The Immortality of Chief Black Hawk

One of the prettiest places in Illinois is certainly Ogle County, a place of refuge for many Chicagoans who take the long drive northwest there on Sundays to enjoy the rolling farmlands and quaint, historic towns near the Mississippi River—the state’s western edge. But many are wholly unaware of the haunting history of this region's most famous figure.

A highlight is the region surrounding the Rock River, abutted by steep bluffs where hikers may climb for a grand view over the surrounding country.  The peerless landmark here is a massive, 48- foot  sculpture which overlooks the river, depicting a Native American Indian in seeming contemplation. Rendered by the great Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft, the work is reportedly the second largest monolithic concrete sculpture in the world (second only to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro).  Named The Eternal Indian, the figure memorializes the impact of one of the most legendary figures in American history: the enigmatic warrior who fought to remain just that, despite the demands of another culture’s manifest destiny.  Few know, however, that Chief Black Hawk, in death, went on to become a key figure in many Spiritualist churches, a fact owing largely to a charismatic Chicago medium.

Chief Black Hawk
Above, artists at the scene of the erection of Lorado Taft’s “The Eternal Indian” on the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois (City of Oregon)

Black Hawk, an influential Sauk leader, sparked the Black Hawk War when in 1832 he led members of his own tribe, along with Meskwakis and Kickapoos—all British allies—along the Mississippi River and into the State of Illinois,  in defiance of the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis, in which the Sauk’s tribal lands had been ceded to the United States.

Believing Black Hawk’s action to be hostile—a point which is still one of dispute—the U.S. government sent in a militia, and on May 14, 1832,  Black Hawk responded to the threat by attacking the Americans in the Battle of Stillman’s Run. Black Hawk then led his followers into Wisconsin, where they were pursued by the militia. At the same time other conflicts erupted, old hostilities flaring and fanned by Black Hawk’s leadership.  Among those who led the forces against Black Hawk was Chicago’s Chief Alexander Robinson—the Potawatomi and Menominee mixed-blood chief who had worked to establish peace between the natives and whites.

In July, commanded by General Henry Atkinson, U.S. troops tracked the British-allied Indian forces to their stand. When Colonel Henry Dodge joined the troops soon after, the U.S. forces battled the British Band at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, defeating them.   Weakened by fighting, hunger and illness, the final battle of the war raged on August 2, when U.S. soldiers attacked Black Hawk’s followers in the Battle of Bad Axe.  What many believe had begun with Black Hawk’s attempt to quietly move back to his tribal lands ended in the American government’s banishment of all Indians to land west of the Mississippi River.

In 1833, the year after the war, Black Hawk dictated his life story to a government worker and a Galena newspaper editor, telling a story of violence, frustration, anger and a lifelong search for justice.  The rest of Black Hawk’s days were lived in a poverty that he was quick to blame on Americans, always calling the British kinder, nobler and more honest than their American descendents.  Forever in search of funds, the Chief was even seen appearing as entertainment on a riverboat shortly before his death, collecting donations in exchange for his colleagues performing war dances for the benefit of spectators.

Even death brought no end to what the Chief had seen as a lifetime of exploitation by the American people. Soon after burial, his grave was robbed. In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown writes that the governor of Iowa obtained the Chief’s skeleton and displayed it in his office.  Eventually, the skeleton went to an Iowa museum.  Sauk Indians burned down the museum in 1855.

 "He's on the Wall!"

In New Orleans, members of local Black churches have for a century been calling on the spirit of Chief Black Hawk for aid, for advice, for money in troubled times.  He has become an essential patron saint of the Crescent City desperate, with votive candles, oils and other sacramentals sold to help along the prayers of his faithful.  Huddled in evening pews, believers venerate statues of the long dead warrior as their flesh and blood leaders, dressed in robes and awash in candlelight, lead their chants:

“Black Hawk is a watchman! He will fight your battles!”

New Orleans grass roots Black churches in the 1920s served, as now, a soup comprised of Catholicism from the French, Native American spiritualism from the slaves of the French, the music and dance of freed Africans, as well as voodoo brought by Creoles from Haiti. Despite the obvious involvement of the dead in the rituals of the Black churches, the Spirtualistic aspect was kept undercover for years. And despite the many women mediums who came to prominence during the heyday of Spiritualism, the leaders of these churches were men.

Chief Black Hawk
Chief Black Hawk (Library of Congress)

It was into this world, however, that a woman named Leafy Anderson came from Chicago. Founder of the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Churches—the oldest of which she founded in Chicago in 1913, Anderson was a medium who undoubtedly enjoyed a buoyant charisma, drawing many to follow her lead.  Whites and blacks all gathered around her, visiting her home for readings and inspired by her unapologetic embrace of Spirtualism, which had been “in the closet” in the New Orleans to which she had come.  From early on, Anderson specifically counseled her followers to pray to a man named Chief Black Hawk, who would aid them in all of their needs. “That’s your saint,” she was known to tell her flock.

“He will fight your battles! He’s on the wall!”

Exactly how Anderson came to preach her religion of Black Hawk is anybody’s guess.  Her obituary placed her birth in “Balboa, Wisconsin,” which may have been a misspelling of Baraboo, a city near Prairie du Sac, where Black Hawk’s story would have been vibrant legend in Anderson’s youth. She may, too, have devoured the chief’s autobiography, which became a popular seller in the Midwest after its publication, and remained so throughout the 19th century.  Some say that Anderson also claimed to be an Indian herself, part Mohawk.

Anderson herself said she found Black Hawk while living in Chicago.  Like many who tell their stories of encountering the overwhelming spirit of the Chief, perhaps it was during a séance in her Spiritualist Chicago church, or—like others—while walking along a crowded street. Like others, her “Black Hawk moment” hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks—and never left her.

As for explaining the hold of the Chief on so many followers even today, many theories have been offered.  Some point to a “co-suffering” of Blacks and Native Americans, both marginalized communities throughout America’s history.  Others believe it is the Chief’s unflinching fearlessness—not his suffering—that holds the appeal.  Still others wonder if Black Hawk’s appeal—largely to women—was as a guardian, a Watchman, in the lives of many women who had been abused, abandoned or unwanted by fathers and husbands.

Journalist Jason Berry, who discovered the cult of Black Hawk on a 1979 trip to New Orleans, wondered:

Perhaps summoning an Indian spirit to inspire a burgeoning African American church was Leafy Anderson’s expression of solidarity, linking two defeated peoples of colonial America. Perhaps Black Hawk’s legend of bravery and resistance made him a protective spirit to her followers. Mostly black, mostly women, saddled with hardship and humiliation, they embraced her, and him, as spirit guides and saints guarding the rock of ages.


Last summer, I follower Black Hawk's trail of 1832 from Stillman Valley to the Bad Axe River, where so many of his people brutally died as they tried to return across the Mississippi. Their perilous flight--and the beauty of the Sauk people's lands along the Rock River-- inspired the creation of our 'Watchman' fragrance. I hope it has captured just a small drop of the immortality of the peerless Black Hawk. 

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