The Search for Day-nik, Blackhawk’s Last Camp


Hello, Day of Archaeology viewers. My name is Ryan Howell and I’m a professional archaeologist working in Western Wisconsin. This week finds me in the lab and the library doing the less glamorous, but probably most important side of archaeology, the paperwork.

at work

I am currently writing up a grant proposal, arranging logistics and contacting land owners for a field research project I am working on this fall related to the 1832 Blackhawk War/Conflict that took place in northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.

Historical Background


The Black Hawk War was a brief and largely one-sided 1832 armed conflict between the United States, the State of Illinois and Native Americans led by Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak), a Sauk band-leader. The war erupted soon after Black Hawk and a group of Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos known as the “British Band” crossed the Mississippi River into the newly formed US state of Illinois from Iowa in April 1832. Black Hawk’s was apparently hoping to avoid bloodshed while resettling on tribal land at the traditional village of Saukenauk that had (according to the U.S government) been supposedly ceded to the United States in the disputed 1804 Treaty of St. Louis.

US officials, convinced that the British Band was hostile, mobilized a frontier militia and opened fire on a delegation from the Native Americans on May 14, 1832. Black Hawk responded by successfully attacking the militia at the Battle of Stillman’s Run. He led his band to a secure location in what is now southern Wisconsin and was pursued by US forces. Meanwhile, other Native Americans conducted raids against forts and settlements largely unprotected with the absence of US troops. Some Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi warriors with grievances against European-Americans took part in these raids, although most tribe members tried to avoid the conflict or remainder neutral. The Menominee and Dakota tribes, already at odds with their tradition enemies the Sauks and Meskwakis, largely supported the U.S Army, settlers and militia.

Commanded by General Henry Atkinson, the US troops tracked the British Band. Militia under Colonel Henry Dodge caught up with the British Band on July 21 and defeated them at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, near present day Sauk City, Wisconsin. Though his warriors fought a brilliant “rear-guard” action, Black Hawk’s band was weakened by hunger and casualties and many of its survivors retreated towards the Mississippi River. On August 2, US soldiers attacked the remnants of the British Band at the Massacre of Bad Axe, killing many (including many women, elderly and children) and capturing most who remained alive. Black Hawk, a few of his people and other leaders escaped, but later surrendered.

The Project, Day-nik

In August of 1832, the remainder of Blackhawk’s band still with the Sauk leader consisted of “three lodges” according to his own oral autobiography. This may have been about 30-50 people, including about 10-15 warriors according to U.S. military accounts. This small group had left the day before the massacre at Bad Axe and was apparently attempting a over-land retreat northeast across what is now Vernon and Monroe Counties, Wisconsin. Their intention appears to be to have gone up the Wisconsin River into the territory of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and there seek refuge and freedom.

It had long been held as historical gospel that this last “free-camp” of Sauk surrendered to the Ho-Chunk near Wisconsin Dells. However, in the 1980’s a historical manuscript written by John Blackhawk (Noojanp-ka) in the 1920’s was rediscovered by anthropologist and historian Nancy O. Lurie. It details that Blackhawk and his last “three lodges” did surrender to Ho-Chunk peace runners, but did so at a campsite on the Lemonweir River at a place known to the Ho-Chunk as “Day-nik” or Little Lake.

Methods and Background Work

So how does one go about finding a campsite that was only around for a few weeks nearly 200 years ago? Well, its all about combining the historical records (both traditional Euro-American accounts and Native American oral histories) with a little map detective work. We know from the John Blackhawk Manuscript (JBM) that the village was at Little Lake on the Lemonweir River southeast of modern Tomah, WI.

A review of historical maps does indeed seem to show a small lake in that area. It is this area that I propose to search for the missing campsite.

1853 GLO plat map T17N R1W

Tomah 1916 topo

Native American Consultation and Cooperation

Native Americans and archaeologists have a turbulent and contentious history of relations, largely due to the fact that most archaeologists cared little to consult or ask the opinion or wishes of the descendents of the people they studied until late in the 20th century. Nowadays, consulting and partnering with modern Native communities is an expected and valuable part of an archaeological research project. As part of that process this project contacted the Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO) of both the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma (the descendents of Blackhawk’s band) early in the planning process of the project. These Native nations will be continually consulted throughout the project and an invitation made to any members of the tribes who wish to participate or supervise the project’s field and lab work.

Upcoming Fieldwork/Public Archaeology and Stake-Holders

Later this fall when the corn is out a small band of volunteers, both professional archaeologists, metal detectorists, members of the local historical society and other interested folks will assist me in doing the actual field survey.

We will lay out a grid over the sections of the 340 acre survey area we want to test. Teams of volunteer metal detectorists will sweep “lanes” marked out by pinflags and pinflag/excavate any hits. Archaeologists, both professional and advocational, will record these finds via GPS and map and bag them for later collection. At the same time teams of local volunteers, again under professional supervision will “surface collect” (walk along the ground and look for artifacts disturbed by plowing and brought to the surface) through the same lanes again marking, bagging and recording their locations.

Involving the local public is an important part of modern archaeology. The project will bring groups of artifact collectors, archaeologist, metal detectorists and hopefully Native Americans (groups that don’t always see eye to eye) together to work toward a common goal. In addition local participants and landowners will take part in looking for important history “in their backyards” that few likely know exists.

What do we hope to find? Problems and Prospects.

That’s a good question! What would be a “smoking gun” indicating that we had found the Day-nik camp? By the 1830’s the material culture, “the gear/stuff”, being used by Native American communities like the Sauk and Euro-American settlers were very similar. However, we know that the area we are looking at had little or no Euro-American settlement or even trading posts in it during the 1830’s. So artifacts from this period, be they knives, dishes, brass kettles, glass, beads or other objects useful for a campsite are likely related to Native American communities, though not necessarily the Sauk.

What ever we find, and we may well find nothing, will likely be limited. The camp was only in use for a few weeks at the maximum and therefore would likely be what archaeologists call “ephemeral” (a site that left few artifacts and traces of its existence). I would be happy with a few scraps of kettle brass, a musket ball or a trade-bead or two.

Also, the landscape has changed quite a bit since 1832. The project area is now mainly in large, mono-crop corn fields and scrub timber. The construction of drainage canals and an artificial reservoir in the mid-20th century have changed the natural course of water flow and may have buried or even submerged the Day-nik campsite.