Gateway to the Classics: Chief Black Hawk by Frank Lee beals
Chief Black Hawk by  Frank Lee beals


Black Hawk Takes Command

B USY, happy days followed for the Sauk Indians. In each village the people were getting ready to leave for their winter hunting grounds in Missouri. There they would hunt and trap many wild animals.

The summer's work in Saukenuk was over. The squaws had harvested the beans, pumpkins, corn, and other crops. They had dried great quantities of wild fruits and vegetables. They stored the food in caches or hiding places. Most of the food, however, was to be taken with them to Missouri.

A cache was usually a deep hole in the ground which could be filled and then carefully covered. Food could be stored for many months in a cache and it would not spoil.

Very few Indians ever molested a cache that did not belong to them. They considered it a crime to open a cache that was not their own.

The people of Saukenuk left their village in family groups for the Mississippi River. Here they kept many hundreds of light canoes.

"Our squaws, children, and old people will travel by water," Pyesa commanded. "Two braves will have charge of each canoe. Other braves will march along the river bank. Follow our old trail. Our first camp will be made below the rapids."

The canoes loaded with Indians and supplies were pushed out into the river. Everyone had a gay time on the long journey down the "Father of Waters." The young braves and the maidens sang their merry songs. The people in the canoes and the braves marching on the river bank called happily to one another. The aged warriors told the old Sauk stories to the young children.

Pyesa led his braves over the narrow, well-worn trail close to the bank of the Mississippi. They marched in single file. Black Hawk, Red Eagle, and Mehaska marched with the braves. As they moved along, Black Hawk said to his two friends, "Pyesa has ordered us to leave the trail this afternoon."

Later the three friends reached the place where Pyesa was waiting for them. He stood with ten braves just off the trail. The three friends fell out of line and joined Pyesa. The single file of warriors marched on.

Pyesa directed, "Red Eagle, take five braves and scout the land below the rapids. Mehaska, you take the other five braves and scout the land to the west of the Mississippi. Close in toward the rapids. If you find no enemy trail, erect the camp pole. Black Hawk and I will join you there."

The braves left to carry out Pyesa's orders. When they had gone Pyesa turned to Black Hawk and said, "For a reason that I can't explain I have a feeling that I will not return to Saukenuk in the spring."

"Oh, Father!" exclaimed Black Hawk.

"Come, my son, we can talk as we go on. I want you to remember all that I shall tell you."

Pyesa and Black Hawk walked with noiseless tread over the trail that led them through the forest. Pyesa talked to his son quietly but his voice was clear and determined. "When I am gone I hope that you will be the war chief of the Sauks. I believe that you will be chosen. It is of this I wish to speak. First, last, and always you must remember that the people of your villages will be your responsibility. To lead them wisely will not be easy. You must be trustworthy and honorable. To protect the Sauk villages and land is a sacred duty. In this you must not fail. Promise me, Black Hawk, that you will never desert the land of your fathers."

Black Hawk stopped and knelt. "I promise that I will protect my people," he said. "I swear that I will never desert the land of my fathers."

"The Great Spirit will guide you, Black Hawk. Arise! We must hurry!"

When they reached the rapids the camp pole had been erected by Mehaska. This pole was used to show the people where the camp was to be made. No one was allowed to go beyond the pole. If an Indian disobeyed this rule he was severely punished. All he owned was taken away from him and destroyed.

Soon after Pyesa and Black Hawk reached the rapids, Red Eagle and his braves arrived. No enemy trails had been seen by either party. The canoes on the river came nearer and nearer. The laughter and shouts of the people grew louder.

"These are my people," said Black Hawk to himself. "I will be worthy of them." He walked down to the water's edge and waited. The canoes were pulling up to the bank and the people started to unload.

A young, lovely Indian maiden jumped out of one of the canoes. She was dressed in a beaded and fringed doeskin dress. Silver bracelets were on her arms. Many strands of brightly colored beads hung about her neck. On her small feet were beaded moccasins. She wore her long, black hair in two braids which fell to her slim waist. Her black eyes danced and sparkled. She was very beautiful.

"Singing Bird!" called Black Hawk. "Singing Bird!" He ran to meet her.

"Black Hawk," she asked in a soft voice when he was near, "did you tell your father?"

Black Hawk nodded.

The roll of a signal drum sounded. Black Hawk and Singing Bird looked at each other and smiled.

The squaws, children, and braves who were unloading the canoes hurried by them on their way to camp. Black Hawk and Singing Bird waited.

Pyesa's voice called out. "My people, we will spend tomorrow in camp. We are to celebrate the day in feast and song. Tomorrow Black Hawk and Singing Bird are to be married."

Cheers and shouts filled the air. Then hand in hand Black Hawk and Singing Bird walked toward Pyesa and their friends.

Before daylight the next morning the wedding feast was cooking. Kettles of venison, to be made into a thick stew, simmered over the fires. Great baskets of squash, beans, and corn were ready to be cooked. Bowls of hominy steamed beside the fires. Wooden bowls of parched corn mixed with dried cherries and maple sugar had been set aside for the children.

When the feast was ready the people gathered in the square. The squaws and maidens were on one side and the braves opposite them.

"Here he comes!" shouted a brave.

Black Hawk, tall, slender, and handsome, strode from his teepee. His mother and Pyesa walked beside him to the square. Black Hawk was dressed in his finest beaded white doeskin jacket and fringed leggings and moccasins. In his scalp lock were three feathers of the black sparrow hawk.


