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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

The Sauk Nation in 1823

Editor's Note:

Keating: William Hypolitus Keating (1799-1840), a professor of mineralogy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania (1822-1828), accompanied a scientific expedition in 1823 to explore northern Minnesota. His two-volume account of the trip (available online at the Library of Congress American Memory collection) has become a classic of American exploration literature. Wennebeas’s portrait is on page 90 of Keating’s book.


The history of the Sauk after 1800 is summarized in our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History, in the entry on the Black Hawk War.


[July 6. While Marsh is on the rain-soaked trail to Appenoose's village and not writing, we insert an eyewitness account by one of his contemporaries. In June of 1823, William H. Keating crossed from Chicago to Prairie du Chien guided by "Wennebea Namoeta, a Sauk Indian of the tribe of Pa-co-ha-mo-a." Keating struck up a candid friendship with Wennebea, a man about his own age, and along the trail and at Prairie du Chien plied him with questions. We’ve made excerpts from these here; you can see the full text in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History collection:]


While at Prairie du Chien, we endeavoured to obtain from Wennebea as much information as we could concerning his nation; and this, together with the notices collected from him and Le Sellier during the journey constitutes the basis of the following account of the manners of the Sauks. As they are evidently of Algonquin origin, and therefore connected with the Potawatomis, we have only retained such parts of the information as had not been mentioned before, or in which a difference was observed between the two nations.


The Sauks call themselves in their own language, Sa-ke-we. They are a brave, warlike, and, as far as we could learn, a generous people The great reduction in their numbers arose from their hostility to the French and their allies, and also to the wars which they formerly waged against the Indians on the Missouri and Mississippi, such as the Pawnees, the Omawhaws, the Sioux, the Iowas, &c. Owing to the rapid advance of the white population, and the increasing influence of our government over them, they are becoming more peaceable, and from this circumstance their numbers are probably on the increase.


Their historical recollections do not extend far back but they have been told that about sixty years since, when the French occupied the country, one of the Sauk chiefs by the name of Me-ne-to-met, found himself surrounded with about sixty of his nation by a party of French and Indians, belonging to other tribes, amounting altogether to two thousand. Menetomet then addressed his men, bidding them not to fear, for he had been favoured with a vision from the Great Spirit that informed him that if they all fought bravely, not one of them should perish. Encouraged by this assertion, they fought with such desperation as to break the ranks of and escape without the loss of a single man. They were afterwards led by their chiefs towards the Butte de Mort on Fox River, and were on the point of being cut off by their enemies, when a peace was effected by the intervention of a French officer. Wennebea informed us that his grandfather was in this party; had it been cut off the nation would, as he thinks, have been totally annihilated; for these composed the whole force of the Sauks.


Their numbers have since considerably increased, as according to his estimate, the nation now consists of upwards of a thousand warriors; in this number are included all the active, able-bodied, and middle aged part of the nation. This great accession to their numbers, results principally from their system of adopting their prisoners of war. The real number of warriors of pure Sauk extraction does not, in his opinion, exceed two hundred.

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