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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Surrender & Captivity of Red Bird

In the summer of 1827, a handful of Ho-Chunk warriors were led by scheming rivals into attacking settlers near Prairie du Chien. On June 28th, a war chief named Red Bird and three companions carried out revenge killings of two French-Canadian farmers. Three days later, they fired on a passing keelboat, killing two of the crew and wounding several others.

Full-scale War Avoided

All that summer white residents of southwestern Wisconsin lived in fear of Indian attacks. But on Sept 2nd Red Bird surrendered in order to avoid a widespread conflict.

"Clad in pure white elk-skin, holding a white flag, and chanting his death-song," wrote Col. Thomas McKenney with his "grace and dignity of firmness and decision, all tempered with mildness and mercy... I could not but ask myself, can this man be a murderer?" McKenney, who would soon become U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs, concluded that, "according to Indian law, and measuring the deed he had committed by the injustice and wrongs and cruelties of the white man, he had done no wrong."

Indian agent Thomas Street had just arrived in Wisconsin. He, too, witnessed the scene, and wrote to a friend in Illinois: "This manly, chivalric act, his open, free, and high bearing at the time, has something more than ordinary in it. Dressed in his Yancton uniform of white unsoiled skins with a fine white dressed skin robe cast loosely across his shoulders, and mounted on a mettle-some horse with a white flag in his hand, and marching into the camp of Whistler, unconfined, with a pleasant unclouded brow to deliver himself up as a murderer, is a little out of the ordinary course of such things amongst us."

White vs. Indian Justice

Although Red Bird expected to be put to death immediately, as would have happened in his own culture, he was instead confined in jail. This puzzled and distressed the Ho-Chunk elders:

"They are at a loss," Street reported, "to know, 'why we are keeping the murderers of white men alive so long.'" Street replied, "'That they may be tried.' 'Tried? What is that?' I explained it to them. They smiled, & said, 'The murderers confessed to the nation that they did kill the whites -- some of us saw the scalps, and knew that they did commit the murders -- they would not tell the nation a lie -- and we gave them up to you, not to be tried, but to be killed. We did so, to keep our Nation from a war, our women & children from slaughter, and to save our country to live & hunt in.' "

Street went on: "They add - - 'If it is your desire to take your revenge, they ought to be killed - if not - - it would be very good to our hearts if they were liberated… we see the high walls that hide the Winnebago prisoners and our hearts are very sore: - We wish to know that the murderers are killed -- our white brethren satisfied, and all is forgotten.'"

The Fate of Red Bird and His Nation

The warriors languished in jail while the winter dragged on. "Our faces are blackened for sorrow—" the Ho-Chunk chiefs told Street, "our hearts are great with grief, and our lips closed up, when we come to see our father, and look toward the walls that hide our fellow Indians."

Red Bird sickened and died in prison later that winter. In the spring, his companions were tried and convicted. They were pardoned by President John Quincy Adams on condition that the Ho-Chunk give up all rights to their lands south of the Wisconsin River, which had already been illegally occupied by white squatters and miners. The Ho-Chunk agreed, and so ended what white historians called the "Winnebago War of 1827."

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 15, 2012
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