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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Hill of the Dead

That's the English translation of Butte des Morts, a name given to two places near Oshkosh. One, called Little Butte des Morts, was applied to a massive mound alongside a widening of the Fox River, opposite Neenah and Menasha. It's clearly visible in this 1827 color lithograph. A tragic story lies behind it.

Indians Resist European Domination

"When I came here in 1830," recalled fur trader Louis Porlier, "the Indians said it was made by the whites and was the burial place of Sacs and Foxes who had been killed in a great fight there and thrown in a heap to be covered with earth."

The Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie) Indians were among the few who actively fought back against French colonialism in the early 18th century. Lasting from 1710 to 1740, the so-called Fox Wars were the strongest resistance by Native Americans to European imperialism between King Philips War in New England (1675-1676) and Pontiac's Rebellion in the Great Lakes (1763).

One tactic the Sauk and Fox employed was to stop all river traffic at a narrow spot in the Fox River near modern Neenah-Menasha. They would seize furs destined for France or demand ransom from every passing boat, hoping to disrupt the flow of wealth from Indian country into the coffers of white traders and governments.

"To refuse this tribute," said trader Augustin Grignon, "was sure to incur the displeasure of the Foxes and robbery would be the mildest punishment inflicted. This haughty imperious conduct of the Foxes was a source of no little annoyance to the traders, who made their complaints to the commandants of the western posts, and in due time these grievances reached the ears of the Governor of Canada."

Sneak Attack by the French

Troops arrived in 1716, but after two decades of minor battles and temporary truces, the Sauk and Fox continued to resist the French. About 1730, therefore, Capt. Paul Marin conducted a genocidal attack on their main village. Concealing soldiers in canoes under oil-cloths, like a trader protecting merchandise from the rain, Marin headed upriver from Green Bay. When his fleet arrived at their village, nearly 1,500 Fox and Sauk Indians came to the bank to receive the usual ransom.

Grignon (whose grandfather was among the soldiers) recalled that at that moment "the oil-cloth coverings were suddenly thrown off, and a deadly volley from a swivel-gun loaded with grape and canister shot, and the musketry of the soldiers, scattered death and dismay among the unsuspecting Foxes." More than 1,000 Indians died in the crossfire and the subsequent land assault.

"This is one of the many incidents in white men's relations with the Indians," wrote historian Reuben Gold Thwaites, "wherein savages were outsavaged in the practice of ferocious treachery." The mass grave of Marin's victims -- 12 feet high, 60 feet long and 35 feet wide -- was plainly visible until 1863, when a railroad company used it for landfill, "and relics of ancient kings and glory were strewn along the right of way for miles."


Most of the surviving Fox nation headed south, hoping to round Lake Michigan and join friends in the east. On their way, however, they were cornered and destroyed by the French and Illinois allies.

In 1733 the remaining Fox returned to Wisconsin and sought refuge among the Sauks near Green Bay. About 1745, both nations moved to the lower Wisconsin River near modern Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, where English traveler Jonathan Carver visited them in 1766. In this account he called them the Saukies and Outagamies and described their towns.

About 1780 they moved to the banks of the Mississippi south of Prairie du Chien, where their largest town, Saukenuk, was located at the mouth of the Rock River. Fifty years later, at the time of the 1832 Black Hawk War, the Fox and the Sauk moved across the Mississippi into Iowa.

The Other Butte des Morts

The other location near Oshkosh, called Grand Butte des Morts, is a lake on the Wolf River. According to Porlier, this name derives from a ceremonial burial ground used by both the Sauk and Fox and the Menominee, who located a village nearby in the early 19th century. Porlier described the village and his life as a trader at Grand Butte des Morts to Thwaites in 1887. This Google map shows the relationship between the two.

:: Posted in Strange Deaths on June 7, 2012
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