Origin and History
The Sauk (aka Sac) people (literally “yellow earth people”) are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. At the beginning of the 17th century, they were located in Saginaw Bay in Eastern Michigan. They were closely related to the Meskwaki People and to the Kickapoo People. These three peoples probably shared common ancestry. All three had close contact with the Shawnee.
In 1667, when they first met the French, the Sauk people inhabited the headwaters of the Wisconsin River, west of present-day Green Bay and numbered some 6,500. They became intermediaries for the Meskwaki with the French when these allies moved to the region.
In Montréal on August 14, 1695 Sauk delegates were among other western nations that allied themselves to the French.
In 1703 the Sauk quarrelled with the Ojibwe aided by the Meskwaki until the conflict was resolved by the mediation of Jesuits at Michilimackinac.
In 1710 Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac sent messengers to the Sauk, Meskwaki, Kickapoo and Mascouten and others along the Green Bay-Fox-Wisconsin waterway inviting them to relocate to what is now eastern Michigan, towards the Détroit trade, in an effort to stop war with the Dakota and lessen the influence of illegal coureur de bois. Although some made the move the Sauk did not.
From 1712 to 1716, the Sauk people remained neutral in the war between the Meskwaki People and the French and their allies, the First Fox War.
In 1716 a second French expedition of 800 soldiers and Native American allies caused the Meskwaki to make peace with them, one of the terms of the treaty was that the French promised to return Meskwaki captives to their people. This did not happen and tensions arose again. Following this the Mascouten and Kickapoo, the Meskwaki renewed their war with the Peoria Illinois, who they claimed had not returned their prisoners. The Peoria retaliated by torturing all the captured Meskwaki. French voyageurs, soldiers and habitants living alongside the Illinois sided with them against the Meskwaki They also burned or broke the heads of Fox prisoners given them by the Illinois.
In 1719 Kickapoo and or Mascouten warriors killed a Miami visiting a Sauk village. In response the Sauk residents moved to the St Joseph River to disassociate themselves from the attack.
In 1723 Ojibwe warriors from Saginaw attacked a fishing party of Sauk, Meskwaki and a few Winnebago, killing 22 men, women and children. In 1724 Constant Le Marchand Lignery, commandant at Michilimackinac, persuaded the Sauk, Meskwaki and Winnebago to cease their vendetta on the Ojibwe.
In 1725 Sauk diplomats failed to bring back Meskwaki captives, wishing to return, held by the Illinois.
The Second Fox War started in 1728 when Governor de Beauharnois abandoned any mediation, and adopted a policy of genocide against the Meskwaki. The Meskwaki became involved in a war against Nouvelle-France’s allies, the Potawatomi, Illinois, Ojibwe, Wyandot and Odawa, whilst the Sauk and others remained neutral or supported them – the Mascouten, Kickapoo and Winnebago. However, after an argument over French prisoners the Mascouten and Kickapoo defected. Sauk fearing they might be swept in the conflict abandoned their village and fled to the St. Joseph River in present-day Michigan.
Late in July 1730 after two years of war, desperate, the Meskwaki moving east to join the Iroquois, trekked south onto the Grand Prairie followed by Illinois scouts. On August 4 the Meskwaki were surrounded by a large force of Illinois, Mascouten, Kickapoo warriors and could only fortify their position in the grove of trees alongside the Fox River where their women and children sheltered.
On August 17 the besiegers were joined by 300 Sauk, Potawatomi and Miami warriors from Saint-Joseph, Potawatomi with Nicolas-Antoine de Coulon de Villers and nearly 100 French soldiers and another 100 Illinois warriors under Saint-Ange, who were followed later in the day by 28 French and 400 Wea and Piankashaws (Miami) from Fort Ouiatanon. Following largely rebuffed negotiations, some Meskwaki children were taken in by the Sauk.
On September 1 further reinforcements for the besiegers of 200 Wyandot, Potawatomi and Miami arrived. Desperate, on the night of September 8 covered by a storm the Meskwaki broke out and passed through the French lines in small groups. However, they were pursued and at daybreak the following day were caught, surrounded and, outnumbered three to one, slaughtered. The Meskwaki lost 200 men and 300 women and children with the remaining women and children taken prisoner. It was estimated that 450 Meskwaki remained alive, the majority held by French and their allies as captives. About 50 warriors with a handful of women and children escaped and made their back to their ancestral homeland in what is now Wisconsin. They were welcomed by those Meskwaki who had not made the ill-fated immigration, about 350 mostly elderly, women and children. These made peace with Beauharnois, the French Governor General in September 1731.