Singing Bird was waiting.

It was a happy day for everyone. Black Hawk, the hero of his people, was married to Singing Bird, the most beautiful of all Sauk maidens.

The next morning the Indians resumed their journey. Black Hawk did not march with the braves. He and Singing Bird, in the first canoe, led the way down the Mississippi.

After many days of travel the Sauks came to their winter hunting grounds. At once the squaws made their teepees ready for winter. The braves prepared their traps and scouted the surrounding country. When all was in order the braves left for the first hunting trip of the season. Some braves stayed in camp to guard the squaws and children.

The hunting parties returned with great loads of game. The squaws were kept busy dressing the skins and curing the meat. The piles of furs grew higher and higher. In the spring the Sauks would sell the furs to the traders.

At last the winter was over. It had been a good winter. The Sauks were ready to leave for their northern homes. The last morning in camp Pyesa called his people to the square.

"My people," he said, "the canoes are piled high with many furs. We are ready to leave for our northern homeland. I shall go on ahead with some of my braves. Farewell!"

A small group of twenty squaws, and children, and a few braves were the last to leave the winter camp. They traveled all day, but they could not overtake their friends of the main camp. When night came the squaws set their teepees up on the bank of the Mississippi. The braves followed some buffalo tracks away from camp. They were gone for several hours. When they returned they found that the squaws and children had been massacred. One of the braves picked up a tomahawk. He exclaimed, "A Cherokee tomahawk! Cherokees have killed our squaws and children."

One runner left to tell Pyesa. Another runner left to tell the braves in the main camp.

Pyesa and his warriors had traveled many miles during the day. Late in the evening they made camp. They were gathered around the campfire when a voice called from the darkness, "Pyesa!"

Pyesa jumped to his feet and he and his braves ran forward. They found a young Sauk whom they had left in camp that morning. He was calling over and over again in a weak voice, "Pyesa, your people need you. Pyesa—your people—"

"What has happened?" demanded Pyesa.

"The squaws and papooses in our party have been killed. The Cherokees—"

"Get ready to march at once," ordered Pyesa.

Pyesa and his warriors reached the main camp long before sunrise. The people were waiting for their war chief. Pyesa said to the peace chief, "Break camp at once. Hurry to Saukenuk. Do not leave the trail."

Pyesa turned and called to the Sauk braves. "Two hundred braves leave with me at once. We must fight the Cherokees." He lowered his voice and said, "Black Hawk, you are to go with me."

The Sauks overtook the Cherokees on the Merrimac River in Missouri. The Cherokees outnumbered the Sauks, but the Sauks attacked as soon as they found the enemy. Pyesa led the charge.

A Cherokee standing behind a tree aimed an arrow at Pysea. The arrow went straight to its mark.

Black Hawk saw his father fall. "Pyesa has been wounded," he shouted. "Follow me!"

The Sauks, following Black Hawk, advanced upon the enemy. So fiercely did they attack that in a short time the Cherokees were put to flight.

Black Hawk ran back to where Pyesa was lying.

"Father," said Black Hawk, "the Cherokees have been defeated. They have fled."

"Good, my son," answered Pyesa in a weak voice. "I am dying, Black Hawk," he continued, "take the Sauk medicine bag back to Saukenuk. I hope that you will be chosen the war chief of my people. If you are, carry out your duties with honor."

Pyesa's head turned to one side. Pyesa was dead.

"May the Great Spirit guide you to the Happy I hinting Ground," Black Hawk whispered.

Mehaska and two runners were sent on to the village. Black Hawk and his braves made a crude litter on which to carry the body of their dead war chief back to Saukenuk. Black Hawk placed the medicine bag lieside his father. He marched with the braves who carried Pyesa's body.

The medicine bag of the war chief was the symbol of the Sauk nation. The bag was made from the skin of an 'otter. Beautiful beaded designs were embroidered on the legs and body of the otter skin. Bright ribbons were drawn through the nostrils. The medicine bag was sacred. No one but the war chief ever carried it. The war chief carried it only when he led his braves to war.

Slowly and sadly the braves entered the gates of their village. The body of Pyesa was placed in the big square. Saukenuk was in mourning.

The peace chief came toward Black Hawk holding out his hand. "Black Hawk," he said, "the Sauks have chosen you as their war chief. Your people are waiting to hear from you."

Standing beside Pyesa's body Black Hawk faced the people. His mother sat apart from the crowd. Beside her sat Singing Bird. His mother's eyes which were usually smiling were now dark with grief. But she did not weep. Singing Bird bowed her head as a tear ran down her cheek.

"Sauks!" said Black Hawk ins a low voice. "Pyesa is dead. We mourn the death of our war chief. To me he was more than a war chief. He was my father. We will bury him on the hill overlooking Saukenuk. There, he will watch over us."

Black Hawk leaned over the still figure of Pyesa and picked up the medicine bag. He held it high. "You have chosen me as your war chief," he called. "I will not fail you."

1. Why did Black Hawk fail in his first command?

2. How long was it before Black Hawk again led his braves against the Osages?

3. Tell what happened on his second attack.

4. Where and how did the Sauks spend their winters?

5. Tell what you can about an Indian cache.

6. What happened to Pyesa?

7. What was the Sauk medicine bag?

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