In 1832 the Sauk chief Black Hawk led a group of warriors and their families--a total of 1,500 people--across the glacier-flattened, sparsely settled prairie of northern Illinois and up into Wisconsin. Their goal was the recovery of former homelands on this side of the Mississippi, but near Lake Geneva, the strength of his party diminishing and an army of volunteer soldiers in full pursuit, Black Hawk decided to turn back. He headed west and north, into the hills of the driftless (nonglaciated) country west of Madison, and on to the steep, wooded bluffs on the east bank of the Mississippi. There the army finally caught up with him, and the slaughter was nearly total. Black Hawk was one of the few survivors.
Black Hawk's trail, a 400-mile-long semicircle that starts in Davenport, Iowa, can be retraced with the help of disparate historical sources, a good road atlas, and a little imagination (the ubiquitous appropriation of the chief's name and likeness by banks, appliance repair shops, and shopping malls does not provide reliable trail markers). Black Hawk followed mostly rivers, until the final desperate days when the group struck out overland toward the Mississippi, and most of their trail can be followed by car. What took Black Hawk 15 tortuous weeks can take you two days at a relatively demanding pace, but just imagine an ever-growing army of bloodthirsty militiamen on your heels. And bear in mind that following the chief is richer in historical thrills than in tourist-oriented stuff like fancy restaurants and quaint B and Bs.
Start in Davenport. You can get there from Chicago in about three hours, so if you're planning a weekend trip it's best to leave Friday afternoon and stay in Davenport overnight. There you'll find the Blackhawk Hotel (200 E. Third St., 800-553-1173), a recently renovated behemoth near the Mississippi. Built in 1915, the Blackhawk is now part of the casino-inspired rejuvenation of the Quad Cities. Rooms start at $69 for a single, but if money's tight there are plenty of cheaper chain motels around. The Blackhawk's restaurant is pretty cool though, with its huge exposed beams and ram's-horn chandeliers, and if you swing by for breakfast you can have "Blackhawk breakfast potatoes" with your eggs.
It's a short drive from the hotel to the Black Hawk State Historic Site, just south of Moline (1510 46th Ave., Rock Island, 309-788-0177). Head south across the Mississippi at the Centennial Bridge and immediately turn right. At 11th Street turn left (south), and just past the mall with the giant Black Hawk in the parking lot turn left on Blackhawk Road (also known as 46th Avenue) at the TV store named for--you guessed it. At the historic site a beautiful park surrounds a lodge built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, complete with massive exposed timbers and flagstone floors; there are meeting rooms here but, unlike a similar lodge at Starved Rock State Park, no guest rooms. A life-size statue of Black Hawk stands in a courtyard, pondering the impressive view of the vast quarry in the valley below. The Hauberg Indian Museum inside the lodge is worth the $2 donation, but don't look here for Black Hawk's route: the attendants are pleasant but relatively clueless about the chief's trail. Investigate the interesting photos of his descendants and the well-done dioramas depicting Indian life on the plains, and hit the road.
Head northeast along Illinois 5, which becomes 92 and finally turns into U.S. Highway 88 just past Blackhawk College. The topography is pretty flat here, and you've got a lot of miles to cover, so eat up some ground on 88 while you can. Exit at 78 south to visit Prophetstown, named not, as you might expect, for the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, but for the controversial Native American called the Prophet who was instrumental in Black Hawk's decision to rebel. On the main street, just past the Pizza Pit (which was hosting a rummage sale in the foyer in June), you'll find the Historical Society Museum (no phone--try the chamber of commerce at 815-537-5598 for information). It's open until noon on Saturday, but if you're lucky Marge Sommers will be hanging around until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Sommers, who recently won three million dollars in the Illinois lottery, is a font of knowledge about Prophetstown and the surrounding area. She writes a weekly column on historical subjects for the local paper, and she doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the shady character of the town's namesake. Be sure to check out the collection of push mowers--in older days the cornerstone of the Prophetstown economy--in a corner of the modest museum.
From Prophetstown, take 172 east--a tremendously straight and flat stretch of road--to Illinois Route 88 north (not 88 the tollway). Exit at Highway 2 north to Dixon, best known as the birthplace of Ronald Reagan but also a stopover for Black Hawk as he pushed farther into Illinois. Dixon will be the last town for a while to offer much in the way of food and supplies. Black Hawk stopped here to visit his friend John Dixon at his cabin on the north bank of the Rock River. Dixon advised him to abandon his campaign, but he refused. He departed shortly before the arrival of the militia that had been sent to intercept him. The site of Dixon's cabin is commemorated by a plaque at the corner of First and Peoria. The Dixon Historical Society has plans to open a museum that will feature a Black Hawk exhibit, but sources suggest it won't be open in the foreseeable future.
