As you’re driving on IL Rt. 2 towards Oregon, Illinois, a Midwest town miles away northwest of Chicago, you will run into Rock River; one of my favorite places in Illinois. Illinoisans are familiar with this breath-taking road, which surrounds the Rock River.
A winding road framed by beautiful rock formations, ravines, and tall trees that seem to spring up from nowhere at every twist and turn. At times, you can see where huge rocks where cut in the middle to make way for it. And just when you think you have ended your journey, you look up towards the river in the horizon and something is trying to poke its head out from within the trees. You blink twice because you want to make sure that the image you just saw is not a product of your imagination. As you continue driving further, you notice a ghostly looking silhouette coming out the Rock River. And then, there it is! Tall and proud…letting everyone know: I was here before you and my spirit will never leave this land!
This is what I perceive the Eternal Indian statue is saying as he stands there looking over the Rock River.
This is Eagle’s Nest, as it is known by the people who live here in Northwest Illinois. Many visitors who drive here surely wonder what history lies behind this statue. Most don’t know that towards the end of the 1800’s and early 1900’s this beautiful site became a famous camp retreat for many distinguished artists –writers, poets, painters, sculptors used to come here to be inspired by the beauty and solitude that only nature can give.
Lorado Taft, a famous Midwestern sculptor, was responsible not only for leading other artists to create the first colony of artists known in Illinois as Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, but also for creating some of the most famous sculptures at the time, such as Columbus Fountain found in Union Station in Washington, DC and the famous Fountain of Time in Midway Plaisance found in Chicago, Illinois and the Eternal Indian, a Native American war leader looking over the Rock River. The latter has become a famous landmark of the Northwest Illinois area.
Last Spring, I visited probably for the 50th time, Lowden State Park home to this awe-inspiring sculpture. As I’m standing there on top of the bluff overlooking the Rock River, I stand right next to Black Hawk’s statue and wonder, who Black Hawk really was. What would he think of this place that he once called his home? Does he feel defeated? Was his fight all in vain? Does his spirit come here once in a while or does it linger here refusing to let go of his land?
It is hard not to feel moved either by the sculpture or by the serenity of this place. One thing is for certain: there is something here in this land that stirs up something in the soul of any human being who has ever set foot on this path. This is where famous artist Margaret Fuller was inspired to create a beautiful piece of poetry named Ganymede to His Eagle one hot, humid July morning in 1843. She also wrote of this land at Eagle’s Nest, “Woe to all country folk that never saw this spot, never swept an enraptured gaze over the prospect that stretched beneath. I do believe Rome and Florence are suburbs compared to this capital of Nature’s art…”
Growing up in this side of Illinois, visiting Eagle’s Nest became for me, a yearly ritual.
When I first moved here and drove by IL Rt. 2 by the Black Hawk statue, I remember asking friends who the statue was. I often was told it was the statue of “the Indian” or, for those who know a bit more, “Black Hawk.” But it wasn’t until recently that I learned that none of these names are accurate.
So, after undertaking a research journey trying to find out about this beautiful site and why the name of Black Hawk stuck to the statue, I want to share with you the story of Eagle’s Nest before it became the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony.
Lorado Taft is the creator of this awesome sculpture, whose hands gave form to it in 1907. The day of the dedication of the statue, on July 1, 1911, Mr. Taft explained many times that the statue did not represent Black Hawk, the famous old warrior chief, but rather represented all Indians. He said, “He’s just an Indian contemplating the beauties of the valley and Rock River.”
Lorado Taft fell in love with Eagle’s Nest and as an artist he lived by the following credo;
“I hold that as intelligent people we have a right to:
All the beauty around us which most of us never perceive.
All of the inheritance of the past, of which we Americans
are particularly unconscious.
The talent which springs up perennially but which
America’s rushing life is wont to extinguish before it takes
“All of the inheritance of the past, of which we Americans are particularly unconscious” is what strikes me the most! Perhaps this is the reason why he was inspired to create this sculpture –to remind all of us not to forget about our heritage. I would go even further to say not to forget about the ones who owned this land before us: their history, whether perceived as tragic or victorious; their legacy, what they have contributed and up until this day we do not knowledge.
