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Early Clayton co Settlers & the Winnebago Indians


Posted By: S. Ferrall - IAGenWeb volunteer
Date: 3/15/2010 at 19:36:23

Experiences of the Early Clayton county Settlers with the Winnebago Indians

When the first settlers came to this part of Clayton county, the chief tribe of the red men met by the whites were the Winnebago Indians. They were formerly a Wisconsin tribe, numbering in those days 3400 all together. After the Black Hawk war in 1832, they were moved by the United States government to northeastern Iowa, and placed on a reservation, forty-five miles in width, and extending back from the Mississippi river about forty-four miles. The southern boundry of the reserve was located a short distance north of the present site of Volga City. They are described by historians as a quiet, peaceable nation, and friendly to the whites unless drunk, when they are said to have been quarrelsome. They were inveterate thieves, however. They very frequently used to extend their boundries, and wander many miles away from their reservation, even in Cass and Lodomillo townships. If they happened to meet a settlers hog or cow, they never hesitated to appropriate it to their own use. They were regarded as an unmitigated nuisance by the settlers, and if caught on any of their thieving raids, were given a good switching. Such punishment usually hurt an Indian's dignity more than it hurt his hide.

Because the tribe was not warlike, and liable to be imposed on by their more bloodthirsty neighbors, Fort Atkinson was built in 1840 to protect them from the depredations of the surrounding tribes. The Fort was garrisoned for eight years by United States soldiers, but in spite of it all their warlike neighbors from the south would steal a march on them. One time a war band of Sacs and Foxes came over from the Maquoketa river, and attacked a band of Winnebagoes on the Volga river near Littleport, killing fifteen of them, and threatened to carry the war on down the Volga. Why they did not, history sayeth not, but it would seem they returned to their rendevouz on the Maquoketa without molestation, and probably none of the murderers were ever given their just deserts.

In the days of the early settlements along the Volga River, the Winnebago's were numerous. It is said where Volga City is now located, Indian wigwams have been seen lining the river bank for the distance of half a mile, and as many as four hundred Indians have been gathered on that spot. When sober they were peaceable, honest and friendly. When drunk they were quarrelsome. In those days it is said some drunken Indians killed a white man somewhere near the Volga. This report made the settlers very cautious in their dealings with the red man when full of fire water. One evening some drunken Indians came to the home of a settler, carrying a keg which they wanted filled. He coaxed them away from the house with him, and reaching some tall grass lay down in it. So did the Indians. They all remained there until 10 o'clock at night by which time the red men had become partially sober. They got up from their grassy couch, and after shaking hands with their host went their way.

Where the town of Littleport now stands used to be a rendezvous for the Indians in the early days. This particular spot was undoubtedly chosen because of the deep ravines and dense forests to be found along the Volga in that neighborhood. It was such an excellent hiding place it gave them a sense of security. Here they held many a council, and here they smoked the pipe of peace. The early settlers say when the chief wanted to hold a council, he would climb to the top of one of the high hills in that vicinity, and fire three shots, which signal would be carried on by the different villages until all were notified. Here they started out on their expeditions, and from this point would float down the Volga to its mouth where there was a trading post, and for their furs would get powder and whiskey - especially whiskey. Then there was hilarious times.

There was a Winnebago family lived in that vicinity. In the family were two brothers known to the settlers as George and Joe. George was a kind of a morose, ugly fellow, but just the same he wooed and wedded two dusky Indian maidens. Whether this polygamous habit caused the supply of marrigable girls to run short in the tribe, tradition sayeth not. But one thing is certain: Joe fell in love with his younger brother's wife. Such things have occurred among white people, we believe, and it shows human nature at its worst to be about the same everywhere, whether in the so-called savage or civilized man. George became jealous just as white men do. One day there was a great jollification in the Winnebago camp. It was the occasion of the birth of a child by the elder wife of George. Of course firewater was plenty. No celebration was complete without it then, any more than now. Having got ugly enough under its potent influence, George was siezed with a maddening jealousy. He got hold of a club and striking his younger brother on the head, killed him on the spot.

There was confusion in the Winnegago camp. The jollification gave way to woe. A brother-in-law of the dead man named Chunkton, vowing vengence, challenged the murderer to combat. The Indian women seemed to be possessed of a good quantity of common sense, and when the carousal began had hidden the knives. But the warriors made them produce a couple of these deadly weapons. The combat was brief and bloody. A well aimed stroke by Chunkton inflicted a mortal wound on his opponent, but the first stroke of the knife made by George was instant death to his enemy, and Chunkton started on his journey to the happy hunting grounds. The laws of the Winnebago Indians are to the effect that when one brother kills another, the murderer shall be slain by the father. Although the murderer was mortally wounded, the father siezed a gun standing near by, and fired, striking his son in the throat, killing him instantly.

The three victims of this terrible tragedy were buried in one grave on the banks of the Volga near Littleport. For fear of having offended the Great Spirit, fires were lighted on the grave and kept buring for some time, and the sad father uttered many prayers, asking that vengeance for his deed might not overtake him. Eventually he believed that his prayers had been heard, and that the anger of the Great Spirit was appeased.

The Winnebagos killed a white man near Elkport in the spring of 1846. His name was Lewis Hartge. Two Indians named Humphery and Konago called at the house for whiskey and were refused. There was a quarrel and Konago raised his rifle, and before Humphery could prevent him, shot Hartge and instantly killed him. Both were arrested and tried at Dubuque. Humphrey was acquitted but Konago convicted. Pending an appeal the latter broke jail and was never heard of again.

But the Indians did not have all their own way. In the early days one stole a horse over near Guttenberg, the voice of tradition says. Although pursued closely he managed to get clear across the county. When near this place [Strawberry Point] he was overtaken. It was concluded to put an end to his horse stealing career. He was taken to what was known as the south Ford timber, near Joy Springs, a few miles west of this place and hung. They must have believed that a good Indian was a dead one.

The Winnebagos had that same stolid way characteristic of all tribes. Each Indian had one or more worthless curs with him most of the time. Col. Landers, who came to the county in the early 30's, says he met one of the Indians one day with one of these curs. He had a goose quill filled with powder and put a lighted piece of punk in one end. He stuck the whole in a piece of meat and fed it to the dog and then began to talk to the Indians. Presently the dog began to act uneasy. There was a sudden explosion and a hole was blown in the animal's side, killing it of course. The smell of gun powder was borne on the air. An explosive dog must certainly have been a matter of wonderment to the Indian. It was the only one of the kind he had ever seen. Certainly to an untutored savage it would have been a great mystery, not knowing how it came about. But his stolid nature evinced no surprise, and he simply said: "Ugh! My dog go off."

~Mail-Press, Strawberry Point, November 26, 1903


Clayton Documents maintained by Sharyl Ferrall.
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