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Riverway Board hosts Battle of Wisconsin Heights field trip
Lower Wisconsin River
Gjestson and Cupp
DAVE GJESTSON and Mark Cupp stand in front of the Wisconsin State Historical Sign at the entrance to the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights.

PRAIRIE DU SAC - The rain ended just in time for a group of about 25 to participate in a tour of the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on Thursday, May 9. The tour was part of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway (LWSRB) Board’s celebration of its 35th anniversary.

The tour leader was Dave Gjestson, a retired DNR employee who was instrumental in preserving the site, and establishing 15 historical markers along Black Hawk’s trail through Wisconsin. Gjestson was the original DNR Riverway Coordinator after the law establishing the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway was passed on a bipartisan basis in the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1989.

The site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights is preserved in northwestern Dane County, two miles southeast of present-day Sauk City on Highway 78. It is owned by the Department of Natural Resources, and is open to the public. The historical site was the scene on July 21, 1832, of a battle fought between Black Hawk’s ‘British Band,’ and militia led by Colonel Henry Dodge. A State Historical Marker along 78 marks the entrance to the site.

There, Black Hawk’s brilliant military maneuver allowed most of the women, children and elderly in his band to evacuate north of the Wisconsin River on their march to the Mississippi River. With just fifty warriors, he engaged the 750 militiamen long enough for the evacuation to occur, losing only six men. The war finally came to a close 12 days later, on August 1, on the banks of the Mississippi River near DeSoto, just south of the confluence of the Bad Axe River with the Mississippi. There U.S. forces again caught up with the fleeing members of Black Hawk’s band.

“It really wasn’t a war, but rather a chase,” Gjestson told tour group participants. “And, the culmination of the chase on the banks of the Mississippi River wasn’t so much a battle as it was a massacre – after all, who goes to war against women, children and the elderly?”

At the LWSRB meeting, executive director Mark Cupp reported that one of the field trips being contemplated to mark the Riverway’s 35th anniversary is a tour of Black Hawk’s band from the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights to the site of the massacre on the banks of the Mississippi River, often referred to as the Battle of Bad Axe. “Stay tuned,” he said.

Site of battle

The tour of the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights started at the historical marker, and proceeded on a rustic trail up into a heavily wooded area surrounded closely by two hills. One hill was the site where Black Hawk directed his 50 Sauk & Fox, and Kickapoo warriors. The militia was staged on the bottom, with their horses and supply sheltering behind the opposing hill. At the time of the battle, the uplands would have been an open, oak savanna, and the bottom lands between a tallgrass prairie.

“The members of Black Hawk’s band had an arduous journey, and his people were sick and starving by the time they reached the Wisconsin River – many of the elderly had died along the march,” Gjestson explained. “The militia had picked up their trail, and had also travelled hard, making their journey to catch up in just eight hours on horseback.”

Gjestson said that on the day of the battle, it had been raining all day, and “it’s not good to try and shoot muskets in the wet. Gjestson said that an archeological survey of the site had yielded no musket balls with a metal detector, leading to speculation that due to wet powder, actual firing may have been diminished.

“With, in theory, hundreds of muskets having been fired at the battle, we were very surprised to find no musket balls,” Gjestson told the group. “It’s possible that they were lost due to erosion on the site, but more archaeological investigation is definitely needed here.”

Gjestson said that it was no surprise that Black Hawk led his band to the site. Gjestson said that in 1766, Jonathan Carver, an explorer and author, most famous for his book ‘Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America,’ had visited the site of today’s Sauk City. Carver reported it was a “great town of the Sauk, and looked civilized, and drew people wanting to trade from 800 miles around.” Gjestson pointed out that Black Hawk’s grandfather had lived there.

“Our archaeological team found a 4,000-year-old spearpoint at this site, and along with the effigy mounds, it shows that Native Americans had lived here and used this place for countless generations,” Gjestson said.

Gjestson said that the opposing forces had taken shots at each other from their respective positions, and Black Hawk heard Dodge order his men to fix bayonets for a charge up the hill and a flanking operation. At that point, Black Hawk ordered his warriors to disperse into the marsh and head for the river.