However, Beauharnois did not keep his word and the war against the Meskwaki continued. In the spring of 1733 Meskwaki abandoned their village and sought shelter with the Sauk, at their village on the Fox River at its junction with Green Bay. In September 1733 Villiers went with Troupes de la Marine and Native American warriors to the Sauk camp and demanded the Sauk to send out the Meskwaki. The Sauk refused. Shots were exchanged in which Villiers and one of his sons were killed. Threatened with being besieged the Sauk and Meskwaki withdrew and fled up the Fox River. On September 20 they were overtaken at Little Butte des Morts (near present-day Appleton). Despite heavy casualties the Sauk and Meskwaki fought them off and continued towards Wisconsin.
In August 1734 Beauharnois sent Nicolas-Joseph des Noyelles with 84 French accompanied by 200 Canadian Iroquois and Wendat to destroy the Meskwaki. Warned of the invasion the Sauk and Meskwaki retreated to the Des Moines River in present day central Iowa. Over the winter the expedition floundered. After reaching the Sauk and Meskwaki village short of food, Noyelles withdrew to the Illinois country. Both the Dakota and Iowa assured the Sauk and Meskwaki that they could remain as long as they wanted. In 1736 many nations interceded with Beauharnois to stop his campaign. In 1737 some Sauk and Meskwaki moved east to establish separate but nearby settlement in present-day north-east Iowa (near the juncture of Cedar, Jones and Clinton counties).
In 1738 Rock River Sauk and Meskwaki leaders travelled to Montréal where Paul Marin was allocated to them. He was to consolidate them at the site of their former village at Green Bay. Marin went with them back to Rock River but they refused to move until reluctantly in the fall of 1741 the Sauk and Meskwaki moved to Little Lake Butte des Morts, with 10 lodges on the Chicago River and three going to Milwaukee., which pleased the French.
In 1749 Jacques-Pierre de Taffanel, Marquis de La Jonquière replaced Beauharnois. Marin requested and was permitted to establish a trading post, Fort Marin, on the upper Mississippi (near present-day Frontenac, Minnesota). The Sauk and Meskwaki returned to the lower Rock River in 1750 and built a village at the confluence of the Rock River with the Mississippi. From here they would raid the Illinois and Osage peoples.
In July and August 1754 Meskwaki emissaries were amongst 1,200 attendees at a conference brought together by the Odawa at Michilimackinac to discuss the impending conflict between France and Great Britain and cleared the way to go to war together against the British.
Role during the War
In 1755 a few Sauk warriors from Rock River were among the 637 Native American warriors that took part in the Ambush on the Monongahela, where they attacked along the flanks of the British column winning the day.
In early July 1757, the Sauk leaders spoke in a war council at Montréal with the Marquis de Montcalm. By July 20, during the French expedition against Fort William Henry, 33 Sauk warriors formed part of Marin’s Brigade. The Siege of Fort William Henry started on August 4 and lasted until August 9, during which time Native Americans were deployed as an observation screen in woods around the perimeter of the cleared land.
From 1758 it seems that the Sauk took little part in further armed activity probably due to the spread smallpox, or the fear of it in contact with other peoples in the Lakes, and the scarcity of supplies arriving from French traders.
Sauk warriors were to take part in the attack on Michilimackinac on the occasion of them happening to visit the Ojibwe there in June 1763.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Sauk dress known to the author from the mid-18th century. Alanson Skinner writing in 1925 considered that ‘In former years the dress of the men of the Sauk tribe was the most gorgeous of all the Central Algonkians, yet it conformed to the general ancient patterns widely spread among the forest Indians.’ The dress is likely to have been similar to the closely related Meskwaki People.
The following is surmised:
A 1730 drawing shows a Meskwaki man with a large patch of short hair at the back and crown of the head, with a long braid on the crown of the head, a scalplock, which was plaited and wrapped to stand upright. It is possible that Sauk men also wore the hair in the same fashion. This style could have persisted into the French and Indian War period. Sauk men may have shaved their head leaving a patch with a long braid or braids at the crown of the head.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences.
A circular roach of red dyed deer hair sewed around a woven base secured with a bone spreader may have been worn. It is fixed to the head by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a bone or wood socket into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Skinner (1925) states: ‘Men formerly wore, as they do still on rare occasions, fillets or head bands made of the fur of wildcats, bears, squirrels, or, for ceremonies and especially dressy functions, otter. Those of bear fur were made of the skin of the animal’s neck, where the hair grows most luxuriantly. When otter was used, sometimes the entire skin was taken and folded over to make a head band. Again, a simple strip of the fur was used, ornamented along the upper edge with scarlet cloth…’
Tattoo and Paint
Tattooing of the face and body is likely to have been practised by Sauk men as an alternative to painting. Tattoos were in the form of linear patterns and also some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure ingrained with powdered charcoal.
