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Chapter 7: Fort Winnebago, 1829-31.

In the autumn of 1829 Lieutenant Davis was ordered down to Fort Winnebago, where he remained until 1831. This fort was built in 1828, opposite the portage, about two miles from the junction of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.

As late as 1830 the only mode of reaching Green Bay from Chicago, and from thence to Fort Winnebago, was by schooner, and the journey sometimes consumed three months. The intermediate country in many portions was unexplored by white men, and was generally occupied by friendly Indians; but intercourse with these was rendered doubtful by the secret treaties of amity between the different “Nations.” The accidental death of an allied Indian at the hands of a white man might, at any time, compel friendly Indians to assume a hostile attitude, and the first intimation of the change would be received by a sudden descent upon some new and thriving post, the inhabitants be massacred, or worse, their women and children carried into [66] captivity and their homes left in ruins. There were no roads, in our acceptation of the term, though the Indians could draw with some correctness the topography of the country; and as far as what is now Tennessee, they traced their maps with fair accuracy, using a stick for a pencil and the ground for their canvas. The Indian “trails” were always traceable, especially those that led from the Sac and Fox villages to Fort Malden. This was then the high road for traders and Indians also; it is so in a measure now, as well as the old “Dragoon trail,” made by the First Dragoons when they crossed from Fort Winnebago to the village of Chicago, now traced by tradition in the West.

As the largest sutler's store in the West was kept at Winnebago, there were always a great many Indians about the portage. The love for gambling was as strong among them then as it is now. In Lieutenant Davis's day, however, it took the form of betting on horse fights. He described a long log house in which the horses were trained. Spectators clambered up the outside and looked through the chinks, and as the horses within fought, the lookers — on encouraged them with cries and shouts to do their utmost. When one of them was driven into a corner by his antagonist and refused to come out, the battle was [67] ended. The Indians, he said, would stake their last blanket and string of wampum, and even their bows and arrows upon these horse fights. A whole band betted invariably on the pony which belonged to one of their number.

Another one of their amusements was a dance called the “Discovery dance;” it consisted of slow steps forward and back, and a pantomime in which each Indian recounted his warlike exploits. They became wildly excited toward the last and danced in a most grotesque manner. During these dances no Indian, however mendacious he might be at other times, told anything but the exact truth. They often believed themselves visited by visions during which revelations were vouchsafed to them, after which they blacked their faces and made vows of abstinence which were usually sacredly observed.

Tochonegra, the Otter, was a very dark Indian boy, so named on account of his capacity for diving after fish. He used to stand on the prow of his canoe, armed with a spear which he threw at the fish when he saw them swimming in the clear water, diving after them and seizing his wounded prey in his hands. Lieutenant Davis took a fancy to the little Indian, who, being an orphan, lived with his aunt. She was a remarkable squaw. Her phenomenal [68] strength had gained for her such a place among her tribe that she was even allowed occasionally to join the war party.

Tochonegra once came down to the sutler's store with his face blackened and announced his determination to eat nothing during that day. Lieutenant Davis saw some particularly good raisins there and bought them for the child. Tochonegra, as he had no pockets, dropped some of them on the ground, but finding no place where he could safely put them away, commenced to eat them, much to the amusement of the store full of frontiersmen to whom the sutler called out: “Just look at Tochonegra eating with his face blackened.” The little boy was very much mortified and slunk away. However he returned in a few moments with his face clean and crammed the raisins into his mouth by the handfuls, amidst the laughter of the spectators. He was not more respectful to the dreams of his fellow Indians.

A hunter who imagined himself commanded by the Great Spirit to offer up the proceeds of his autumn hunting upon a certain tree in a desolate neighborhood, fell a victim to Tochonegra's irreverence or common-sense. One day driving along a frozen river, with a number of officers, Lieutenant Davis was hailed by a little boy whom he recognized as [69] Tochonegra, who was dragging his sled in the same direction. They stopped for him while he tied his sled to the back of theirs and drove along, dragging him after them until he called out that he had reached his destination. The officers were much astonished at the place at which he got off, as there was neither Indian wigwam nor house in the neighborhood, and their curiosity induced them to wait and see what the little fellow's next proceeding would be. He climbed painfully up the snow-covered bank, and getting up the tree on which the sacrifices were suspended, proceeded to untie and load them on his sled. He then walked away, dragging his plunder after him. Lieutenant Davis subsequently discovered that he sold them for a round sum at the sutler's store.

The bow was then the principal weapon of the Indians, and the Osages had acquired great renown on account of the superiority of the wood from which this arm was made. In the far West on the prairies, the scarcity of wood reduced them to making their bows of the buffalo ribs which were bound with green sinews and left to harden and shrink. Although difficult to bend and uncertain of aim at long distances, they were terrible weapons at close quarters. Mr. Davis said that he had seen an arrow shot from such a bow pass [70] completely through the body of a buffalo and fall on the other side. However, the Indians of the plains valued the wooden bow so highly that they willingly supplied many horses for a piece of wood with which to make one.