“Jefferson Davis, who is mistakenly rumored to have taken part in the battle, was quoted as describing the battle as a brilliant military maneuver, that if it had been conducted by a white man, would have made the history books,” Gjestson told the group. “There were no army regular troop at the battle, and their leader, Colonel Henry Dodge had a great hatred for Native Americans in the mining territory he was operating in illegally with slave labor.”

Gjestson put forth the opinion that the heavy losses of Black Hawk’s band on their forced march, and the massacre need never have happened.

“Black Hawk and his followers tried to surrender three different times,” Gjestson said. “One of those times was the night after the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, when the militia heard a voice shouting from the top of one of the hills – when they went up to investigate, they found a buried hatchet.”

Gjestson said that President Andrew Jackson was focused on implementing his plan to remove all Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. For this reason, he ordered General Atkinson out of the fort at St. Louis not only to suppress the rebellion, but also to punish and make an example of them.

Site restoration

Gjestson later told the Riverway Board, meeting in Prairie du Sac, that it had been three decades since his retirement from DNR, or since he last gave a public talk. He shared with the board the history of how DNR had become aware of the site, and taken ownership.

“The preservation of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights site began as a result of my love of deer and upland game hunting,” Gjestson remembered. “In the process of hunting on public lands, I found picnic tables and trails on public land near the eastern edge of the property, and began a conversation with the neighboring landowner that eventually resulted in the sale of the property to DNR. The boundary of the Riverway actually had to be modified to allow for the property acquisition.”

Gjestson said at the same time as the property was being acquired, he began to read everything available about the Blackhawk War, including Blackhawk’s autobiography. He said that the autobiography is very consistent with military accounts.

“After the property was acquired, I oversaw having the State Historical Marker moved to the site,” Gjestson said. “I also hired an archaeology team to survey the site in order to obtain the documentation needed to have the site listed on the National Historic Registry – not even the site of the Battle of Bad Axe has this recognition. We found military buttons, a French trading knife, and a Native American spearpoint.”

Gjestson said that after that, he had made contact with representatives of the Meskwaki (Sauk/Fox), Ho-Chunk, Potowatomi and Kickapoo tribes, to invite them to be part of the historical documentation and preservation of the site.

“I travelled to Oklahoma to visit the Meskwaki, and received their approval of the management plan for the site,” Gjestson said. “Later, a busload of Meskwaki elders travelled up to visit the site, and in the process, seven marker trees were identified.”

Gjestson and Marker Tree
RETIRED DNR Riverway Coordinator Dave Gjestson stands in front of one of the marker trees at the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Gjestson explained how the marker trees are created, and what their significance is.

Earlier, Gjestson had told the tour group at the battle site that marker trees were made using thongs to tie down the branches of a tree sapling, pointing in a significant direction or to a significant event.

“We found seven marker trees that all pointed at signficant events that had occurred on the site,” Gjestson said. “He said that one tree had branches pointing to where the military had positioned themselves in the battle, one to the hill where Blackhawk directed the battle, and another to their path of escape.”

Today, with the support of a generous private donor, DNR continues to pursue restoration of the battle site. Restoration activities have included brush and invasive species management through hand removal and prescribed burns, as well as removal of black oak by girdling, and locust through girdling and chemical treatment.

“The State Natural Areas crew, along with the Natural Heritage crew has been providing most of the labor,” one tour participant explained. “It’s all hand work because of the sandy soils – if we were to bring big equipment in, it would just tear things up.”

LWSRB’s Cupp explained the process that had been used in preservation of the effigy mounds on the property. Ultimately, he said, the restoration group had worked with a restoration coalition that had put together a ‘Mounds Maintenance Protocol.’

“We approached restoration in stages, and realized early on that we needed to consult with experts in restoration to ensure that we did no harm,” Cupp remembered. “With expert advice, we first started with clearing the locust and removing downed material, and moved on from there to girdling of trees and use of prescribed fire. Once we had the mounds cleared, then we began to focus on restoration of natural plant communities.”