Road Trip Through History: Black Hawk State Historical Site

My Own True Love and I are big believers in stopping at the local tourist information center in any town we go through, even if we are simply in transit rather than on an official Road Trip. More than once, a local booster has steered us to something we might not have found on our own. The Quad Cities tourist information center in Moline did not disappoint.*

Once she learned that we were interested in history, the young woman at the information desk insisted suggested strongly that we visit Black Hawk State Historic Site, just outside Rock Island, Illinois. She assured me that the park’s museum covered more than just the Black Hawk War, which we had already spent a great deal of time thinking about on our last trip along the Great River Road.** In fact, she patiently assured me of this several times because I could not quite believe it was true.

It turns out that she knew her stuff. From the history buff’s perspective, the site is a two-fer.

The park itself was the site of the Watch Tower Amusement Park, which operated from 1891 to 1925. Operated by the local street car company, the park was located at the end of the line. (Admission was free if you came on the streetcar.) The park had everything you would expect at amusement park, including a 1,000-seat amphitheater where traveling theater troupes of all kinds, from opera to vaudeville, performed. Thousands of people visited the park each day

The most popular ride was called “Chute the Shoots”: the prototype for the toboggan slide  rides that became popular in amusement parks across the country within a decade. Flat-bottomed boats ran on greased wooden tracks from the top of a steep bluff down to the Rock River, gathering speed along the way. (Up to 80 miles an hour according to one source.) When the boat near the bottom of the track, the ride’s operator released the boat from the tracks, which then skimmed over the water. The conductor would pole the boats back to the bottom of the Chutes, where they were hauled back up using electricity from the street car lines. Personally, I think it sounds terrifying. But then, the Tilt-a-Whirl is the wildest ride I’m willing to go on.

In 1925, the Tri-City Railway closed the park which had become too expensive to run. In 1927, the State of Illinois purchased the site, removed the rides and attractions, and created Black Hawk State Park.

The amusement park was a lagniappe as far as we were concerned. We were there for the Hauberg Indian Museum, which is housed in a located in a massive stone and timber lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.(Though in truth, we are always happy to wander around a CCC building. And this one is a stunner.)

The a small museum focuses on the Sauk and Meskwaki*** peoples. The first room tells the history of the two nations from the time they settled in the region in the mid-18th century through the Black Hawk war, which was the heart of the museum as far as I was concerned. The second room contains a set of four life-size dioramas depicting the live traditional lives of the two nations across four seasons—which I wasn’t particularly interested in—and photographs of some of Black Hawk’s descendents—which I found fascinating.

Here are the things that stuck with me abut the years before the Black Hawk War:

  • The Sauk (or Sac, depending on who you read) and Meskwaki were Algonquin language people who arrived in the area near what is now the Quad Cities around 1760. They had been forced out of their home in the Great Lakes region as a result of fur trading conflicts with the Huron. In turn, they forced the Illini Confederation peoples west out of the Rock River Valley.
  • Both peoples were semi-nomadic, occupying permanent settlements during the growing season and hunting and trapping furs during the winter to trade for supplies. The Sauk lived south of the Rock River in a city called Saukenak. With a population of some 5,000 people, it was the largest city in Illinois at the time of the 1822 census. The Meskwaki lived in several smaller villages that were built 25 to 30 miles apart, about one hard day’s ride on horseback.
  •  Saukenak was the site of the westernmost battle/skirmish/conflict of the American Revolution. Colonel George Rogers Clark ordered an expedition against the Sauk city in retaliation for Sauk support of the British. A small force of American, French and Spanish soldiers destroyed the city.  The Sauk rebuilt Saukenak, only to have it attacked again in 1814. Black Hawk was thirteen when the city was destrtoyed.Perhaps it should come as no surprise that he was not a fan of the United States.

* For those of you who aren’t from the Midwest, and maybe for some of you who are, the Quad Cities are four small cities clustered around the banks of the Mississippi. Moline and Rock Island are in Illinois. Davenport and Bettendorf are in Iowa. (Personally, I always have trouble keeping them straight in my head.)

**Not enough time to be considered experts, but definitely more than a casual glance. (Are there Black Hawk War buffs?)

*** The French called them Reynards (Foxes), for reasons that I have not been able to discover, and they show up as the Fox people in many English language accounts. But that is not what they called themselves, and there is no reason we should continue the practice. You could call me Patsy, but it wouldn’t make it my name.

Travelers’ Tips:

• If you put the official park address in your GPS, it will take you to the park office. The woman at the office made it clear that she was with the conservation police and knew nothing about the museum. She did, however, offer to issue me a fishing license. If you are at the site for history-buff reasons, you want to stop at the Watch Tower Lodge, which appears to be closed. Drive past the locked gates and follow the sign to the parking lot.
• Try the ice cream at Largomarcino, in Moline. They’ve been making their own ice cream in the basement since 1908 and it is fabulous.