Annually the Indians went to the fort to get the presents issued by the British Government to them, and all the Indian tribes, with the exception of the Wyandotes and the Miamies, from the time the French transferred them to the English, maintained a steady friendship with them. The English carefully fostered this feeling by yearly presenting whiskey, calico, cotton, blankets, paints, knives, arms, and all the rest of their barbaric and warlike paraphernalia.

They were “tied by the teeth,” as the saying is; “and verily this be a potent cord wherewithal to keep thy friend.”

Little settlements had grown up on these trails, then the only roads, as the necessities of the fur-traders and those of occasional travellers required them. These little hostelries became celebrated throughout the Northwest, and the men who found in them “rest and food and fire,” remembered the Wentworths and Arndt families, as well as many others, with much friendliness.

“ Fort Winnebago was situated on the Fox River, the course of which is so tortuous that [71] the Indian legend was that an enormous serpent that lived in the Mississippi River went for a frolic to the Great Lakes. On his journey he left his trail through the prairies, and this collected the waters from the meadows, and the rains from heaven as they fell, and became the Fox River.” 1 “In the front lay an extent of meadow, across which was the portage road, about two miles in length, between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Teams of oxen and a driver were kept at the agency by the Government to transport the canoes of the Indians across this place, which at many seasons was wet, miry, and almost impassable. Before an agency was established here the Indians took toll from every trader who crossed the Fox River, requiring all the furs to be unpacked and counted before them. At the request of Mr. John Jacob Astor an agency was established at this portage.”

At Fort Winnebago Lieutenant Davis was again busy with the improvements upon the fort, enlarging and perfecting the defence of the approaches as the hostility of the Indians became more pronounced.

Mrs. Kinzie gives a humorous account of [72] his efforts to furnish the garrison quarters. She describes his furniture thus. After saying she was to have two rooms in General Twiggs's house until her own could be built, she said:

The one in the rear was to be the sleeping apartment, as was evident from a huge, unwieldy bedstead, of proportions amply sufficient to have accommodated Og, the king of Bashan, with Mrs. Og and the children into the bargain. We could not repress our laughter; but the bedstead was nothing to another structure which occupied a second corner of the apartment. This edifice had been built under the immediate superintendence of one of our young lieutenants, and it was plain to be seen that upon it both he and the soldiers who fabricated it had exhausted their architectural skill. The timbers of which it was composed had been grooved and carved; the pillars that supported the front swelled in and out in a most fanciful manner; the doors were not only panelled, but radiated in a way to excite the admiration of all unsophisticated eyes. A similar piece of workmanship had been erected in each set of quarters to supply the deficiency of closets, an inconvenience which had never occurred, until too late, to the bachelors who planned them. The three apartments, of which each structure was [73] composed, were unquestionably designed for clothes press, store room, and china closet; such, at least, were the uses to which Mrs. Twiggs had appropriated the one assigned to her. There was this slight difficulty, that in the latter the shelves were too close to admit of setting in even a gravy-boat, but they made up in number what was wanting in space. We christened the whole affair, in honor of its projector, a ‘ Davis;’ thus placing the first laurel on the brow of one who was afterward to signalize himself at Buena Vista, and in the cabinet of his country.

When laughed at about his furniture he said, “The armoires were not intended for ladies' use, and the shelves were exactly the length of a gentleman's coat, without the necessity of folding it, and were made close together to hold each one separately.”

There were several of his classmates stationed at Winnebago at this time, and the meetings gladdened him greatly.

There was some drinking and much gambling, but Mr. Davis never did either. General Harney also refrained from these vices; and Mr. Satterlee Clarke, a few years ago, noticing that these two were the only survivors of that garrison, attributed their health to this fact. He added that they were considered two of the best officers at the fort. [74]

Colonel Harney was fond of gardening, and his vegetables were noted as the finest in the fort; he cultivated the garden partially himself, and was liberal of its products to the officers' wives. While he tilled his “green patch,” as he called it, Mr. Davis read, studied, rode crazy horses, and had hairbreadth escapes from being killed by them. Once his horse reared until it fell in the effort to unseat its rider, but he jumped off as it fell, and as the horse rose he leapt into the saddle again.

Reconnaissances were made every few days of the most dangerous character. Death rode on the croup with every man who left the fortified posts, so that with the excitement about Indians, the daily round of duties, and such social pleasures as could be interspersed among them, Lieutenant Davis passed the time until he was ordered to the lead mines.

