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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Black Hawk Retreats through Madison

Madison enters the historical record during one of Wisconsin's great tragedies. In early April, 1832, the Sauk chief Black Hawk led roughly 1,200 people across the Mississippi River to re-occupy their homelands in northern Illinois. They were met by soldiers who forced them out of their former village and refused to honor their attempts to surrender. Black Hawk fled with his warriors and non-combatants up the Rock River Valley, through Dane County, and across the Wisconsin River in a vain attempt to re-cross the Mississippi. Many elderly Indians and children died of starvation or exhaustion on the way, while others fell in skirmishes with the pursuing white soldiers. The Black Hawk War ended August 2nd at the mouth of the Bad Axe River when soldiers massacred all but about 150 of the Sauk in the Battle of Bad Axe.

In mid-July, the retreating Sauk had approached Madison from the southeast and taken refuge in nearby wetlands. "During our encampment at the Four Lakes," Black Hawk later said in his autobiography, "we were hard pressed to obtain enough to eat to support nature. Situated in a swampy, marshy country, (which had been selected in consequence of the great difficulty required to gain access thereto,) there was but little game of any sort to be found, and fish were equally scarce. The great distance to any settlement, and the impossibility of bringing supplies therefrom, if any could have been obtained, deterred our young men from making further attempts. We were forced to dig roots and bark trees, to obtain something to satisfy hunger and keep us alive. Several of our old people became so reduced, as to actually die with hunger! Learning that the army had commenced moving, and fearing that they might come upon and surround our encampment, I concluded to remove our women and children across the Mississippi, that they might return to the Sac nation again. Accordingly, on the next day we commenced moving, with five Winnebagoes acting as our guides, intending to descend the Wisconsin." Two years later their trail across the isthmus was still visible.

The soldiers who pursued them forded the Yahara River near the site of the Williamson St. bridge and pushed toward what would become downtown. On the shore of Lake Monona, not far east of Monona Terrace Convention Center, they came upon a lonely straggler from Black Hawk's community. According to historian Daniel Durrie, who knew not only textual sources but also many of the participants in Madison's early history, "An Indian was seen coming up from the water's edge, near the present watering place below the Lake, now [1874] Meredith House, who seated himself upon the bank, apparently indifferent to his fate. In a moment after, his body was pierced with bullets, one of which passed in at the temple and out of the back part of his head. On examination, it was found that he was sitting upon a newly made grave, probably that of his wife who had perhaps died of fatigue, hunger and exhaustion, and her disconsolate companion had resolved to await the advancing foe and die there also."

The soldiers followed the trail "almost preceisely over the ground that the capitol now stands upon," according to one of them, and through the University of Wisconsin campus to the west side of the lake in present-day Middleton. "It appeared that an admirable position for a battle-field, with natural defenses and places of ambush, had been chosen by the enemy; and here they had apparently lain the previous night." The Sauk evaded the soldiers until they reached the Wisconsin River and met in the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 22nd.

[Sources: Daniel Durrie's History of Madison published in 1874, and Wisconsin Historical Collections, volume 10]

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on March 27, 2006

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