Aboriginal History

From the Winona County section of the 1884 book


A history of the first settlement of Winona county, and especially that of the city of Winona, requires that some notice be given tot he Indian tribes that have occupied the territory in which it lies, and of that adjacent, and also that some notice be given to the early efforts of missionaries and explorers to Christianize and render the savages obedient to the wants of commerce and of French or English ascendancy. The fur trade was the most important element in the early explorations and settlement of the Northwest, as commerce generally has been in the civilization of the world.

The limited space allowed for this subject admits of but slight mention of the authorities drawn upon, but it is imperative that the aid afforded by the researches of the Smithsonian Institute, of Rev. Edward Duffield Neil, and of Judge George Gale, be acknowledged.

Absolutely nothing is known of the origin of the Indians; neither the mound-builders, nor the more modern tribes; and the naturalist is led to ponder over the suggestion ascribed to Voltaire, "that possibly, in America, while God was creating different species of flies, he created various species of men.

Be that as it may, their differentiations in languages and customs, forming different tribes from more original stocks, or sources, have been noticed by writers upon ethnology; but aside from the knowledge afforded by their various languages and traditions all is doubt and mystery. Their traditions, even, are so blended with superstitions and romances that the most critical judgment is required in giving credit to any portion of them; the more especially to times and distances that extend beyond the Indian's present capacity to realize. The territory between the lakes and the Mississippi river seems to have been peculiarly fitted by its topography and natural productions for a grand nursery of savage tribes; and there are evidences still remaining in the languages and traditions of the aboriginal inhabitants of this territory, and in the remains of ancient tumuli, stone and copper implements, to warrant this belief. It is probable, as claimed by tradition, that some tribe of Algonquin origin was in possession of this vast territory, and were dispossessed by confederated Sioux, whom tradition says came from the New Mexican frontier. The Chippewa names for different localities, now corrupted, but familiar to us, warrants this belief, if it does not establish the fact. The Sauks and Min-o-min-ees, both of Chippewa origin, say they were the original owners of the whole territory, but they shed no light upon the origin of the mound-builders. Those people may have been drawn to this territory from the far south in search of copper, which to them, probably, was as the gold of California to modern adventurers, and been expelled again by wars, or have voluntarily abandoned their industrious mode of life to become engrafted into the new nations that were springing up around them. Such industrious people would naturally become the prey of more warlike tribes, and the more especially so because of their cranial development, indicating a lack of aggressive character. In support of the claim to have been the oldest of modern tribes to occupy the territory, the Chippewa race mention the names given by their ancestors to prominent localities.

For example, Michigan, a word of Chippewa origin, is derived from Mich-e-gah-ge-gan, meaning the lake country, or "skye bound waters." Wisconsin is from Gy-osh-kon-sing, the name of its principal river, and means the place of little gulls. Chicago is from Gah-che-gah-gong, a place of skunks. Milwaukee is from Mim-wa-ke, meaning hazel-brush land, equivalent to good land, as upon good land only will this shrub grow. The astringent bark was used as a medicinal remedy, and hence the shrub was known as the good shrub by the Indians.

Galena was known as Ush-ke-co-man-o-day, the lead town; Prairie-du-Chien as Ke-go-shook-ah-note, meaning where the fish rest, as in winter they are still known to do. St. Anthony's Falls was called Ke-che-ka-be-gong, a great waterfall; the Mississippi as Miche-see bee, or Miche-gah-see bee, meaning the great or endless river, or, more literally, the river that runs everywhere; and Lake Superior was known as Ke-che-gun-me, or "the great deep." Only a few Chippewa names have been given, and those simply to show the familiarity of the Chippewa with characteristics of the various localities named by them and now so familiar to us. It may be added that St. Paul, or its site, was known as Ish-ke-bug-ge, or new leaf, because of the early budding out of the foliage below St. Anthony's. It has been a custom of Indian tribes, as with other primitive peoples, to name persons and tribes from peculiarities, from resemblances and from localities.

This rule has been followed in naming the separate tribes of the great Algonquin, Iroquois and Dah-ko-tah nations, as well as of those of the Pawnee, Shosh-o-me, Kewis, Yu-mah and Apachee or Atha-pas-can nations. For many years the records of the early Spanish and French explorers were hidden from the researches of modern investigators, but those of Marco-de Nica and of Coronado, have come out at last from their mouldy recesses, and documents that had lain in the archives of France for long years have been copied and published to aid the modern historian. In these records of the early explorers, errors in writing and on maps have been made; but they are of considerable value to modern research, because of the light they shed upon the explorations of their authors, and upon some Indian traditions concerning them.

The Chippewa name for Lake Winnepec is Win-ne-ba-go-shish-ing, the meaning of which is a place of dirty water. The name Win-ne-ba-go was interpreted to mean "stinking water," and the Indians of the tribe were called by the early French explorers the "Stinkards," under the impression that they had come from a place of stinking water. Lake Winnebago, in Wisconsin, was supposed to be that locality, but it may be observed here that the water of that lake is not, or was not, before the advent of the white people impure.

