Chasing Black Hawk


Situated among the rugged bluffs of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Area,” and along the main channel of the mighty Mississippi, lies a rather small, but beautifully scenic county park.  Forested with seemingly endless cottonwoods, and offering a wide array of recreational activities, the park is a popular spot for locals looking to enjoy camping, fishing, swimming and boating, to name a few.

It’s name, Blackhawk Park, is synonymous with countless other businesses and facilities in the area also utilizing the name of the great Sauk chief, who’s people used to live on this land throughout southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois.   So common is the name “Blackhawk” in this part of the state that most do not even think to question why this park was so named, or what this place may have had to do with Black Hawk, or his people.

Most visitors also seemingly fail to notice an obscure white stone marker, standing crooked near the water and off the beaten path.  Crudely carved, and in the shape of an elongated cemetery headstone, the marker tells a tragic tale. A tale of one of America’s worst moments. A tale which left the waters below this marker, almost two centuries ago, running red with blood.
It was on this spot, in August, 1832, that the Black Hawk War ended in the most brutal way imaginable.

The war began in April, 1832, after Black Hawk led his “British Band” – so called because they had fought with the British during the War of 1812 – back across the Mississippi to Illinois from Iowa Indian Territory.  Although this land used to be the home of Black Hawk and his people, it had since been ceded to the U.S. government during the removal of tribes from the eastern part of the country.

Of the 1,100 who crossed back into Illinois, 600 were women, children, and elderly men.  The move was deemed hostile and the US militia and regular Army was called in. The resulting “war” was actually a series of skirmishes, ambushes, and sneak attacks between the Natives and the American regular Army, militia, and settlers as the Band was pushed northwest into Wisconsin, back towards the Mississippi.

After catching up with the retreating Band at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21st, the surviving Band, including Black Hawk, hurried further west, starving, sick, and outnumbered, attempting to cross the Mississippi again, back into Iowa. The Americans would not let that happen.


The forgotten sign at Blackhawk Park telling the tale of the beginning of the end of the Black Hawk War.

On August 2nd, the American militia again caught up to the Band on the banks of the Mississippi, a few miles downstream from the Bad Axe River, and opened fire. The remaining warriors tried to hold off the Americans while the women, children, and elderly desperately attempted to cross the river. Some made it to nearby islands. Many drowned or were picked off in the water. The American steamboat, Warrior arrived at the scene, after firing on the Band the day prior, this time carrying the regular Army.

The Natives had no chance. Warriors, women, children, and elderly were slaughtered indiscriminately.  Even those who made it across the river were hunted down by enemy tribes and murdered on the other side. The war was over.

Today, unsuspecting recreationers camp on this very spot and swim in these same waters at Blackhawk Park.

The Driftless Area of Wisconsin is not only one of the most beautiful and romantic in the state, but also one of the most haunted.  For generations, folktales and legends have been told and written about southwestern Wisconsin and it’s violent history and haunted aftermath.

Is the slaughter of the British Band one reason for this? One group plans to find out.

The Midwestern Paranormal Investigative Network, based in Wisconsin, is currently in the midst of a grand undertaking: a paranormal investigation of the entire Black Hawk War.

“Unless you’ve done the research, most people don’t realize that virtually the entire war can be traced today.  Every American camp, every British Band camp, every battle site, almost the whole Black Hawk Trail is known and can be retraced today,” says Vicky Steffens of MPIN.  “We can walk where we know the Band walked.  We can stand where we know Indians and Americans died, even after almost 200 years”

The team is well aware that this is not your typical paranormal investigation.

“This is ongoing, and probably, to be honest, never-ending,” says Steffens.  “There are many, many sites to cover.  We want to see if we can learn our history through unconventional means, and we’re putting the work in to find out.”

The team is also requesting anyone who may have had unexplained experiences in Wisconsin or Illinois, possibly regarding the Black Hawk War, to contact them.

“There are places where the energy of those tragic days remains.  Of that, we have no doubt.”

Present site of the Battle of Bad Axe. The steamboat Warrior approached from the left in this photo.

Present site of the Battle of Bad Axe. The steamboat Warrior approached from the left in this photo.

Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler. More of his work can be seen at


  1. Being an amateur historian and publisher of my own history blog I found this article to be of great interest to me. Here in north central Illinois we have many references to chief Black Hawk, the Black Hawk indian wars, with statues and memorials. Future president Abraham Lincoln fought in the Illinois Militia during this war. Thanks so much for posting this!


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