Milwaukee Reverberations

13 The Killing of Ellsworth Burnett

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

This chapter & the last one tell one story—in two different versions—of violent conflict between early white settlers & Indigenous peoples in the region.

Ellsworth Burnett was a young man of many admirable traits of character, and soon formed a circle of friends. His genial disposition and his aptitude to learn and be of service in any position, peculiarly fitted him for a new settlement. He soon ingratiated himself into the favor of influential men, and set about a novitiate course of surveying. The relationship which soon existed between Ellsworth Burnett and Miss Deminge, was of a nature to warrant considerable romance. Many moonlight nights saw them floating in his canoe along the margin of the Menomonee, and many more might have witnessed his late departure from Slidell’s house, to walk the somewhat lonely route homeward toward the town. There is something due to the memory of this young man; and the present historian, however feeble his efforts, cannot pass over this part of the narrative without an attempt to do him justice. His parents were living in Michigan and were poor. It seems as though his industry was stimulated as much by the hope of securing a home for them as by other incentives. He communicated his plans fully to Allie, and together they entered into the undertaking.

Whether or not Burnett brought any “means” with him to Milwaukie is uncertain, but in a very short time he was in possession of enough money to enable him to enter a small tract of land, for which purpose it was necessary to go to Green Bay.

George Pinckney was at this time employed by Capt. Geo. Barber, who was building a schooner on the river above Kilbourn’s house. Since Miss Deminge had been an inmate of Slidell’s house, Pinckney had sought on several occasions to mollify his brother’s feelings in regard to himself and had so far succeeded that he made frequent visits to the place; the men treating each other civilly if not affectionately. During one of his calls he “proposed” to Allie, and was astounded to find she was already engaged to Burnett. Pinckney was not a man to suffer extremely from the pangs of unrequited love. Instead of contemplating suicide, he set about meditating revenge, – and that upon Slidell who had allowed Burnett free access to his house, and had undoubtedly prejudiced the lady’s mind in regard to his brother from motives of personal vindictiveness – at least so this man reasoned.

There was nothing startling followed. Pinckney pursued his round of labor and shunned the house and brother. Burnett spent his evenings with Allie, maturing praiseworthy plans; dreaming, mayhap, of a future which seemed golden from the reflection of the present. In consummating their projects, as we have said, it was necessary for Burnett to go to Green Bay. This was no insignificant journey in those times. It then taking four and five days to reach that far off land office with a good horse, and the journey was fraught with many risks.

However he was determined to go. Miss Deminge, his intended wife, the night before he started, tried to prevail upon him to relinquish the journey, by saying that the object could be accomplished by commissioning one of the several men who were continually travelling between the two places.

“But that is not the way to do business,” answered Burnett, “there is no one that I can trust with my private interests, or who would accomplish the work as I would myself.”

“There is your friend, Mr. Hathaway,” the girl continued.

The young man laughed – “Allie,” he said, ” you are afraid of the Indians – but it’s a foolish fear. The Indians will not trouble me – they all know I’m a harmless fellow – besides I might travel the route a dozen times and not meet one.”

“I know better,” replied Miss Deminge, “since the murder of the Indian by the sentinel at Fort Winnebago they are greatly excited – I should rather you would not go for other reasons.”

“What other reasons?”


“And pray shall I relinquish my chance to get the land, to stay here and look after Pinckney?”

“I think so,” answered Allie, quietly.

Burnett thought of this after he started, but at the time he laughed and joked the young woman on the subject.

On the eighth of November he started with a man by the name of Clyman. They were driven to Prairieville, where the teamster left them to pursue the rest of their way a-foot.

On the afternoon of the second day they reached Rock River, and came upon a wigwam at what is now Theresa in Dodge County. The only occupant of the place was a sq*** whose liege lord was absent. Attached to a tree in the river floated a bark canoe, however, and Clyman proposed to appropriate it with a view of facilitating their journey. The Indian woman vehemently opposed this, but Burnett tossed her a half-dollar and the two getting into the canoe paddled away down the river.

The day following Burnett’s departure from Milwaukie, the brothers fell out. Pinckney, unable longer to contain his wrath, accused Slidell of being dishonest. Words ran high between them, and finally Slidell put Pinckney out of doors.