Edited:  I now have the answer:  there is at least one Black Hawk War buff and he has written a guide not only to the sites and landmarks, but to first hand accounts.

From the Archives: The So-Called Black Hawk Wars

Normally when one of my posts refers to circumstances that I wrote about in the past, I simply put a hot link in the new post referring any readers who are interested back to the old post, with no assurance that anyone other than My Own True Love will click through.

But the Black Hawk War—which I now think of as the Black Hawk Massacres—is a recurring theme in the next few posts. Some of you might find this post from 2019 helpful. (And if you don’t, I’ve found it useful to re-read it. Because details fade when you don't reinforce them.)

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Here’s what I knew about the Black Hawk War at the beginning of our most recent travels along the Great River Road: it was a small scale war between Native American tribes and American settlers in the upper Midwest prior to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln fought in it as a member of the Illinois militia. I didn’t even known which tribes were involved.

It soon became clear that the war would be one of the recurring themes of the trip. We drove on Blackhawk streets and across a bridge named in honor of Chief Black Hawk. His picture appeared with brief paragraphs in the displays at Effigy Mounds National Monument, the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center in Lansing, Iowa, and the River Museum at LaCrosse.

We began to get a better sense of the story when we came across historical markers describing actions in the war appeared along the road in Wisconsin.(1) They were set up as a driving tour dedicated to the Black Hawk War, put together in the 1930s by a Wisconsin history buff named Dr. C.V. Porter, who was determined that the events of the war should not be forgotten. He put concrete markers at each stop. (They bear an uncomfortable, and not inappropriate, resemblance to tombstones.) In the 1990s, the Vernon County Historical Society restored the markers and added explanatory plaques. You can now drive a trail that follows Black Hawk’s doomed flight toward the Mississippi, aided by a pamphlet put out by the Vernon County Historical Society and the text on the markers.

Unfortunately, not all of the markers were on our path, and we did not read them in order. Which meant we did not get anything more from the markers than an unhappy sense that the story was an ugly one.

We finally learned the story from beginning to end at an unexpected stop on the road: the Genoa National Fish Hatchery.(2) Here’s the short version:

The conflict began in 1804, with the Treaty of St. Louis, when Sauk and Fox chiefs signed a treaty ceding a large portion of their land to the United States in exchange for $1000 a year and the right to continue using the land until the United States sold the land to settlers. There is some suggestion that William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana territory,(3) resorted to trickery in the treaty negotiations. (In fact, President Jefferson wrote Harrison a letter suggesting ways that the Native American tribes could be pressured into selling their lands, including a establishing a monopoly on trading posts and then allowing Native Americans to get so deeply in debt that they had to sell their lands.) (4)

Black Hawk never accepted the treaty, claiming that the chief who signed for the Sauk did not have the authority to sell the land. He and his people traveled back to their settlement at Saukenuk, near what is now Rock Island, Illinois, each summer to grow corn and other crops. When they returned in 1828, they found that the government had sold off parcels of the Sauk territory to individual citizens. In fact, settlers were living in Black Hawk’s own long house.

In 1832, Black Hawk was  determined to return his people to their home, encouraged by promises of help from the British, with whom he had sided in the war of 1812, and by visions of success from an influential medicine man named Wabokieshiek, known as the Winnebago Prophet. (You can see how this is going to work out, right?)

Relationships between the Sauk and settlers had been tense for several years. When Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin from Iowa with a group of 1500 Sauk, roughly 1000 of them women , children and the elderly, skittish settlers sent word to General Edmund P Gaines. Commander of the Western Army, and Illinois Governor John Reynolds that Black Hawk had invaded.

By mid-April, Gaines and Reynolds, worried about the possibility of British support for the Sauk, had mobilized both the US Army and the Illinois state militia in pursuit of Black Hawk and his people.

Not surprisingly, the promised British support never arrived. In May, Black Hawk attempted to negotiate with a small group of Illinois militiamen under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman who were camped nearby. He sent three of his men with a white flag to the militia camp. The militiamen, who could not understand the three men's language assumed the worst (despite the white flage) and fired on them, killing one of the truce bearers. When the Sauk retaliated, Stillman’s volunteers panicked and fled in the face of what they perceived to be a large body of warriors. The losses at what came to be known as the Battle of Stillman’s Run were few, but they were enough to end any hope of peace.

Soon Black Hawk’s main goal was to get his people safely back to Iowa. The local American authorities, fearful that Black Hawk and his band would trigger a general uprising among the local tribes, were determined not to let him get away.

Throughout June and early July, small bands of militia and Native Americans fought their way across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. (Not all of the Native Americans were part of Black Hawk’s band. Some other groups appear to have taken advantage of the situation to attack settlers, secure that Black Hawk’s people would take the blame.) Although the main Sauk band successfully eluded the pursuing militia, they had no time to rest or resupply.

