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Portrait of Black Hawk, 1833


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


Black Hawk, born in 1767 and known in his native language as Makataimeshekiakiak, was a Sauk warrior and tribal leader. The Sauk lived on the Rock River, a tributary of the Mississippi, in what is now Illinois, and fought against the United States during the War of 1812 as allies of the British. After the war American settlers pushed into Sauk land, and in the 1820s the United States government forced the Sauk and other tribes to leave their homes and move west of the Mississippi River. In 1832 the Sauk attempted to return to their home, but state militia and federal troops were mobilized against them. Sauk warriors battled the American forces in multiple skirmishes in attempts to enable the women and children to escape capture, but hundreds of Sauk were killed in what became known as Black Hawk's War and Black Hawk surrendered in August 1832. The United States War Department sent Black Hawk and the other captured men to Fort Monroe, at Hampton, Virginia.

This portrait portrays Black Hawk (center) and his eldest son, Nasheaskuk (right), as well as their longtime tribal advisor, known as the Prophet (left). The oil portrait was completed in 1833 by artist James Westhall Ford. It was one of many depictions of Black Hawk made during an enforced “tour” of major cities including Norfolk, Richmond, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., where Black Hawk met with U.S. president Andrew Jackson. The War Department planned the tour, during which Black Hawk was required to wear non-native clothing, to demonstrate to the influential warrior the power and sheer number of his white enemies and the futility of further opposition to westward expansion. As a prominent tribal leader Black Hawk was considered central to ensuring peace on the frontier. During the mandatory tour, Black Hawk’s appearances were widely covered in the nation’s newspapers, and he was seen both as a celebrity and a curiosity. The War Department released him in August 1833. Black Hawk returned to his family and wrote an autobiography before his death in Iowa in 1838.

Citation: State Art Collection, Library of Virginia


VUS.6, USI.8

Suggested Questions

Preview Activities

Look at it: Black Hawk and his son are dressed very differently in the painting, and yet there are striking similarities. Look closely at the portrait: how are the two figures alike? Different?

Look at it: The tribal advisor, known as the Prophet, was influential and trusted by Black Hawk. Look at his depiction in the portrait. What can you tell from the way the Prophet is depicted?

Look at it: The three figures in the portrait are not standing side by side nor are they all looking in the same direction. What do you notice about both their arrangement and their eye contact? Can you draw any conclusions from either?

Post Activity

Think about it: During his tour Black Hawk was considered a respected and formidable figure, and he later wrote an autobiography that became popular. To what extent is this positive reaction to Black Hawk contradictory when we consider the United States’ policies toward American Indians and westward expansion?