Major festivities and fireworks are scheduled for tonight atop the Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center, as the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lakefront facility commemorates its opening 10 years ago. The celebration has been dubbed "Promises Kept."
The event is a free community celebration attracting citizens of the greater Madison area and will include music from Madison favorites: Mama Digdown's Brass Band, MadiSalsa, Ben and Leo Sidran Trio, and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. There will be family activities, ethnic food vendors, fireworks, and more! This event also celebrates the support of those individuals, businesses, and organizations that have played an essential role in making Monona Terrace a Madison landmark and true success story.The phrase "Promises Kept" has a certain historical irony when you consider that, exactly 175 years ago today, the great Sauk leader Black Hawk led his band of some 1,000 warriors, women and children past the site where Monona Terrace now stands. As this marker in Olbrich Park notes, they were taking the "Third Lake Passage," an old Indian trail along Lake Monona. They were fleeing federal troops and militias who who had been pursuing them since April, after Black Hawk's quest for justice in the face of broken promises went dreadfully wrong. Less than two weeks after passing through what would one day be known as the Madison isthmus, most of his followers were massacred at the Bad Axe River near the Mississippi.
This history is part of an earlier era in a new nation. Wisconsin had not yet even achieved territorial status (1836), let along statehood (1848). Only six years before Black Hawk and his people passed through the isthmus, the two old adversaries and former presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, had died within hours of each other on the 50th birthday of the country, July 4, 1826. (Black Hawk himself was in his mid-sixties when he led his people through the Third Lake Passage, having been born almost a decade before the Revolutionary War, in 1767.)
Dennis McCann wrote eloquently about the Black Hawk War (a misnomer, he points out) a few months ago in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
"It can be argued," said retired state archaeologist Bob Birmingham, who taught our three-session class in Black Hawk history, "that the Black Hawk War is the most important event in Wisconsin history."Times, of course, have changed. The state of Wisconsin offered a belated apology, which was read by then-State Representative David Clarenbach in a 1990 ceremony. But the sense that a great tragedy took place here has never totally gone away. The feeling that we are here on land that was essentially stolen can haunt you when looking at the remaining effigy mounds, built by an earlier people. It's there if you stop near Sauk City at the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, where Black Hawk and his warriors made their last, valiant stand -- holding off the pursuing troops long enough to make one last escape, before the forces arrayed against them finally closed in at the Bad Axe. And on a quiet day in this part of the country, it's hard not to think of Black Hawk when you look up and see a hawk circling high above on the thermals like an ascending spirit.
It is hard to argue otherwise. The war's bloody outcome and subsequent removal of Indians ended the last native threat to whites who were flooding into southwestern Wisconsin to mine for lead. The resulting settlement led directly to territorial status in 1836 and to statehood in 1848.
Some of the most famous names of that day - and of Wisconsin and American history - took part in the war, from Abraham Lincoln to Jefferson Davis to Zachary Taylor to Henry Dodge and Winfield Scott.
Yet for all of its import, it was not a war as such. It was a chase of Black Hawk's warriors, women and children by militia and regular army over a period of four months that ended at Bad Axe on the Mississippi River with the massacre of fleeing Indians who had tried in vain to surrender.
Sure, I'll probably go watch the fireworks tonight, and the Monona Terrace deserves its celebration. It has become a part of the community and a real asset for downtown Madison. But as I stand there by the side of Lake Monona I'll also be thinking about another time, another people who passed through here, and their heroic but doomed struggle.
7/21 UPDATE: In today's Wisconsin State Journal Anita Clark writes about the commemorative observances today at the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights near Sauk City.
Events beginning at 10 a.m. today will commemorate the battle and its enduring impact on Wisconsin history. A tobacco gift from the Ho-Chunk Nation will be followed by a message from the Sac and Fox nation of Oklahoma, the descendants of Black Hawk's band. Speakers will share tales of treachery and bravery, bloodshed and misery, of the confrontation now called a turning point in what is popularly known as the Black Hawk War.The article includes directions, a schedule, and additional links.
"I prefer to call it the chase of Black Hawk. We Anglos called it war," said David Gjestson, a retired wildlife biologist who knows every inch of the historic site and every turn of the historic story. An oak savanna in Black Hawk's day, the land is now overgrown with invading black and honey locust trees. They block the view that once extended for miles.