On August 1, Black Hawk’s remaining forces, totally perhaps 500 men, women, and children, had reached the banks of the Mississippi near the town of Bad Ax.(5) Notified by members of the Winnebago tribe that the Sauk were at the river’s edge, the settlement at Prairie du Chien sent a steamboat upriver, carrying a detachment of US Infantry and a six-pound cannon, with orders to keep the Sauk from crossing the river. Black Hawk attempted to surrender to the steamboat captain, who fired on the unprepared Sauk

The following day, bands of militia pushed the Sauk toward the river, where the steamboat fired at those who tried to cross. The “battle” of Bad Axe lasted more than three hours. The few who made it across the Mississippi met a band of Sioux, who took advantage of the battle to settle old scores.

Black Hawk surrendered on August 27. He was held for a time at Fort Crawford, then sent east as the main attraction of a multi-city tour designed to impress his peers with the folly of standing up against the United States government. The United States used his rebellion as an excuse to demand further concessions from the Sauk and Fox chiefs, most of whom had not participated in Black Hawk’s doomed attempt to regain his homeland.

In my opinion, the fifteen weeks of the Black Hawk War of 1832 would be better best described as the Black Hawk Massacre. Not a story to be proud of.

(1) As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we love a good historical marker

(2) We came away from this trip very impressed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its information centers are right up there with those of the National Park Service.

(3) Best known as the president with the shortest tenure of office, dying after only 31 days in office. His death triggered a political crisis, which ultimately clarified how power is transferred when a president is unable to serve his full term. Not a small legacy. But I digress.

(4) Ironic, given Jefferson’s own problems with debt.

(5) Later renamed Genoa at the suggestion of a group of Italian immigrants who argued, probably with some justice, that the name Bad Ax attracted unsavory elements to the town.

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Next up: A visit to the Black Hawk State Historical Site in Iowa, where we learned more about the Sauk and Meskiwaki nations in the period before the Black Hawk Wars.

Road Trip Through History: The German-American Heritage Center and Museum


My Own True Love and I might well have stopped at the German-American Heritage Center and Museum in Davenport, Iowa, for its building alone. The museum is housed in a building that was originally the "Germania", a Gast Haus for German immigrants. Built in 1870, the Germania was one of the earliest of many immigrant hotels built in the area at the end of the nineteenth century and the last one still standing. It has been beautifully restored and adapted as a museum. We are suckers for old buildings and this kind of thing is jam for our morning toast.*

In some ways, the building itself is the largest exhibit in the museum:** an emblem for the experience of German immigrants that the museum as a whole explores.

The museum was well worth the stop. The main exhibit of the museum traces German history from 9 C.E. through World War II in short clear bites.*** It explains why big waves of immigrant occurred.**** It describes what the journey was like and what immigrants found when they got here. An entire room is devoted to German-American culture in Davenport, as a lens for German immigrant culture in America as a whole. The final section explains what happened to that culture when the United States entered World War I in April, 1917. (The short version? Erasure)

One thing the museum does particularly well is give immigration a face. For a part of the exhibit called “The Passport Experience,” visitors can chose an immigrant, represented by a card with a photograph, demographic details and a QR code, and follow them through a number of stations throughout the exhibit.***** Another feature, called "Step into my Shoes," allowed visitors to trigger short films in which individual immigrants talk about their experiences by stepping into one of several sets of footprints on the floor.

The museum also included two smaller, thought-provoking exhibits.

The first, called "Hidden Hapsburgs," looked at citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who emigrated alongside a number of Germans after the uprisings that shook Europe in 1848. Because most of them were German speakers, they are often treated as Germans when people write about the immigrants of 1848, but their experience was different in several important ways. Most notably, the Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries were pardoned in 1867 and had the opportunity to return home. The German revolutionaries were never pardoned. This exhibit was a real head smack for me. I was familiar with a great deal of the material in the main exhibit, but had never thought about Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries.

The second exhibit looked at the experience of immigrants to the Davenport area today and compares it to the experience of German immigrants in the nineteenth century. This exhibit centers on the work of a non-for-profit called Tapestry Farms.

Different in some ways. Alike in so many others.

*If you’re in Davenport and noticed a tall gray-haired man and a short red-haired woman walking around an unusual old building for no apparent reason or bending over to look at a sandstone foundation, it was probably us.

**Though obviously it wasn’t in the museum. Because that would require space to loop in on itself in a way possible only in a Terry Pratchett novel.

***Why 9 C.E. you ask? One word: Romans. Specifically, the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when a alliance of Germanic peoples defeated the Romans and stopped Roman expansion. It is an important date in European history, but I must admit, the choice of 9 C.E. as a start date gave me the giggles.

****The first big wave occurred after the failed revolutions of 1848. The second occurred in the 1870s when German Catholics faced persecution in the new German Empire.

*****I first saw this technique used at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where the effect was heartrending.


Traveler’s Tip: If you’re in the Quad Cities during baseball season, checkout the schedule for the local minor league ball team, the delightfully named Quad City River Bandits. It’s hard to beat a summer night at a small ballpark.