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It's fitting that the Wisconsin, a river steeped in our geologic, natural and cultural past, should continue as a focus for historic natural resource policies.
Bluffs stretch along the lower 100 miles of this 430-mile-long river. Over the course of 600 million years, the river carved a valley up to 500 feet deep between these bluffs, forming a natural corridor that drained Glacial Lake Wisconsin a mere 13,000 years ago. As the glacial ice melted, Paleo Indians followed the edge of the ice sheet from the west, arriving in the lower Wisconsin River valley. They hunted woolly mammoths, mastodon, bison and caribou and left behind rock art (pictographs and petroglyphs) to document their passing.
Along these blufflands from 600 to 1300 AD, a unique Indian tribe, the Mound Builders, formed earthen structures in animal shapes to reflect their spiritual traditions. Later, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Menominee, Kickapoo, Chippewa, Sac and Fox lived in the region and used the "Wees-Kon-San" to travel throughout this wilderness.
Nicolet was the first European entering the area in 1634 exploring a path to the Orient. Marquette and Joliet in 1673 followed the path of the "Ouisconsin" River as Indians had for centuries. European immigrants displaced most Indian Tribes to territory west of the Mississippi River by 1830. From April 5 to August 22, 1832, a Sac warrior named Black Hawk tried in vain to reclaim tribal lands in Illinois. His warriors were massacred fleeing across the western part of the Michigan Territory (Wisconsin) just below the Bad Axe River. Black Hawk's major military triumphs in this conflict occurred at Stillman's Run on the Rock River and at Wisconsin Heights, a bluff adjoining the Wisconsin River.
Cultural and recreational preservation
In 1944, a small island in the Wisconsin River below Sauk City was given to the Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD). The gift spawned subsequent purchases that formed a series of public hunting and fishing grounds along the lower river from Sauk City to the confluence with the Mississippi River. During the next 30 years, the agency acquired over 22,000 acres on the lower Wisconsin River using funds from hunting and fishing fees. These properties formed the largest complex of state-owned public hunting and fishing grounds in southern Wisconsin.
In the 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources began a process to include a broader spectrum of the public in the agency's future land management decisions. The first project? Protecting the natural landscape along the lower Wisconsin River. A Riverway Board of local citizens now reviews proposals to harvest timber or build homes and businesses that would be visible from the river when shoreland trees have leaves. The goal is to preserve the wild feel of the river during canoeing season and also preserve the privacy of shoreland owners.
DNR land acquisitions in the river corridor aim to increase a wide variety of recreation including canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, camping and nature observation. The riverway plan also stresses the importance of preserving cultural resources like archaeological and historic sites.
New opportunities to buy public lands had a dramatic effect. Fueled by the Stewardship Fund, more than 20,000 acres of Wisconsin River shorelands were purchased in seven years. The mix of water, wetlands, timber, grasslands and brush habitat now in public ownership provides habitat for 47 species of mammals, 284 species of birds and 84 species of fish. Sixty-two species of plant and animal species on the riverway corridor are classified as endangered, threatened or of special concern.
Cultural holdings are equally rich. Several effigy mounds in the form of eagles, a bear and two panthers are now protected and a Black Hawk War battle site was purchased. In fact interpretive programs will be held there during our sesquicentennial celebration.
State purchase of the effigy mounds has forged partnerships with the Ho-Chunk Nation, the guardians of the mounds, to protect these sacred sites and to teach Indians and non-Indians alike about their purpose and significance. Few people realize that Wisconsin contains over 90 percent of the world's known effigy mounds!
The site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights preserves a bit of riverside history in northwest Dane County, two miles southeast of Sauk City. It is the only intact Indian-U.S. militia battle site in the Midwest; the site of the last battle fought with Indians in the old Northwest Territory. On July12, 1832, the 65-year old Black Hawk and only 60 Sac, Fox and Kickapoo warriors fought more than 700 soldiers, Winnebago, Menominee and Potawatomi guides to a standstill. Black Hawk's delaying tactics allowed several hundred women, children and elders to escape across the Wisconsin River.
His victory was short-lived. Army soldiers caught up with his tribe on August 2nd just below the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi rivers. Few of Black Hawk's 1,000-member tribe survived that massacre.
Now, their story will live on as trails and auto tours of the historic battleground join the mix of outdoor recreation offered along the lower Wisconsin River.
David Gjestson works in the DNR Bureau of Facilities and Lands.