From Fort Winnebago he went out on several expeditions against the Pawnees, Comanches, and other hostile Indians.

The early history of the settlement of the Western country being almost unwritten, a great interest has been awakened in the minds of the present residents and a desire to know how their forefathers wrested it from its savage proprietors. Many historical questions were asked Mr. Davis which he desired to answer at such length that he, unfortunately, [75] did not find health or time serve him in which to make appropriate response until too late; but he wrote to Professor J. D. Butler, who interrogated him on some mooted points of history, “while on detached service in the summer of 1829, I think, I encamped one night about the site of Madison. The nearest Indian village was on the opposite side of the lake. Nothing, I think, was known to the garrison of Fort Winnebago, about the Four Lakes, before I saw them. Indeed, sir, it may astonish you to learn, in view of the (now) densely populated condition of that country, that I and the file of soldiers who accompanied me, were the first white men who ever passed over the country between the Portage of the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers, and the then village of Chicago. Fish and water-fowl were abundant; deer and pheasant less plentiful. The Indians subsisted largely on Indian corn and wild rice. When sent out on various expeditions I crossed Rock River at different points, but saw no sign of settlement above Dixon's Ferry.” That point had then been occupied by a white man only a year. This reconnaissance was a very bold and dangerous one, and one of many anecdotes of that period is inserted here.

The reconnaissance of which Mr. Davis spoke in this letter was a daring and dangerous [76] one, and several times the party were near being massacred. They met a party of Indians upon their return and asked the way; a brave stationed himself in the path and indicated the wrong road. Lieutenant Davis without further parley spurred his high-mettled horse, called after Red Bird, upon the Indian, seized him by the scalp-lock, and dragged him after him some distance. The attack was so quick that it disconcerted the rest, and the soldiers rode by without further molestation.

Another of my husband's experiences was related to a lady friend at Beauvoir House, which shows his ready resources in time of trouble.

“ In this conversation he told of an ice bridge which he built across Rock River, in Illinois, in 1831. He said he was going through Illinois with his scouts, when, reaching Rock River, he found the mail coach, and numbers of wagons with persons going to the lead mines, detained at the river. There was no bridge. The waters were frozen, yet not sufficiently so for them to pass over. The country was a wilderness. No house except that of the ferryman, whose name was Dixon. His log-cabin was near. The whole party put themselves at his command. He told them to keep a good fire in the cabin and set the men to hewing blocks of ice. They [77] worked faithfully, and ere long the structure began to assume shape. As each was set in position, water was poured over, which froze it in its place. Sometimes a workman would fall overboard, and he was ordered to run into the cabin and turn round and round before the blazing log-fire until dry; then he would resume work again. Soon the bridge was pronounced safe, and the whole party of men, women, children, and vehicles passed safely over.”

The ferryman — Dixon — remembered the young army officer ever afterward most kindly, and some years ago, when Mr. Davis was invited to Illinois, a letter came from the old man, expressing his happy anticipation of meeting him once again on earth. Mr. Davis could not then accept the invitation, and not long since Mr. Dixon died.

Lieutenant Davis had at this time no beard, or so little as to be scarcely perceptible, and his smooth face, fresh color, and gay laugh, gave the impression of a boy of nineteen.

One of the soldiers employed on the building of the fort had been a terror to everybody about him. He was immensely strong, and very quarrelsome. This man announced his intention of whipping that “baby-faced Lieutenant if he attempted to direct him in his work. What could he know about work?” [78] This came to Mr. Davis's ears at once. The next day there was a piece of dressed scantling which he told the soldier to put in a certain place on the building. The man lifted a piece of rough plank to place it as directed. Lieutenant Davis explained once again. This time, with an insolent laugh, the soldier took a like piece to the one he had laid down. Knowing that one blow from the soldier would fell him, Mr. Davis picked up a stout billet of wood, and as the man stooped he knocked him down and beat him until he cried for quarter. The other soldiers looked on until the conflict was ended, at first thoroughly sympathetic with their messmate, who was considered by them invincible, but as soon as the slight, plucky young officer came off victorious, they raised a shout for him, and when the victor said, “This has been a fight between man and man and I shall not notice it officially,” his antagonist also gave in his submission, and the men under him, from that day, required only to know his orders to obey them with a will.

The talent for governing men without humiliating them, which Mr. Davis had in an eminent degree, cannot be acquired; it is inborn, a royal gift of nature to the person possessing it, and is the outcome of a sense of justice, personal dignity, self-denial, sympathy with [79] the governed, and unflinching courage. He never had, with soldiers, children, or negroes, any difficulty to impress himself upon their hearts.

1 Wau Bun; or, The Early Day, by Mrs. John H. Kinzie, page 80, to whose sprightly and valuable book I am indebted for much information of the Indian country.

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