Black Hawk and his group followed the Rock River from Prophetstown nearly to Rockford, so after Dixon you'll stick to Highway 2, a gently curving, tree-lined road that hugs the bends in the river. Up the road a bit is Oregon, where friendly Earl King mans the visitors' information booth on the town square. He's not exactly a Black Hawk expert, but he can point you toward lunch; there's the Sunshine, a standard small-town diner on Fourth Street, but the more interesting choice is the Riverside Cafe at Conover Square (Third and Franklin, 815-732-6177), an old piano factory made into a bewildering maze of a mall with more knickknack stores and gift boutiques than customers.
But you're not here to eat. You're here to find Black Hawk, and a mile or two north of town you'll think you have. Here an immense concrete figure of an Indian chief looms gray and grim above the trees on the east side of the Rock River, staring sternly at the garish facade of the Blackhawk Steak Pit on the opposite bank. Fifty feet tall, weighing in at 100 tons, Lorado Taft's colossus is thought to be the second-largest concrete monolithic statue in the world. It's consistently referred to as "the Black Hawk statue," but don't be misled; Taft is said to have intended the work to represent all Indians. The pose--arms folded on chest, chin high--was supposedly inspired not by a specific Indian, but by a group of the artist's friends who were standing in this manner one evening while admiring the Illinois scenery.
Ten miles or so past Oregon, at the smoking twin towers of the Byron nuclear power plant, Black Hawk's trail turns east. Five miles along highway 72, on a low hill in the town of Stillman Valley, is a somber memorial to the first bloodletting of the Black Hawk war, the Battle of Stillman's Run. A band of soldiers camping for the night near this spot were approached by three of Black Hawk's men intending to offer a truce. The soldiers reacted fiercely--some historians claim they were drunk--and attacked the Indians. Black Hawk immediately organized a war party and counterattacked in the night. It doesn't take much imagination to picture the small but furious war party bursting through the trees, scattering the 300 terrified volunteers. Now an obelisk, surmounted by an alert soldier, stands over 11 graves (not 12, the number of white dead usually mentioned). Abraham Lincoln, then 23, arrived in time to help bury the dead; his presence, according to a plaque at the site, "has made this spot more sacred." The plaque briefly describes the battle, recording the fact that Black Hawk's whirlwind attack so demoralized the volunteers that a new army had to be formed.
After this incident Black Hawk detoured up to Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin, where he left the women, children, and aged of the group, then ventured back west through Illinois with a war party in search of horses and supplies. His path is followed by Highway 20 from Rockford, past Freeport. A few miles south on Kent Road is Kellogg's Grove, where a monument similar to that at Stillman Valley commemorates two small yet bloody battles. It's set on a high hill on the edge of the driftless area in northwest Illinois, a good spot for a picnic, though it's a long way to go for the payoff.
If you're budgeting your time, skip Kellogg's Grove and press north into Wisconsin. Black Hawk went about as far as Lake Geneva before, exhausted, he turned back west; you may feel the same way. The terrain is unrelievedly flat, and aside from a huge Chrysler assembly plant and a kitschy dinner theater or two, this part of the journey has little to offer in the way of sights. The smart thing to do is to take the nearest road north to Madison--Interstate 90 can be reached from Interstate 39 just east of Stillman Valley and will send you straight there. You can take advantage of that city's size to find a room and a decent meal. The Himal-Chuli (318 State St., 608-251-9225), one of many restaurants and cafes along bustling State Street near the capitol, offers authentic Asian Indian fare and is reasonably priced--a sizable dinner for two is about $25. Or you can head to the Washington Hotel (636 W. Washington Ave., 608-256-3360), which offers separately a restaurant, a gay bar, and a cool nightclub on the first floor where you can catch local and touring alternative rock bands (Club DeWash, 636 W. Washington St., 608-256-3302). But by all means avoid staying there; sleeping in one of the overpriced upstairs rooms is like spending the night in an ashtray. Rock, but don't room here.
Madison has its share of chain motels as well as mom-and-pops, but you might want to make reservations well in advance to avoid being shut out by a national bowling tourney or a big University of Wisconsin home game. If you're a tent person, a Blackhawk campground is in Milton, Wisconsin, about halfway between Rockford and Madison (608-868-2586).
