Sunday, February 9, 2020

Red Bird's War: What Really Happened in 1827, Part 1

By Monette Bebow-Reinhard

When research began, it involved the Winnebago War of 1827, a Wisconsin Historical Collection volume had an innocuous footnote about a Missouri Republican article in St. Louis that indicated a drunken frolic started the war. Yet, this source had never found its way into any historian’s account. So this author traveled to St. Louis and found that article. It changed the entire perspective of what happened—but not, of course, back then; only how it can be viewed today.

In 1822, while treaties were being made for the lead mining region with the local tribes around Galena and other places in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and southern Wisconsin, the Winnebago Indians (now Ho-Chunk) believed that the land was worth more than the offer. Red Bird was a minor chief of a village located southeast of La Crosse, Wisconsin at the mouth of the Black River, north of Prairie du Chien. His tribe was always friendly with the people in and around Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River. Lucy Murphy in A Gathering of Rivers noted that their removal from mining land was not inevitable because Indians proved, like Red Bird, that they could accommodate the whites. Ultimately, Red Bird paid the price for this war.

At a sugar camp in southern Wisconsin the spring of 1826, a French family named Methode was murdered. There was a path leading to a Winnebago camp. On July 9th, about 80 Winnebagoes arrived at Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien to turn over six for the murders. Yet Old Decora said he never told anyone that these men were guilty.

Two Winnebagoes, held for the crime for over a year, pleaded innocent to the charges. Rumors began to spread that the army allowed Chippewa Indians to beat and torture them to death. The Winnebagoes threatened to sack Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien to demand the truth or release of these prisoners. One reason given for their transfer to Fort Snelling was that the climate around Fort Crawford was a poor one that led to sickness; but isn’t it odd that, during heightened tensions after the Methode killings, they’d close the only garrison around?

In early 1827, Winneshiek, chief of the Pecatonica Winnebagoes, asked subagent John Connolly for help to remove miners digging on their land. These miners refused to leave, saying they had special permission to be there. Lt. Martin Thomas, superintendent of the U.S. Lead Mines, encouraged the forced annexation of their lands with violence. He supposedly told the miners to “remain there until blood is spilled, and something will be done.”

One old story is that Red Bird and other Winnebagoes wanted a war against miners. But with this newspaper account, we see that this war had three events; it started with a drunken party between soldiers from Fort Snelling. From the St. Louis Republican:
…that the crew of the keel boat which was attacked by the Indians had, on their passage up the river, been on shore at this Indian settlement, where they participated with the Indians in a drunken frolic, which, as is usual with both parties, terminated in a quarrel, in which, it is believed, the whites were the aggressors; that the boat’s crew, as if apprehensive of the resentment of their red companions in the revel, which had been wantonly resigned to the mischievous management both of Venus and Bacchus…
The editorial was signed “Observer,” so we’ll never know for sure who wrote it. But it was likely future Illinois Governor John Reynolds; he wrote this exact story in his 1855 memoirs. This drunken party and “Venus” with Indian women likely took place before June 22nd, because the two boats arrived at Fort Snelling in Minnesota on the 23rd.

The next incident happened on the 27th; in other versions, Red Bird was ordered to exact vengeance from the white intruders for the imprisonment and abuse of those prisoners. Instead, if women were abused and even taken from that drunken party, we can understand another motive; Red Bird went to Prairie du Chien to ask if anyone had seen these women. To this point Red Bird had never harmed anyone in the area.

But he was thought to be in distress when he and two others, Wan-i-ga (Wekau) and Chick-hong-sic, went to Lockwood’s trading house that late June. According to James Lockwood, they recognized the tension in the Indians and got them to leave. From Lockwood’s house, Red Bird and the other two went to Rijeste Gagnier’s farm (Gagnier was a respectable farmer in the area and someone whom Red Bird considered a friend). With the arrival of the Indians Lipcap put down the hoe and joined Gagnier in the house (Lipcap was a renter on Gagnier's estate). If the drunken party happened, everyone in Prairie du Chien must have known about it. And they knew what Red Bird wanted.

Here’s how Indian Affairs Superintendent Thomas McKenney reported this second event:
Gagnier had, meantime, seen something peculiar in the looks and movements of these Indians, as is supposed, which led him to reach up, and take from brackets just over his head, his rifle, which, as Mrs. Gagnier turned to get the fish and milk, she saw lying across Gagnier’s lap. At the moment she heard the click caused by the cocking of the Red-Bird’s rifle, which was instantly followed by its discharge. She looked and saw that her husband was shot. At the same moment, the third Indian shot old Lipcap, when Mrs. Gagnier seeing We-kau, who had lingered about the door, about to rush in, she met him, made fight, and wrested from him his rifle…
John Marsh, a sub-Indian agent, heard from Mrs. Gagnier that Gagnier’s head had been nearly cut off. The baby had been scalped, her neck cut nearly to the bone, but survived.

They supposedly fled with the scalps to their band, encamped at, or near, the mouth of the river Bad Axe. The local citizens, on hearing what had happened, took refuge in old Fort Crawford while Marsh raised a posse and searched for them. It was then noted that since the war had begun, they might as well keep it up.

The third incident was the keel boat attack, which happened while the keel boatmen were hauling provisions from Fort Snelling to Fort Crawford.

The St. Louis Republican reported the keelboat attack on July 12th:
We are also informed that the miners in the neighborhood of Fever River were a good deal alarmed. The Indians had been harassing them, and a boat, either ascending or descending the river, was attacked and completely riddled. Two men on board were killed and two severely wounded.
Indian agent Taliaferro at Fort Snelling wrote what Joseph Snelling told him: “They fought nearly three hours in the first (keel) boat, in which two men were killed and four wounded. In the Keel in which he was, there was but one wounded. He farther supposes that the loss on the part of the Winnebagoes must have been considerable not less than fifteen or twenty killed and wounded as the attack commenced in the middle of the night the men on board the boats – directed their fire by the blaze from the guns of the Indians – and where thereby better enabled to do certain execution …”

Observer wrote about it this way:
…that on their return to the Indian settlement, they were approached by some of those Indians in canoes without arms, when the crew, suspicious of their motive, fired upon them from the boat; this fire was returned by the Indians from the shore, who immediately advanced in canoes to this attack, the fatal consequences of which are so well known to us.
The Indians were canoing out to them, not to fight, but simply to find their women. The soldiers attacked first. Observer continued:

The murder at Prairie du Chien, which took place subsequently [Gagnier murders], was, no doubt, wanton and cold-blooded, but in strict compliance with the well-known law of those as well as all other tribes of Indians – to make up for the balance of lives which the fate of war had withheld from them in the previous engagement with the whites.

He ended by noting how well the whites can exaggerate any problems with the natives. The soldiers responded in the Missouri (St. Louis) Republican on August 23rd, in response to Observer’s report of a drunken party:
On the 29th, the Perry and the Ashley passed the Leaf’s village [Sioux] in company, without any molestation. The same night the two boats parted company, and the Perry gained about six hours in advance.

This is the end of part one of Red Bird's War: What Really Happened in 1827. Be sure to tune in next Sunday when we'll feature part two.

Additional Readings & Documentaries:

Red Bird Documentary by Grandchild:
About the Author Monette Bebow-Reinhard is an established book author, specializing in historical accounts, issues, and events. She began writing movie scripts in 1975 and from 1992 to 1995, she co-wrote scripts for the Bonanza series. She has won several minor awards and Monette has several novels on the market. Her latest is entitled "Civil War & Bloody Peace: Following Orders, a historical works involving the American Civil War, now available through Amazon (click here). To connect with Monette Bebow-Reinhard, send an email.

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