Remembering the Black Hawk War

Historical markers must have been on my mind after hearing that NPR story (featured in my “Collected Links” blog post), because the other day, from the bus, I saw a marker that I had never seen before. As the driver lurched forward with another passenger in tow, I could just make out the title: “Tragedy of War.”

The next afternoon I returned to the small green space surrounded by busy streets and a parking lot to read the full text.

 The micropark that holds the marker.

Here’s the full text:


On July 21, 1832, during the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Militia “passed through the narrows of the four lakes,” Madison’s isthmus, in pursuit of Sac Indian leader Black Hawk and his band. Near this location, the Militia shot and scalped an old Sac warrior awaiting his death upon his wife’s freshly dug grave.

Erected 1998

Let’s unpack this a little.

The Black Hawk War was a series of battles between Sauk (or “Sac” as the marker puts it) leader Black Hawk and his followers (which at times included some Kickapoo and Potawatomi Indians) and (at different times) both U. S. regulars and militiamen. It’s a convoluted conflict that lasted from May to August of 1832, meandering across Illinois and Wisconsin as Black Hawk and those with him sought to evade the militiamen and regulars. There were numerous miscommunication and missed opportunities for diplomacy.

It was a conflict that caused panic throughout Illinois and Wisconsin, in part because there were reports of Indian raids (not Black Hawk’s people) in militiamen’s home communities (in their absence). Battles were chaotic, often fought by small groups in the form of raids rather than pitched battles.

By early July, General Henry Atkinson discharged the Illinois militia (which included Abraham Lincoln!) in order to conserve dwindling supplies, and continued on with his soldiers (including Colonel Zachary Taylor!). It was on July 21, the same day as noted on this historical marker, that Atkinson’s troops caught up with Black Hawk’s rear guard near present-day Sauk City. Though many of Black Hawk’s followers successfully crossed the Wisconsin River and continued to flee westward, the “Battle of Wisconsin Heights” (as that rear guard action by the Sauk came to be called) proved to be a turning point as Atkinson’s forces killed around 70 Indian combatants (only one white man was killed).

In the next two weeks, Atkinson’s troops met up with militia forces commanded by Colonel Henry Dodge (later Governor of the Wisconsin Territory) and chased Black Hawk and his people westward. When they came to the Mississippi, there were roughly 400 people left following Black Hawk. Nearly all of them were massacred when they were pinned between a gunboat on the river and Atkinson’s reinforced troops. Black Hawk surrendered on August 8. In the next year, Black Hawk and a handful of fellow prisoners were paraded around the country to be ogled. Writer Washington Irving came to see them, as did George Catlin and many other artists. Crowds flocked in the cities along the East Coast to catch a glimpse. The prisoners were burned in effigy in Detroit. And then they were released. Black Hawk lived another five years in Iowa before passing away in 1838.

“Like most frontier wars,” James Lewis writes, “the Black Hawk War provided a boost to a number of political careers.” Besides Lincoln and Taylor, two other presidential hopefuls were involved in the Black Hawk War. Winfield Scott, later Whig candidate for president, saw action in the conflict and Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, was in charge of escorting the captive Black Hawk south to St. Louis. (1)

Given that context, let us turn back to the militiamen of the historical marker. If they were not facing Black Hawk’s rear guard on the banks of the Wisconsin, 7 hours on foot to the northwest, it seems possible that they were members of some of the forces that had been sent home by General Atkinson. Perhaps they were frustrated at having seen little battle and saw this Indian man as a chance to get in on the action. They were certainly not ashamed of what they had done, for not only did they scalp their victim but told their tale to someone (or the marker wouldn’t exist).

Whatever the militiamen’s motives, it seems clear by that this was not, by contemporary standards, a battle of any sort, but rather a war-time atrocity. Perhaps the marker should read “Tragedy Near War”?

That is not to say that it was an isolated incident. At the massacre on the banks of the Mississippi two weeks later, the white forces scalped many of their victims and took trophies of back flesh. For any folks wondering if our sainted President Lincoln partook in these ghastly displays, the answer seems to be “no.” He was not involved in any battles and was sent packing to Peoria on July 10 from Whitewater, WI. (2)

If this marker serves no other purpose than to draw attention back to a shameful past that is rarely thought on, it will have been worth it.

  1. James Lewis, “The Black Hawk War: Interpretive Essays” Northern Illinois University, accessed 14 May, 2016,
  2. Carl Sandburg, ‘Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years’ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002: 32.

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