To understand why the name of Black Hawk stuck is important to know who Black Hawk was and why he earned fame in Illinois.
Black Hawk or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was born and raised in the lands of present-day Illinois in the year 1767. He was a member of the Sauk tribe in the tribal village of Saukenuk on the Rock River. Black Hawk was not a chief, as he is most mistakenly known for. He was a war leader and a warrior who earned his status by leading both raiding and war parties as a young man. He is also better known for leading the famous Black Hawk War of 1832 and for fighting with the British in 1812 against the U.S.
Black Hawk fought fearlessly and earnestly for his land and resisted displacement from his homeland. In 1820 when Europeans settlers began to move towards the west and forced Indian tribes to move into reservations, Black Hawk refused to do so. He resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to let white settlers occupy Saukenuk (present-day Illinois) and its surrounding territory. In 1832, Black Hawk waged a war against the U.S. Government, challenging the U.S. treaty that forced his people to be removed from their lands while it gave these very same properties to white settlers.
By leading a large band of Sauk and Fox peoples across the Mississippi River and into present day Illinois, Black Hawk challenged the U.S. Army and the Illinois state militia. After a number of raids and combats, American forces retaliated by persecuting the few Sauk and Fox warriors who were left and slaughtered them at the Bad Axe River on the Mississippi River. This event is also known as the Battle of Bad Axe or the Bad Axe Massacre. This final battle of the Black Hawk War took place near present-day Victory, Wisconsin. This final battle also marked the end of the war between white settlers and militia in Illinois and Michigan Territory and the Sauk and Fox tribes under the warrior Black Hawk.
The fighting took place over two days. By the second day, Black Hawk and most of the Native American leaders had fled, though many of the band stayed behind. The victory of the United States was decisive and the end of the war allowed much of Illinois and present-day Wisconsin to be opened for further settlement.
Although Black Hawk managed to escape at the time he later had no choice but to surrender. He spent nearly a year in government custody, meeting President Jackson at the White House, and then touring the East as a trophy captive. Upon his return to the Midwest he dictated his life story. Black Hawk died among his people in Iowa in 1838.
Although Black Hawk’s outcome is similar to other Native American war leaders who fought, resisted, and refused to be treated worse than animals, one has to admire his boldness and determination to fight for his land and his people.
This is the land that Black Hawk refused to give away and fought so defiantly for.
Looking at the statue reminds me what the Sauk and the Fox peoples were forced to give up, as in many other parts of the United States, so that others could call this their land. It is understandable why Black Hawk did not want to give it up.
Wearing a long blanket, standing very upright with his folded arms, some say he has a stoic look on his face, others say he is the mere image of the “noble Indian.”
To me, the most fitting words to describe Lorado Taft’s sculpture of the Eternal Indian are the words of Laura Cornelius Kellogg aka Wynnogene during the dedication of the statue on July 1, 1911:
“Amen: There let him stand, defying the very elements, defying injustice, defying defeat, so upright, so self-contained, so self-sufficient.”
As I stand next to the statue, I feel this land speaks to me and inspires me to write about the story of the land of the Sauk and the Fox before it became the famous Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in the 1920’s. Before it inspired intellectual poets, writers and sculptors such as Lorado Taft to pick up his hammer and chisel and begin sculpting or instill feelings of patriotism and love for one’s country and write poems and sonnets such as Margaret Fuller’s Ganymede to His Eagle. Before becoming nowadays a favorite spot for Illinoisans to visit every Fourth of July.
It’s impossible that one cannot look at this piece of art and not be moved by it.
 Ellerby, Leona. Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. Oregon, IL: Ogle County Life Publishing.
 Ellerby, Leona. Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. Oregon, IL: Ogle County Life Publishing.
 Kennedy, J. G. (2008). Life of Black Hawk or Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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