Chief Black Hawk was a native son of the Great Basin, one who represented the first generation of Indians to grow up witnessing white settlement, the rampant spread of disease, increased impoverishment, escalating strife and the steady decline of Ute numbers and strength.
On the surface, Black Hawk’s most notable legacy is the Black Hawk War, Utah’s longest, fiercest and most tragic armed conflict. Closer examination, however, reveals a Ute leader who genuinely desired to preserve the dignity and ways of his people; a firebrand tempered in the wisdom of adversity, a leader whose heart was melded enough over time to shape a future that offered peace for both worlds and continued existence of his people.
Black Hawk, or Antonga as he was more commonly known before the war, was born in Utah Valley some years before the first company of Mormons rolled into the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. The man identified Spring Lake as the place of his birth. A small but deeper body of water is still present there, set amid fields and orchards located between Payson and Santaquin. The picturesque place remained a favorite spot to him throughout his life.
Black Hawk was a blood relative of other famous Ute leaders including Wakara and Arapeen. While he grew to prominence in his tribe, Antonga Black Hawk seemed reticent to become too well acquainted with the white world. He was a native who preferred his own culture and apparently didn’t drift far from the fringes of that world.
In fact, Black Hawk would be confused by whites for a number of other Indians who were thought to be the same individual. One of the earliest recorded references to him in south-central Utah occurred during the autumn of 1864. A court case was under way at Manti in charges brought by Jerome Kempton against an Indian known as “Curly” on the suspicion of stealing cattle.
The fact that Indians were now being compelled to face charges and the “hand of justice” according to the white man’s legal system is indicative of the level of frustration settlers had reached. The name Black Hawk came up in the case and was identified as a key party in the recent disappearance of livestock.
The following spring saw another spike in the number of animals stolen and butchered. It was on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9, 1865, that Black Hawk rode into Manti with a group of other Ute men. John Lowry, Jr. was among residents of the community gathered and leisurely visiting along the main road in the town.
Lowry had business on his mind he wanted to take up with the Indians. Well versed in their language, Lowry confronted the young men about the recent loss of cattle. He demanded the practice stop and threatened severe consequences if it did not.
Jake Arapeen responded with contempt. He drew an arrow to his bow and tauntingly pointed it at Lowry. The incensed white man grabbed the youth, pulled him from his horse and beat him with a whip. Cooler heads intervened to stop the fray, but the damage was done.
The Indians left the scene without further incident, but the encounter served as justification in their minds for a long anticipated war with the white settlers. Black Hawk was already viewed by his people as a leading figure and he would champion the cause, a persuasive voice for Native Americans who now saw no other choice than to join him on the warpath.
From the white man’s point of view, the Black Hawk War brought out only the worst in most of the Indians. In reality, the drama had heroes, villains, and victims on both sides. Ultimately, the Black Hawk War settled any question about who would dominate and rule the lands of central and southern Utah.
Like most wars, the Black Hawk conflict didn’t just begin by chance. Tensions had been building for a long time, undermining feelings of good will between settlers and American Indians. It had become obvious to native people that the whites were not going to go away of their own accord, nor were they growing weaker.
Indians were troubled by the diseases that followed the white man on to their tribal lands, a mysterious scourge that so swiftly claimed the lives of countless numbers of their people. They were frustrated by the excessive changes occurring in the natural world around them and they knew not how to stop it.
The Ute hunting grounds, once an expansive wilderness filled with abundance, was diminishing as more and more land was fenced for livestock or came under cultivation, or game fell to the settler’s rifle. Worse yet was talk that the government planned to remove Indians from their ancestral homeland and drive them as a people on to a reservation in the Uintah Basin.
The most reactionary of the Ute nation felt that war was the only honorable response. They were torn by the traditions of their people and the complex and foreign ways of the white world. Chief Black Hawk accepted the role to lead his people against the wrongs and injustices that were overpowering them. It would be a bold but desperate struggle for their very survival.