Milwaukee Reverberations

11 A Legend of Market Square

From A.C. Wheeler's Chronicles of Milwaukee (1861)

This “legend” may be more white settler fiction than Indigenous folklore. We don’t know. Nevertheless we think it is evidence of the significance Milwaukee had for Indigenous peoples & cultures. A.C. Wheeler was a newspaper writer & editor of The Milwaukee Sentinel from 1859 to 1862.

“You say,” said the Major to the stranger, “that you came to Milwaukie in ’36.”

“Yes, I came in 36 from Green Bay, but I had been here before in ’33, with a party of government surveyors, on their way to Illinois. In ’36 I fell in with a few friends at Green Bay, who induced me to come to Milwaukie. I stopped at the Bellevue House – Starr kept it; I remember distinctly, because he charged me twenty dollars for my sojourn of a little more than a week.”

“I think it’s likely I have met you there,” said the Major.

“Very probable,” replied the other. “I did not stay long, but went to Racine, and afterwards had a hand in the removal of the Indians west of the Mississippi.”

“That reminds me,” said the other, “of the old story you used to tell about the Indian Convention. I wish you would spin that yarn for the Major, here – he loves a good Indian story about as well as any man I know of – hey, Major.”

“Should be glad to hear it,” said the Major, in his most affable manner – and calling for a renewal of the liquid ambrosia – the three moved their chairs closer together, and the former speaker, said:

“I don’t know, gentlemen, as the story will interest you particularly, though it did me very much when I first heard it, and I have thought several times that it would make a very readable affair for one of the magazines and with more authenticity than two-thirds of the Indian stories afloat now-a-days.

“When the Indians were removed, I was sent, in company with others, to take charge of a party of them; during our journey through Iowa, I became very intimate with one, who was called “Powder,” though I believe his proper name was “Pough-gow.” He was a very intelligent savage and spoke English quite well. From him I learned the following legend or history – whichever you please and which he said he had often heard repeated by the older members of his tribe.

I took considerable interest in the narrative, as I said before, and got him to repeat it at several different times, so that I remember pretty much all the details, and it amounted to about this:

“It seems that a good many years before the white people found out Milwaukie, the different tribes in the Territory, or a greater part of them, had a sort of yearly gathering at this place, for what special purpose I don’t know, but it was a convention at which they smoked and discussed matters of general interest, formed new alliances and transacted national business. This annual gathering lasted sometimes a month, and there was some natural product, animal, vegetable or mineral, which they used to gather here and take away with them, to be used as food or in their incantations. I always imagined it was part of their secret rites, for nothing could ever be learned of the Indians in relation to it; and I was once in conversation with an old trader who confirmed me in the belief, by saying that he had heard Indians say, on the Mississippi, that they would be buried on the Man-wau-kee.”

“There is every reason to believe that this locality was a sacred or neutral ground, consecrated to some of their Deities,” remarked the Major; “indeed, I think I have heard as much somewhere. I don’t think any very large tribes ever resided permanently here, and yet there were thousands of graves found along the bluffs, and in digging up the southern part of the town a few years ago, the soil was packed with their bones. Then there are whole rows of tumuli along the Menomonee-”

“Yes, exactly,” said the former speaker, who saw that unless he interrupted, the Major would carry off all the honors of principal speaker.

Ancient Works in the Vicinity of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Surveyed 1836-1852 by I.A. Lapham. (From Lapham's Antiquities of Wisconsin, 1855.)
Ancient Works in the Vicinity of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Surveyed 1836-1852 by I.A. Lapham. (From Lapham’s Antiquities of Wisconsin, 1855.)

“As I was saying, they had a sort of fraternal celebration here. Previous to one of these gatherings, there had been a war raging between a number of the tribes. They had tracked and killed each other for a number of months, and no doubt added all the horrors of their peculiar training to the feuds. But when the time for assembling came around, they laid down their arms, buried their hatchets and set out for the Milwaukie to have a pow-wow in peace, and recruit their energies for a fresh dash at each other. It seems that the convention was taken up this year mostly with the consideration of their quarrels, and an abandonment of the old differences was advocated by most of the oldest and worthiest of the chiefs. There was one, however, As-kee-no, a Winnebago, who opposed all the plans for a reconciliation of the tribes. Some old and deep rooted grudge against the Menomonees prevented him from joining the rest in the great scheme for their own amelioration, and while he was willing to live out the remaining term of the convention, according to rule, in a decently harmonious way, he avowed his determination to commence the scalping business again as soon as the time expired.

The name “Winnebago” is actually an exonym—a misnomer from another language family—for the Ho-Chunk, referring to marshlands. Their chosen name for themselves, the Ho-Chunk, means “the People of the Big Voice.”

“As-kee-no, with his tribe, or that portion of it that acknowledged him leader, had their wigwams along the edge of the bluff or bank that used to run north and south on Market Square. He had a daughter, who was represented as the most beautiful sq*** in the country. I have heard her name, but forget it; it was something very musical-”

“Say Law-re-sa, or Chow-chow,” ‘ interpolated the Major.