That night, as the family were about retiring, an Indian known as “Bill” though his proper name was Shaw-ag-ough, knocked at the door. This Indian had frequently associated with Pinckney; accompanying him on hunting excursions and teaching him certain wood-craft, in consideration of whiskey received. Slidell’s first impression, when he opened his door and saw this grim picture, probably was, that his presence was in some way connected with his former difficulty with Pinckney. “Bill” made some scarcely intelligible importunity which Slidell understood to be a request to come into the house and he ordered him away. “Bill” did not comply with the request but made another unintelligible speech and Slidell knocked him down, and shut the door.

About half an hour afterwards, a score of savages appeared in front of the house, and made night hideous with their gibberish. Slidell had always been afraid of the Indians, and this demonstration rather appalled him, though it was perhaps more laughable than frightful, as the savages were unarmed and contented themselves with going through a strange medley of howls and dances.

The next morning Slidell went to Juneau for advice, fearing that the Indians would burn his house or murder him in his sleep. Juneau promised to see “Bill” and talk to him. The afternoon of the same day – the 10th of November – as Slidell stood in front of Juneau’s house – news was received that Burnett had been murdered, and Clyman a moment after appeared to tell the story.

About two hours after the two men had left the wigwam on Rock River, as has been related, the Indian proprietor thereof returned with his son, a boy about fourteen. His rage at learning of the taking of his canoe by white men was unbounded, and he immediately proposed to his wife and son to follow after and kill them. The sq***, who was probably still under the novel effects of the half dollar, objected, and the boy was inclined to side with the mother.

The Indian first whipped the boy soundly with his gun-rod, and having gained the consent of the sq*** by the same or some other summary process, the two started in pursuit of the white men. By crossing the country, they cut off some five miles of the distance and overtook the young men about dusk, only a few miles below Theresa. They had pulled the canoe up on a bank, and had taken possession of a bark wigwam. As the stealthy foes came up to the encampment, they saw Burnett inside the hut preparing to light a fire; a moment after, Clyman came out and leaning his double-barrelled gun against the door of the house, started off to gather fuel.

Just then Burnett discovered the Indian and shouting to Clyman he said:

“We shall have company to-night!”

His companion looked around and seeing the savage, replied: “We shall have to bring our canoe up to the house,” and went on gathering fire-wood.

The Indian approached the wigwam. This Clyman was conscious of, but he paid no attention to his movements, until, hearing the report of a gun, he turned suddenly, and beheld the Indian near the hut, beckoning to him urgently. Supposing that Burnett had accidentally discharged his pistol and wounded himself, he threw down the wood and started to return. He had not run three rods before he saw the savage deliberately take up his gun, which had leaned against the hut, and aim it at him. It was then and not till then that the treachery flashed upon his mind, and with it the astounding truth that Burnett had been murdered. The deadly weapon was still pointed at him, and turning about, he ran in a tortuous course without knowing whither he went. He heard the report, and felt a wound in his arm, but he still kept on, impelled by a sudden love of life which gave him new strength. When the remaining barrel was fired, he felt the stinging shot against his back. It was not quite dark, and an almost impenetrable swamp lay before him, but wounded as he was, there was no alternative. Plunging into the brush he groped his way – now sinking knee-deep in mire and now enclosed with undergrowth that in the darkness promised no outlet. After the most superhuman efforts he escaped from his pursuer, and on the afternoon of the next day arrived in Milwaukie and gave the alarm.

A party of sixteen, among them was Slidell, started immediately for Rock River. They found the wigwam, bloody, and perforated by a bullet – but the remains of Burnett were not discovered; and, save the destruction of the Indian’s lodge at Theresa, no vengeance was taken at that time. The Indians surrendered the perpetrators about two weeks after the event, and they were conveyed to Green Bay by a detachment of dragoons.

It was not until 1854 that the remains of this unfortunate young man were found, thrust in a hole near where the murder was committed. They were pointed out to Narcisse Juneau, and identified; but strange as it may appear they were never properly interred.

Mr. Joshua Hathaway, of this city, wrote to Theresa, and offered to pay the expense of burial, but there is reason to believe that the bones of Ellsworth Burnett lie bleaching, to this day, along the shores of Rock River.

A.C. Wheeler, “The Killing of Ellsworth Burnett.” The Chronicles of Milwaukee: being a narrative history of the town from its earliest period to the present (Jermain & Brightman, 1861): pp. 41-47.