These days, the downtown skyline of Madison's Isthmus floats in the late afternoon sun like a dream, rising above the few remnants of the marshes that used to surround what is now Wisconsin's capital city. From this vantage point 175 years ago, marsh and impenetrable thicket would have stretched as far as the eye could see, uninterrupted by tall buildings, or scarcely any visible dwellings at all, though Indians had long lived here amid the lakes and their mounds are everywhere. That's when the trail to the single most tragic event in Wisconsin's history led right through the Isthmus. People died in what later became Madison, and many more were killed a few days later in the Battle of the Bad Axe, which concluded the Black Hawk War, the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River.
From the fall of 1829 until the spring of 1832, an event of national interest caused 1,800 persons to pass through the Isthmus in a 24-hour period. The reason for the presence of this large number of people was not exploration, though some of that was done, or the collection of furs, for there was no time. About 800 U.S. soldiers were making a desperate attempt to catch Chief Black Hawk and his party of 1,000 men, women, and children who were making an equally desperate effort to escape. 1Blackhawk fled the approaching troops along Indian trails through the dense underbrush of the Isthmus, just south of Capitol Hill, along the shore of Lake Mendota. They then passed around Lake Mendota, just west of where this photo was taken at the base of Picnic Point, on their way to an overnight encampment on the north shore of the lake. He had left behind a rear guard of Sauk warriors near the west side of the Yahara River, near where the Williamson Street bridge is today, prepared to engage the soldiers if they tried to cross the river that night. But the soldiers stayed put, and the Sauks left about midnight to rejoin the rest of their band. They had to leave behind sick stragglers to fend for themselves. At least one died, and another was scalped by a Galena newspaper editor and physician who was among the troops.
Twelve days after the warring parties had passed through the Madison Isthmus, the Black Hawk War ended with the bloody Battle of the Bad Axe. There 950 of Black Hawk's band of 1,000 were slaughtered. Tragically, just a few days before the Bad Axe slaughter Black Hawk once again attempted to surrender at the battle of Wisconsin Heights near present-day Sauk City, but the soldiers interpreted the effort as a delaying tactic. More Sauks died than settlers and soldiers, but the toll upon the settlers and soldiers was great also; at least 250 were killed. The Black Hawk War left a legacy of hatred and distrust for Indians, a feeling that persisted for many years. 2The hatred is gone now, of course, replaced by the usual historical forgetfulness. What remains is an overlay of history, pentimento reminders of dispossession and tragedy that you'll find if you look, in place names and effigy mounds. Blawk Hawk's name is not forgotten. It's remembered today as the name of a country club. From their website:
Pride in our past is evident in the names associated with several holes on the golf course, which we hope you will find interesting. The Club itself is named after Chief Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk Indians, who traveled through this land in the early 1830s.He did, indeed -- his course around Lake Mendota took him and his band right through the area where the golf course now is situated, with 800 soldiers in pursuit.
1. Madison: A History of the Formative Years, 2nd Edition, David V. Mollenhoff, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 19.