Hawk on Devil’s Creek describes the location as "near where the creek empties into the Des Moines River." Devil’s Creek in Lee County flows into the Mississippi and old maps do not show any Des Moines River tributary with that name. It can be concluded that Black Hawk had moved from Lee County to Van Buren as his whereabouts by then would indicate. It is interesting that members of the Reed family were neighbors of both Black Hawk and the Welch family.

Although James Jordan’s trading post was in Iowaville he is believed to have hunted and trapped all along the Des Moines River with camps around Bonaparte, Kilbourne and Farmington. Perhaps William Reed was of the same family as Sam and Isaac, and the writer’s reference was therefore to Van Buren, not Lee County settlers.

Black Hawk only had one wife. Married more than 40 years at the time of his death, he was very loyal to Singing Bird, and his family appears to have been close knit. They had a beautiful daughter named Nauasia or Namequa who was popular at social functions in Ft. Madison. Two sons are named in history Nesaqmesaw and Nesaseskuk. Ralph Arnold says they were bilingual and spoke fluent English.

By the time the boys were grown men, they lived in Iowaville, which was now Keokuk’s main village. Old Black Hawk was not allowed to reside in Iowaville, but visited there frequently. As early as 1837 he built a home along the river between Iowaville and the present site of Eldon where he stayed when visiting his family. This became his final home in 1838 after most of the Indians vacated the immediate vicinity.

When he died, he was buried on the James Jordan farm in the northwest corner of Van Buren County at his request. In a sitting position, he was adorned with a battle uniform and all his medals (worth several thousand dollars.) Although his grave was guarded, Dr. James Turner of Lexington robbed the gravesite of Black Hawk’s head on July 3, 1839, which he claimed was for research purposes.

Sarah Welch witnessed Dr. Turner’s return early that morning with the head and says that the flesh was boiled off the skull that same afternoon. Dr. Turner and his family fled to the St. Louis area but kept in contact with the Welch family. Later in 1840, it is thought that Dr. Turner returned and stole the rest of the body. The skeletal remains under the care of Iowa’s governor were later found and placed in a museum, but the building unfortunately burned.

According to Sarah Welch, this assumption is not true. She says that members of the chief’s family in Iowaville probably reported that the rest of Black Hawk’s skeleton had been stolen in order to keep additional looters away from his gravesite. According to her, the skeleton that was later attached to Black Hawk’s skull could not have been that of the old chief, but was the skeleton of a shorter man. Black Hawk had stood five feet eleven inches tall, a man of considerable height in his day! Consequently his skeletal remains, (minus the head) might still be found in the Iowaville Cemetery at the gravesite that marks his burial place.

Gravesite Photo of Black Hawk

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick