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Chief Waukon Decorah-1859


Posted By: cheryl Locher moonen (email)
Date: 2/8/2020 at 20:15:58

The Dubuque Herald, Wednesday, Aug 31, 1859, Dubuque, Iowa, Page 8

Written for the Dubuque Herald
Scenes In the Early History of Iowa



The recent exhuming of the remains of Waukon Decorah, from their primitive resting place upon the Iowa River, near the village that bears his name, and the re-interment of them in the public square of the town by its citizens, has awakened some inquiry concerning his personal appearance, and history, and as we have frequently seen and conversed with him, and know something of his history, as it was understood by the traders and Indians during his life time, we will devote this sketch to that subject, and the criticism of those who were upon terms of greater intimacy with him.

The name of this distinguished Chief was “Waukon Decorah.” “Waukon” is the Winnebago language, means a “snake.” Decorah it would be difficult to translate, “Corah” being an Indian word signifying “Light,” and De a French honorary prefix, with about the same meaning that the word Esq. expresses when affixed to the name of John Smith. We have heard his name translated to mean the “White Snake.” To distinguish him from his son, when spoken of, he was usually called “The Blind Decorah,” having lost his right eye, by a knife in the hand of his son, who was engaged in a fight, in which his father had interfered, for the purpose of separating the combatants.

Decorah was the most distinguished of the Winnebago Chiefs, being the Great Council Chief of the Nation. Next to him, in rank, stood “Whirling Thunder,” the head War Chief of the Winnebago’s.

It was the calm, prudent and wise councils of Decorah that prevented the nation from engaging in a war with the United States in 1825, at the time that they were in the occupancy of the country bordering upon the waters of the Wisconsin. The Councils of the Nation, which were held near Fort Winnebago about this time for the purpose of considering the subject of peace or war, found in Waukon Decorah a wise and zealous advocate for peace, while stirring eloquence of the young Chief, “Dandy,” had aroused and awakened throughout the Nation a feeling of hostility towards the whites, who, he had induced them to believe, could be easily exterminated and driven from the country.

Gov. Cass, who was the Governor of the Territory of Michigan, and Superintendent of the North-Western Indians, becoming alarmed at the preparations for war, on the part of the Winnebago, invited the Chief to accompany him to the City of Washington. Eleven of them, with Waukon Decorah as their head, accepted the invitation.

It was during this trip to Washington, in 1825, that we saw Decorah for the first time. He was sitting by the side of Gov. Cass at an experimental lecture upon Chemistry, got up at Peal’s Museum, in New York, for the gratification of the Chiefs. What seemed to astonish them the most during the lecture was their inability to remove the hand from the open top of a glass reservoir, after the air had been exhausted from it.

Everywhere, on their way to Washington, great military parades were got up for the purpose of impressing them with military power of the United States. In the harbor of New York they were taken on board the seventy-four gun ship “Ohio,” when two or three broad sides were fired.

In a conversation with the Chief “Big Wave,” many years after, at Sodom, in the county of Clayton, he said that the firing on that occasion was still ringing in his ears, this scene on board the “Ohio” and some exhibitions of “Punch and Judy,” that he had looked upon, appeared to have made an enduring impression upon his mind.

No persuasion on the part of the interpreter, sent by Gov. Cass, to invite them to Washington, could induce Waw-pan-no-dah to accept the invitation. The Chief, known as the Orator of the Nation, seldom left his hunting grounds on the Wisconsin, to go among the whites; when he did, it was not for the purpose of barter, but to move among them with a proud and lofty carriage, his person being on such occasions decorated in a costly and ostentatious manner, from which circumstances he was better known among the whites by the name of “Dandy.”

In the spring of 1834, one of the braves was accused by Lieut. Harris with having killed a horse belonging to the Garrison at Fort Winnebago. Harris ordered him to be arrested, and taken down to Fort Crawford, where he appeared and accused him before Col. Tailor, the commandant of the past. Harris, who was a graduate of West Point, and who had never been in a battle, commenced his speech against the Indian, by detailing, with great minuteness, the grounds of his suspicion, there being no positive proof against him. As soon as he had concluded his remarks, the Chief, Waw-pan-no-dah, arose and commenced a review of the suspicions, in a calm argumentative manner. After satisfying himself that he had successfully answered and annihilated the speech of the Lieut., he paused for a moment as his eye swept proudly over the Officers gathered around him, while the low vibratory sound of his jewels, the nodding of his plumes, and the dark frown that;lowered upon his brow, gave him a proud and haughty appearance, as he burst, upon the close of his speech, with a peroration of satire, upon the Lieut., brilliant with expressions of savage bitterness, and Indian sarcasm. Pointing to Harris with an upward curve in his arm, and downward distant pointing of the finger, his head thrust forward by a stooping posture, and eye intently fixed upon Col. Tailor, he exclaimed: “I am told that our white brother here, has never been upon the war path. It may be true; but I have often heard of his being upon the moonlight path that leads to the wigwams of the young squaws of my people, on the Osconsin,”

It was against the influence of this Chief over the minds of the Winnebago Nation, that Waukon Decorah contended for a long time in his efforts to prevent the disasters of war, and it was not until the return of the Chief from Washington, that the war feeling of the nation was entirely subdued.

Soon after the removal of the Indians from the Wisconsin to the neutral grounds in Iowa, Decorah and his band took up their residence on the Iowa River, near the present site of the town that now bears his name, in the county of Winneshiek. The last time that we saw him, was at the payment of the Indian annuities at the Agency upon Turkey River, in 1842. His form was much bent by age, and he walked with a feeble and tottering step. From the forehead to the top of his head, he was bald, while the sides and the back part of it were concealed beneath a thin covering of long iron grey locks. He was about five feet in height, and was, perhaps, the shortest and smallest Chief in the nation at that time. It was said that he was 81 years old, and the oldest Indian living in the Winnebago tribe. For several years he had spoken but seldom in the Councils of the Nation, and was everywhere regarded by the Winnebago’s as the Father of the Tribe.

The door sill of the Council chamber, at the Agency, was elevated above the ground about a foot. As the old Chief approached it one day, for the purpose of entering the chamber, he reached out his hands to grasp the door frame upon each side, but missing it, he tottered back, and was in the act of falling when two of the younger Chiefs sprang forward and caught him under his arms, helped him up, and assisted him to enter the chamber. This act of kindness immediately attracted the attention of those white persons who were looking on and who were familiar with the Indian character. They knew that if it had been any other Chief or Indian, they would have permitted him to fall, and then indulged in a hearty laugh.

There was something in the stature, and in the expression of the countenance of Waukon Decorah, aided, perhaps, more by the blindness of his eye than anything else, that always reminded us of Stephen Girard, the great Banker Philadelphia, who we had often seen. We believe that a portrait of this Chief may be seen in the Indian Gallery at Washington. If so, we hope someday to see a copy of it hung up in the Court House at Decorah.


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