It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.
Ears and Nose
Sauk men are likely to have pierced ears. However, there is no evidence that they detached the helix of the ear as did those men of nations to the east of them. Even so, some may have. Earrings were made of silver, brass and sometimes tin. These could have pendant solid silver ball and cones or thin sheets of brass cut into triangles for example.
It is likely that some Sauk men pierced the septum of the nose and wore a silver ring through it, which itself could have a silver or tin pendant dangling from it.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass beads were likely to have been worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells and silver disc. Latterly, as allies of the French silver officer’s gorgets may have been issued to war leaders.
Silver bracelets and armbands were probably worn.
Alanson Skinner noted in 1925 that: ‘Wolf skins were slit so that they could be put over the head, with the head of the wolf hanging over the breast and the tail pendant down the back. They were especially worn by warriors of the Wolf Gens.’
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Sauk men was the breechclout. J. C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment although likely to be applicable to the Sauk that ‘The loincloth is made of deerskin or cloth obtained from Europeans. It is a quarter or third cloth that the men wind between their legs. The piece of cloth is held in place around the hips with a cord. The two ends of the loincloth are folded over in front and in the back, with the end in front longer than the one in the back.’ Pierre Pouchot, writing at the time of the French and Indian War: ‘The men... wear a breach-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell of cloth, which they pass between their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometimes this cloth is embroidered. When they travel, to avoid being chafed by the cloth, they put it on simply as an apron before them.’
Skinner recorded in 1925 that: ‘The Sauk ridicule their Meskwaki' relatives because they declare that the latter wear only an apron flap in front and expose the bare buttocks behind.’ He goes on to state, ‘In cold weather the old time Sauk men wore breech cloths of the tanned skins of the raccoon. They relate that when they dwelt in their old homes in Wisconsin, where it is much colder than in Oklahoma or Kansas, they were obliged to turn the fur side in in winter to keep their testicles from freezing.’
Sauk men are likely to have followed the fashion for half leggings, fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, broaches and braid. Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin could be worn.
Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave of or of deerskin.
The porcupine was absent from Sauk territory so it is likely that garters or other items were less often decorated with quillwork. They are likely to have obtained porcupine quills in trade.
Sauk moccasins were made of smoked buckskin. Skinner wrote that: ‘Moccasins had soft soles of one piece with the uppers, as is customary everywhere in the Woodlands. They were made with a seam running over the instep backward from the toe...’ From a 1730 drawing of a Meskwaki man they may have also constructed moccasins with a vamp over the instep.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermillion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
The Meskwaki warrior in the 1730 drawing shows that when not worn it was tied by the sleeves around the waist. This method of carrying may have been practised by Sauk warriors and other men through the northeast woodlands before combat. A warrior would strip to the bare essentials on such occasions.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
Blankets and Robes
Trade blankets, usually of blue or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with bands of ribbon, and skin robes were worn for warmth.
Sauk warriors are likely to have hung from the belt holding the breechclout their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which could be the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel.
By the beginning of the Seven Years’ War the standard trade musket that armed the Sauk was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal either obtained in trade. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. It is also possible that the Meskwaki obtained a few English-made fusils.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of the deerskin probably with a rounded bottom, from animal skins with the hair left on, otter or badger for example, or perhaps of woven hemp fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads. Straps were likely to have been made of deerskin, or woven fibre. A knife was carried in a sheaf (which, rarely may have been decorated with quillwork) hung around the neck.
It is also possible that some Sauk warriors carried bows and arrows as their principal arm at the time of the French and Indian War.
A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt on the hip.
Apthorp, Kirrily, As Good as an Army: Mapping Smallpox during the Seven Years’ War in North America, Bachelor of Liberal Studies (Honours) in History, University of Sydney, October 2011.
Callander, Charles, Sauk: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 648-655.
Edmunds, R. David and Joseph L, Peyser, The Fox Wars: The Mesquakie Challenge to New France, Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1993.
Hamilton, Edward (trans. and ed.) Adventures in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon The Late War In North America, Between The French And English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 49, 189-191.
Skinner, Alanson, Observations on the Ethnology of the Sauk Indians: Part III, Notes on Material Culture, Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 119-180, 1925.
White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp, 159-175.
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of the article