The next morning hit the road early, following Route 12 northwest out of Madison. The next stop on the Black Hawk trail is Sauk City, where you'll find a serious country breakfast (with meat, or they'll look at you funny) at Leystra's Venture Restaurant (200 Phillips Blvd., 608-643-2004). A cozy, family-style restaurant, this also happens to be the home of the August Derleth museum, a curious banquet room cum shrine to a local author you will be excused for never having heard of. Sauk City's enthusiasm for this writer appears to know no bounds, and his every move has its corresponding artifact, lovingly preserved under glass. Eat, check out Derleth's writings and his velour hair shirt in the big case on the wall, and get going.
About a mile back south on 12 there's a historic marker on the west side of the road that commemorates one of the more dramatic episodes in the Black Hawk war, the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Looking southwest you can see the high wooded ridge where Black Hawk, trapped by superior forces, fought a fierce holding action while the women, children, and infirm, who were now back with his party, safely crossed the Wisconsin River below. Black Hawk's brilliance in holding off superior numbers was recognized by at least one white officer, Jefferson Davis. The future president of the Confederacy is quoted on the marker: "Had it been performed by white men, [the holding action] would have been immortalized as one of the most splendid achievements in military history."
From the marker take Route 12 to Route 60 west, then 60 to County C north. Not far from here, according to Rand McNally, is the town of Blackhawk, a tiny black dot on the undulating curves of County Road C. You earn extra points if you can find this town at all; it seems to have vanished beneath the placid, rolling hills. Watch for Schweppe Drive, and after you give up the search for Blackhawk head west on it for ten miles of scenery as idyllic as any in the midwest. The twisting road winds through precipitous slopes, cows amble across glowing pastures, and songbirds hymn the sun. Watch the wildlife, but also watch where you're going, because it's easy to get confused in this land of unexpected T-intersections and missing road signs. Let the fate of the town of Blackhawk be a warning to you, and pay attention now. When Schweppe Drive ends at County B, go west (left). At Highway 23 go south (left) to Highway 14. Go west (right) on 14 and head for Richland Center, about 22 miles away--if you pass the little house bearing the sign Ringelstetter's Dog Food Center you're on the right track. Also along 14 you'll see the Sauk County Forest and a giant fiberglass pumpkin. Somewhere around here Black Hawk abandoned the Wisconsin River and headed overland for the Mississippi.
Continue on 14 to Readstown, then go south on 131, which will take you to Soldiers Grove, trumpeted by a billboard as America's First Solar Village. There's an information center--closed on Sundays--at the corner of Passive Sun Drive and Sunbeam Boulevard. Take a look around, then continue south on 131 until it splits with County C. Take County C west to Rising Sun, one of several ancient farming villages perched on the high, windswept hills characteristic of this area. When County C comes to a T-intersection with County B, turn right and take B to Highway 27. At 27 turn right--you should be headed north--and keep an eye out for 82. Turn left on 82. The confusion and possible frustration inspired by all of this meandering now pays off: on 82 you're following as closely as possible the footsteps of Black Hawk as he makes his final, desperate dash for the shelter of the Mississippi, less than 20 miles away.
There are two fascinating historical markers not far along this road, one right next to the other on a low hill. Seemingly much older than any previous markers, they look like weathered tombstones. The first records the events of the night of July 31, 1832, when Black Hawk's band--braves and the remnants of their families, now reduced to 700 people--camped at a pond about 600 yards to the south. The second reveals that the pursuing army, under the command of General Henry Atkinson, camped at a nearby spring the next night. Black Hawk's enemy was a day behind his exhausted band. When Atkinson's forces arrived at the campsite, they found six "decrepit" Indians who could no longer keep up with the killing pace of the chief's flight. The six were supposedly "left behind" by the soldiers, but two terse sentences on the marker suggest another outcome: "Lee Sterling in 1846 found a handful of silver brooches there. Hence concluded those killed were squaws."
Atkinson's forces arrived at this spot at 8 PM on August 1. Seven hours later, at 3 AM, they resumed the pursuit. In the early daylight of August 2, the soldiers finally caught up with the Indians as they attempted to cross the Mississippi. To follow the trail and find the site of the final clash, the Battle of Bad Axe, stay on County Road UU when it splits to the north from 82 and turn south on Highway 35, which runs along the Mississippi River. On 35 just south of UU, you'll find two markers--one relatively new, the other a crumbling gravestone--detailing the battle. The bluffs that witnessed the bloody end of the Black Hawk war still rise above the river, steep and rocky, sparsely covered with trees. Lush islands that would have sheltered the Indians from the merciless gunfire of the soldiers stand a scant 300 yards from the river's edge. Imagine the screams, rifle reports, and whipping bullets, the desperate rush through the muck and reeds along the bank--the end of the heroic bid for freedom by the last Indian chief to bring war east of the Mississippi. But be careful not to get too carried away. Traffic along Highway 35 doesn't brake for dreamers.