Driftless Terroir: Writers Reflecting on Blackhawk’s Side of the Story

Ben Strand

By Ben Strand

The summer of 1832 marked the last military battles between Native Americans and the United States east of the Mississippi. Generations of Wisconsinites have reflected upon the massacres that took place during the Black Hawk War that ultimately forced many Native American communities from their cornfields and ancestral homes.

Within a few years of the end of the conflict, the public began to reevaluate the actions against the Meskwaki and Sauk. The penitent tour of northeastern cities that President Jackson forced upon Black Hawk in 1833 had an unintended effect. The elder warrior became a celebrity, and citizens in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia strained for the chance to see Black Hawk — one newspaper dubbed his popularity as “Blackhawkiana.” The release of Black Hawk’s autobiography in 1834 allowed the public to gain a greater insight into his views and the destructive policy of the Indian Removal Act passed in 1830.

In 1857, Iowa allowed members of the Meskwaki to formally purchase land in their state — land that they had been forced to relinquish after the Black Hawk War. This allowed the formal establishments of the Meskwaki Settlement, outside Tama. That same year saw the unveiling of the play “Black Hawk, or Lily of the Prairie,” by Helen Farnsworth Mears, whose pen name was Nellie Wildwood. The play debuted in Madison, Wisconsin, to a full house and presented a favorable treatment of Black Hawk’s plight. 

Hamlin Garland was born in 1860 in West Salem, about 40 miles north of the massacre at Bad Axe. His novels described the trials and tribulations of Midwestern settlers, and made him a well-known American author. However, his journeys to the Dakotas and interviews with Native leaders who took part in the Battle of Little Big Horn led Garland to become an advocate for Native Americans. In 1911, at the unveiling of “The Eternal Indian,” a monolithic, 48-foot-tall concrete sculpture in Oregon, Illinois, Garland caused a stir with his remarks. Garland’s speech included lines in honor of Black Hawk, “to him who died in exile, chieftain still, a victim of our greed. With broken heart, we raise this sentinel of the hill, this splendid symbol of remorseful Art.” The Eternal Indian is commonly referred to as the Black Hawk statue and has recently undergone a complete restoration.

(Left to right): Writers Helen Farnsworth Mears (“Nellie Wildwood”), Hamlin Garland, Edna Meudt, Lorine Niedecker. 

In 1976, for America’s bicentennial, Dodgeville poet Edna Meudt unveiled her play “The Promised Land: The Life and Times of Henry Dodge, First Territorial Governor of the State of Wisconsin.” Meudt (1906-1989), a noted regional poet, grew up on a family farm that encompassed a portion of Territorial Gov. Henry Dodge’s original homestead. Dodge was a forceful voice for removal of all American Indians in Wisconsin — as well as a slave owner. Meudt “picked watercress in [Dodge’s] old creek” and knew of the “Indian marker-maples” in the area. The play focuses on Dodge’s later life, as his wife and children review the tribulations of his pioneer days. The play is bookended with a monologue by Dodge’s wife, Christina, who notes the lack of women’s representation in the histories of the Northwest Territory. In the climax of the play, Dodge’s friends — the newspaperman Philleo and Strong, the local banker — discuss the Black Hawk War. Both friends are aghast over the reports of the cruelty and bloodthirstiness of American soldiers during the massacre on the Bad Axe River.

Bronze sculpture of Black Hawk by Florence Bird at the Mississippi River Sculpture Park in Prairie du Chien. 

Another major Wisconsin poet, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), lived outside Fort Atkinson on her family’s property on Black Hawk Island among the marshes of Lake Koshkonong. Niedecker wrote personal reflections of the landscape and of her daily life. One of her poems connects Black Hawk with Abraham Lincoln’s service in the Illinois militia during the conflict. Niedecker notes in the poem that even today, “reason has small room.” 

The Sauk and Meskwaki Nations continue their traditions today. Sadly, the American government in the 1800s forcibly removed these communities either to lands outside of the heart of their traditional established communities and cornfields, or to the far western edge of their lands in today’s central Iowa. The stories of the Sauk and Fox Nations are preserved, curated and honored at each of their three tribal lands in Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas. The Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa, has held a large and inviting annual powwow for more than 100 years.

Ben Strand grew up in Dodgeville. His book, “A Black Hawk War Guide: Landmarks, Battlefields, Museums and Firsthand Accounts,” is available at local bookstores or online at The History Press. See www.blackhawkwar.com.