The Story of a Famous Chief

by Reuben Gold Thwaites

One of the best-known Indians with whom Wisconsin Territorial pioneers were thrown into personal contact was Oshkosh, the last of the Menominee sachems, or peace chiefs. It is worth while briefly to relate the story of his career, because it was the life of a typical Indian leader, at the critical time when the whites were coming into the country in such numbers as to crowd the reds to the wall.

Oshkosh was born in 1795, at Point Bas, on the Wisconsin River. Cha-kau-cho-ka-ma (meaning Old King), the peace chief of the Menominees at that time, was his maternal grandfather. The war chief was Glode, the orator of the tribe, and a mighty hunter. The Old King lived until 1826, but Glode died in 1804, his successor being Tomah (the French pronunciation of Thomas, his English name).

In the War of 1812-15, a large band of Wisconsin Indians joined the ranks of Tecumseh, in raiding upon the American borderers. The principal Menominee chiefs were Tomah, Souligny, Grizzly Bear, and Iometah, and among the young men was Oshkosh.

Their first expedition was against Fort Mackinac, in 1812, that stronghold being captured from the Americans without bloodshed. Among white men, such an enterprise would not seem to offer much opportunity for the display of personal bravery; but savage and civilized standards of courage differ, and young Oshkosh appears to have satisfied the old men upon this occasion, so that he then received the name by which we know him, meaning in the Menominee tongue, "brave."

By the following May, Oshkosh, now in his nineteenth year, and prominent among the young warriors, went out with Souligny and Tomah, and joined Tecumseh in the siege of Fort Meigs at the rapids of the Maumee River. Later, during the same summer, he was engaged in the memorable British-Indian siege of Sandusky. The succeeding year he was one of a large party of Menominees assisting the British to repel a fierce but futile American attempt to recapture Fort Mackinac. This was his last campaign, for peace between Great Britain and the United States soon followed.

Oshkosh, now living upon the lands of the tribe in northeastern Wisconsin, appears to have passed a quiet existence, after his exploits of 1812-15. Lacking the stimulus of war, he maintained a state of artificial excitement by the use of fire water, and soon won a bad reputation in this regard. But he was not wholly debased. Few in council had more power than he. Although he was slow to speak, his opinion when given had much weight, because of a firm, resolute tone, beside which the impassioned flights of Tomah and Souligny often failed in effect.

When the Old King died without any sons, a contest arose over the successorship to the chieftaincy. In many tribes there would have been no question about the election of Oshkosh, for he was the son of Old King's daughter; but the Menominees did not recognize any heirship except through sons. So many claimants arose, each determined to fight for the position, that the United States government feared an outbreak of civil war within the tribe, with possible injuries to the neighboring white settlers.

Hence a court of claims was organized, to choose a chief among the contestants. This court, headed by Governor Lewis Cass, of Michigan Territory, met at Little Butte des Morts (near Neenah) in August, 1827, and selected Oshkosh. Cass, in the presence of the tribesmen, hung a medal about the neck of the victor, shook hands with him, and ordered a feast in honor of the event.

The first five years of the reign of this dusky chieftain were peaceful enough, so far as relations with other tribes were concerned. But within the Menominee villages there were frequent drunken frolics, which sometimes ended in bloodshed or in endless disputes between families; and in these disturbances, which often greatly alarmed the white settlers, Oshkosh had his full share.

When in June, 1832, the great Sac leader, Black Hawk, was harassing the settlements in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, while being slowly driven northward by the white troops, fears were entertained in the valley of the lower Fox that he would turn toward Green Bay. With the hope of preventing this, a force of three hundred Menominee Indians was recruited there, and sent to the seat of war, officered by American and French residents. Oshkosh headed his people, but arrived too late to do any fighting; Black Hawk had already been vanquished by white soldiers, at the battle of the Bad Ax. Oshkosh and his braves found no more savage foe than a small party of Sacs, old men and women and children, flying from the battlefield, and these they promptly massacred, proudly carrying the scalps back with them to Green Bay.

Four years later, the Menominees sold all of their lands in Wisconsin to the federal government, and were placed upon the reservation at Keshena, where they still live.

In 1840, the little four-year-old white settlement at the junction of the upper Fox with Lake Winnebago thought itself large enough to have a post office, hence the necessity for adopting a permanent name. The place had at first been known to travelers as Stanley's Tavern, because here a man named Stanley ran a ferry across Fox River, and kept a log hotel. Then the Green Bay merchants fell into the habit of marking "Athens" on boxes and bales which the boatmen carried up to Stanley's.

When the question arose over the name for the post office, there were several candidates, "Osceola," "Galeopolis," and "Athens" being prominent. Robert Grignon, a French fur trader at Grand Butte des Morts, desiring to be on good terms with his Menominee neighbors, proposed "Oshkosh." Thereupon party spirit ran high. Upon a day named, a popular election without distinction of race was held at the office of the justice of the peace, who provided a free dinner to the voters; among them were a score of Indians, brought in by Grignon. Several ballots were taken, between which speeches were made in behalf of the rivals. "Oshkosh" finally won, chiefly by the votes of Grignon's Indians. Harmony was soon restored, and the election ended in drink and smoke, after the fashion of border gatherings in those days.

We hear little more of old chief Oshkosh, until fifteen years later. In the year 1852 occurred a kidnaping case, which became famous in the frontier annals of Wisconsin. Nahkom, a Menominee squaw, was accused of having stolen a little white boy, the son of Alvin Partridge, of the town of Neenah, in Winnebago county. The Indians stoutly denied the truth of this accusation; indeed, Partridge himself failed to recognize his lost son in the person of Nahkom's boy. But the relatives and neighbors of Partridge were confident as to the identity, and the bereaved father was induced to ask aid of the courts in obtaining the child.

The case hung fire for three years, the courts always deciding in favor of Nahkom, although Partridge regained temporary possession of the boy under writs of habeas corpus. Finally, pending the decision of a Milwaukee judge upon the application for a writ, the little fellow was placed in the jail of that city. From there the Partridges kidnaped him and fled to Kansas, leaving poor Nahkom childless, for undoubtedly it was a case of mistaken identity, and the child was really hers. Ultimately the boy was found and restored to her.

This was in 1855. Oshkosh and a number of Menominee headmen went at once to Milwaukee, upon learning of the jail delivery, and laid their complaints before the judge. Recognizing the press as a medium of communication with the public, Oshkosh and Souligny also visited the editor of the Sentinel, asking him to state their grievance and plead their cause. The speech which Oshkosh made to the editor was given in full in that paper, and is a good specimen of the direct, earnest method in Indian oratory.

He said, among other things: "Governor Dodge told us that our great father [the President] was very strong, and owned all the country; and that no one would dare to trouble us, or do us wrong, as he would protect us. He told us, too, that whenever we got into difficulty or anything happened we did not like, to call on our great father and he would see justice done. And now we come to you to remind our great father, through your paper, of his promise, and to ask him to fulfil it.... We thought our child safe in the jail in the care of the officers; that none could get the child away from them unless the law gave them the right. We cannot but think it must have been an evil spirit that got into the jail and took away our child. We thought the white man's law strong, and are sorry to find it so weak." Upon the conclusion of his visit, Oshkosh and his friends returned to their reservation, determined never again to mingle with the deceitful and grasping whites.

Upon their way home to Keshena, Oshkosh stopped at the thriving little city which had been christened for him, and expressed pride at having so large a namesake. It was his first and only visit. Three years later he died in a drunken brawl, aged sixty-three years. He was a good Indian, as savages go, his chief vice being one borrowed from the whites, who forced themselves upon his lands and contaminated him and his people.