The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Black Hawk War

One name recurs frequently as you travel along the northern Mississippi River: Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk and Mesquakie Indians of northern Illinois during the feverish era of American expansion into the newly opened Louisiana Purchase in the late 1820s. Indian fighters were held in high esteem by 19th-century Americans; consider that a number of U.S. Army officers sent against Black Hawk later became president, including William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson. After Jackson rode his Indian-fighter reputation into the White House, Black Hawk and his people were forced to leave their rich Illinois cornfields as settlers and lead miners moved in.

In 1832, as newspapers around the United States demanded the extermination of any and all Indians, Black Hawk (who was around 65 years old at the time) moved back to Illinois to regain the tribe’s lost lands along the Rock River. In response, President Jackson sent in the army, and as Black Hawk and his 300 or so supporters tried to withdraw back across the Mississippi, soldiers and frontier militias attacked them at what became known as the Battle of Bad Axe, midway between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien. When Black Hawk and his men came forward under a white flag, an Army gunboat opened fire, while many of the Indian women and children who had succeeded in riding log rafts across the river were slaughtered on the other side. By various accounts, some 150 of Black Hawk’s people were killed. Black Hawk himself was soon captured and imprisoned, then paraded around the United States in chains. After Black Hawk died in 1838, his skeleton was displayed in the governor’s mansion in Iowa, like a trophy.