“No, it was something like Nis-o-was-sa. We’ll call her that at all events. She was an Indian belle, very graceful, very handsome, and had a score of brave lovers in all the tribes. Nis-o-was-sa had been thrown among the missionaries in the north and had imbibed some notional ideas of Christianity, which influenced her life to some extent, and caused her to be regarded among her own people as a favorite with the Good Spirit of the white men. “Well, As-kee-no, withstood all the intreaties of the chiefs. In vain they talked and reasoned – he was determined. On the last day of the convention, the warriors and orators assembled on the bluff (where As-kee-no had encamped,) for a final deliberation. All the tribes had come to an understanding, except this faction of the Winnebagos, and this last meeting was to decide whether their plans were to avail anything. They made a great many speeches. One chief, who came from the north and was regarded as the most eloquent and brave of the nation, appealed to the stubborn Winnebago in very fine figures. He told of the necessity of being brothers; that the Manitou had given them the wolf and panther to fight; that their enemies came from the east; that their hatchets never were made to be dipped in red blood, but were fashioned for the white hearts of their foes. The Good Spirit made them all with red faces to be brothers of one family!

“As-kee-no replied that the Menomonees had insulted his father; they had called the Winnebagos dogs, and told them they lived in the dirt like the beaver and smelled like the musk-rat. The Menomonees had called them a nation of sq***s; big words were not sharp like an arrow, that As-kee- no should heed them, but he would show the Menomonees their own scalps in his lodge, that were taken by his sq***s from their warriors. He admired the system of brotherly love marked out, but thought the quickest way to realize it, was to scalp all the Menomonee chiefs, roast the young men, and carry off the women.

“Nis-o-was-sa was present at this council. She heard the speeches one after another, and seemed to realize that her father was the great obstruction to the reformatory movement. She heard his obstinate and vindictive replies, and while she knew that most of his tribe would acquiesce in his decision – she also knew that they were not of his mind. At the conclusion of her father’s speech there was a long silence – the council smoked gravely and mutely for some minutes, and at last a chief replied; he was followed by several and finally the old brave from the north spoke again. He rehearsed the miseries of intestine war and painted the advantages of peace, and by a clever management of his subject made it appear that hereafter all the miseries and troubles of the red men would be attributed to As-kee-no who was the only chief in the country who opposed the remedy. No animal wars against its kind, said the old orator. The Good Spirit never intended that his children should. It was left for the pale faces to butcher one another in wars. He pointed to the graves along the bluffs and to the angry lake and told them how their false and unfraternal passions, like the boisterous sea, leapt madly on regardless of consequences, impelled by the winds of hatred – and told them this hatred had peopled the shores with the bodies of their warriors that were sent by the Good Spirit to lead the young men on the war path.

“Nis-o-was-sa caught the spirit of the old chief, and linked the schemes of the Indian orator with the greater doctrines of peace and brotherly love that she had learned from the missionaries. She saw that the wisest and ablest of the warriors were opposed in the measure by her father alone.

“After the orator had ceased and when the customary time for silence had expired, As-kee-no again rose and with even more bitterness than before reiterated his intentions. Let those who would be women before their enemies go,’ he said, ‘and put on pigeon feathers and plant their corn; my arm is not weak that I should ask mercy or friendship of the Menomonees, nor is my hatchet broken that I should use soft words to those who hate me. Let my brothers go, I have said.’

“The disappointment of the council at this termination of its efforts was suddenly turned to surprise, as the gentle Nis-o-was-sa glided out from behind her father, and confronted the assembly. It was a great breach of Indian propriety, this intrusion into the council of a woman, and Nis-o-was-sa knew it, but she was a general favorite, and before the surprise had died away, she spoke. Said she:

“Our chiefs all know Nis-o-was-sa whom you have called the ‘Day-sleep’ – she is a woman and her tongue knows not the wisdom of the braves in council; but she has talked with the medicine men of the pale faces, and he has sent her to whisper a word to her friends. Nis-o-was-sa has listened to the words of wisdom that have been spoken. They are good. They please the Good Spirit. Is there a Menomonee who dare say that Nis-o-was-sa does not love her father! Has she not followed him on every trail and watched him when the warriors slept!’

“Here the girl inclined her head against her father’s shoulder, and the chief, surprised and curious to know what she meant to do, remained in statue-like position evincing no disposition to interfere with her.

“Is there a chief who will say Nis-o-was-sa does not look up to her father as the flower looks up to the sun?’

“A grave chief, whose white locks contrasted finely with his red cheeks, replied:

“‘There are none to answer the ‘Day Sleep;’ but her words are for the lodge and not for the council. Let her father send her away!’

“‘He will not!’ said the girl, ‘you want peace and the Great Spirit grants it – see?’

“Quicker than a flash of electric light, she grasped the knife from her father’s belt, and ere he had time to avoid the the blow – she had plunged it into his heart; and while the round arm was bathed in the paternal blood, she straightened it out with the majesty of one deified by a high enthusian – saying:

“‘Now let the Menomonees and the Winnebagos be friends,’* and walked proudly and slowly out of the assemblage.

“And there you have the story; it is to be regretted that nothing more is known concerning the woman; who, if she had been born in Greece, would have monuments erected to her memory at this day.”

“And how do you know there are not green monuments erected to her here?” asked the Major. “The county is illustrated with their history wherever soil could be heaped into mounds.”

*The author is indebted for the outline and location of the above sketch, to Col. James Stanley, late of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and now a resident of St. Louis.

A.C. Wheeler, “A Legend of the Market Place.” The Chronicles of Milwaukee: being a narrative history of the town from its earliest period to the present (Jermain & Brightman, 1861): pp. 159-165.