Another reason given for the name was, that they had come from the Western sea or ocean, imagined by the first French explorers to exist in the region of the Mississippi river; and as the Algonquin name Winnebagoec, for salt and stinking water, was the same, except in accent, their name was supposed by some to designate a people from the Western ocean. The traditions and legends once inhabited the territory adjacent to lake Win-ne-ba-go-shish-ing (modernly called Winnepec), and probably long anterior to the occupancy by the Sioux of the Mille-Lac country, as while acknowledging their relationship to the Dah-ko-tah nation, they claim a more ancient lineage. Lieut. Pike refers to the statement of an old Chippewa that the Sioux once occupied Leach Lake; and Winnebago shishing, or the "Dirty Water lake," is but twenty-five miles distant from Leach Lake.

The Winnebagoes call themselves Ho-chunk-o-rah, meaning "the deep voiced people." The Dah-ko-tah call them ho-tau-kah, full or large voiced people, because of their sonorous voices being conspicuously prominent in their dance and war songs. Many words in Winnebago and Sioux are very similar. Wah-tah is the Sioux word for canoe; watch-er-ah, the Winnebago. Shoon-kah is the Sioux word for dog; shoon-ker-ah, is the Winnebago name. No-pah is nine in Sioux; Nope is the same numeral in Winnebago.

Numerous other examples might be given of resemblances in their respective languages, but these will suffice. The Chippewa language is wonderfully artistic in construction and rich in suggestions; hence we find many of their words accepted by other tribes as classic. Manit-ba, God's land, suggests the idea of a God-given country or Indian paradise. Superior in intellectual capacity to most other tribes, their names seem to have been accepted by others as something better than their own. It is believed by the writer that in this way, probably, the Chippewa name, Winnebago, was given and accepted by the Ho-chunck-o-rah.

The Northeastern Sioux claimed to have owned the Mille Lac country from time immemorial. It seems quite probably that before the "long war," and during some long era of peace, the Winnebagoes may have inhabited the shores of Lake Winnepec, perhaps while the Sioux were at Leech lake. The Kneesteneau, or Chippewas, would have been their neighbors, and from them the Winnebago may have acquired some of the tastes and habits that have so marked his character.

As is still customary with bordering tribes, intermarriages were no doubt of frequent occurrence, and in this way, it is conceivable, that the Dah-ko-tah progenitors of the Winnebagoes nay have established themselves among some Chippewa tribes, and their offspring have been led to accept flag-mat wigwams, deer, fish and water-fowl in lieu of skin tents and buffalo meat. The Sioux language even differs in each band. Probably, soon after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, many of the red rovers of the plains, as their traditions tell, left for more northern climes. The inviting prairies of Minnesota, with their countless herds of buffalo and elk, would for a time, at least, content the warlike Sioux, who, provided with some of the "big dogs" (horses) of the Spaniards, could roam at will over these boundless, beautiful plains. It seems also likely that reports of the more than savage cruelty of the Spaniard had gone out, with accounts of the destructive nature of his "deadly thunder;" and is so, a common dread would have kept a superstitious people at peace.

Friendly alliances would most naturally have sprung up among border tribes, and in but a few generations old tribes would have been multiplied into new ones, as appears to have been done during some long era of peace. It is true that the problem may be as readily solved by supposing a state of civil war to have existed, but in that case there still must have been long eras of peace, or the race would have become extinct. Be that as it may, the forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin limited the range of the buffalo in these states, and in doing this determined the character of the native inhabitants.

The Sioux soon asserted his savage sway over the whole prairie region west of the Mississippi river, and drove into the forests of Wisconsin his less formidable neighbors. In after years, by combined attacks with firearms, he was driven back by those he had dispossessed of their patrimony, and was content to plant himself upon the western shore of his watery barrier; keeping as neutral ground, for a time, a strip of territory along the east side of the Mississippi.

This region remained neutral but for a short time only, for w*tind (unreadable) by the accounts of the earliest French explorers that the Dakotah and Algonquin nations were in an almost constant state of warfare when first visited by them, and during the whole time of the French occupation of the territory.

The water-courses afforded ready access to the greater part of the region between the lakes and "Great river," and the dense forests concealed the approach of the wily foes. While the "battle-ground" presented opportunities for a surprise, it was no less serviceable for those who waited in ambush. Many a war party of both nations have been cut off by a successful ambush, and their people left to mourn and plot new schemes of vengeance.

Other tribes suffered by these national animosities, and abandoned the noted theatres of war for more peaceful localities. The Winnebagoes, according to their traditions, suffered from the incursions of both nations; and at the time of the first visit or the French at Green Bay they were found there and on Fox river, living in amity with the rice-eaters, or Min-o-min-nee, and other tribes of Algonquin origin, though known to be closely related to the almost universal enemy, the Sioux. During the summer months the Indians on Fox river appeared sedentary in their habits, living in bark houses and cultivating Indian corn and other products of Indian agriculture, or gathering the wild potatoes and wild rice that served them for their winter stores of vegetable food. During seasons of scarcity from frosts, or from disaster, edible nuts and acorns were secured against times of want; and if famine came upon them in their extremity, they supported life by feeding upon the inner bark of the slippery elm, linden and white pine. Those were happy times for the peaceful tribes, and of sorrow for those in enmity with one another.


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