Historian: Recounting Chief Big Foot's last days at Geneva Lake
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Historian: Recounting Chief Big Foot's last days at Geneva Lake

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WILLIAMS BAY — Originally one people, or a collection of closely related bands, the ethnic identities of the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi developed after the Anishinaabe (an autonym for a group of culturally related indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States) reached Michilimackinac (a region around the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) on their journey westward from the Atlantic coast.

Using the Midewiwin (birch bark) scrolls, Potawatomi elder Shup-Shewana dated the formation of the Council of Three Fires to 796 A.D. at Michilimackinac. It is likely they fled west due to warfare waged by more aggressive neighboring tribes. Longing for a more serene existence, they settled on the lake today known as Geneva sometime during the 18th century.

At the Council, the Ojibwe were referred to as the “Older Brother,” the Odawa as the “Middle Brother,” and the Potawatomi as the “Younger Brother.” Accordingly, when mentioned in this specific order, Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, it is an indicator that it is implying The Council of Three Fires. In the three Anishinaabe nations, the Ojibwa are the “keepers of the faith,” the Odawa are the “keepers of trade,” and the Potawatomi are the “keepers of the fire.”

Chief Big Foot and his Potawatomi people loved the region around Geneva Lake or “Kishwauketoe” — the Potawatomi name meaning “clear water.” The area was abundant with natural resources: game, fur-bearing animals, fish, waterfowl, plant life, and fertile land for growing beans, squash, and tobacco. Hard maple sap produced a coarse sugar. The Potawatomi women harvested roots and tubers from the many marshes and swamps that once encompassed the area that is now Williams Bay. Nuts, wild plumbs, berries, grapes, and cherries were plentiful. The women wove reeds and grasses into mats.

As was common with other forest dwellers, the Potawatomi lived in semi-permanent lodges called wigwams. Grass and reed mats were used for the walls and large slabs of bark from whole trees for the roof. The Potawatomi lived at three locations along the shores of the lake: at the head of the lake (Fontana), a second location near the northwest corner of the northern bay (Williams Bay), and at the foot of the lake (Lake Geneva).

The site of Williams Bay had been one of the favorite camps of Chief Big Foot, who had his main or royal residence and council pole at what is now Fontana. A well-defined trail followed the banks of the lake between Big Foot’s camps, and other trails led to favorite hunting and fishing spots.

While plans were under way for the 1936 Walworth County centennial celebration, Chief Clearwater, great-grandson of Chief Big Foot, related stories about Chief Big Foot to listeners.

In Clearwater’s words: “Chief Big Foot must have been a hard character to deal with, as extracts of history indicate. He was in favor of Black Hawk in the Black Hawk War. An early visitor (Juliette Kinzie) to Geneva Lake described Chief Big Foot as, ‘a large, raw-boned, ugly Indian, with a countenance bloated by intemperance, and with a sinister, unpleasant expression.’

“I do not deny or doubt that he and his band took part in the Fort Dearborn Massacre that occurred on August 15, 1812. History tells us that the Lake Geneva Indians lingered around after getting their annuities from the Indian agent. Their suspicious behavior alarmed the Fort Dearborn residents.

“Big Foot’s wife died around 1808 or 1809, leaving four children — two boys and two little girls. Knowing the two girls were too small for him to take care of, he gave them to his mother-in-law. He hunted up his in-laws in Canada, left the two little girls there, and returned to Wisconsin with the boys. One of the two little girls that he left in (the) charge of his mother-in-law was my grandmother, Kitchi-gray or Big Woman. I saw my grandmother 21 years ago, and she was then 114 years old. She died shortly after that.

“It is believed Chief Big Foot was born between the late 1780s and early 1790s. His original Potawatomi name was Oginouy Tigo (which means holder or possessor of a long stick) The story of how Big Foot got his name was told to me by my grandfather. Big Foot was a nickname given to him by his associates early in his life. They were celebrating over a victory, and they were dancing, and he probably made himself more conspicuous than the rest. He was dancing in the clay. The wet clay stuck to his moccasins, which appeared to increase their size. The other men called him big feet, and from that time, he was called Big Foot. He carried that name and used it as legal afterwards. It was probably easier to pronounce, and shorter than his right name, which was Maumksuck.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1833, several thousand braves and their families, dressed in their finest, were encamped on every available spot surrounding the settlement at the mouth of the river overlooking Fort Dearborn (Chicago). Some 20 to 30 Chieftains representing the various tribes of the Potawatomi spent several days in negotiations with representatives of the government at a Grand Council at Fort Dearborn.

As a result of the council, the 30 Chieftains agreed to give up the land on which they lived — some million acres — within three years and in exchange were to receive an equal amount of land in Kansas. In exchange, the U.S. government agreed to transport them and pay all costs for the trip and to support them for one year after their arrival. Nearly $1 million was to be dispersed in various ways for their benefit. They were to receive the annual sum of $16,000 for 20 years, in addition to mills, blacksmith shops, physicians, the promotion of education, domestic arts, and other contributions that civilization could provide.

Chief Big Foot had a prominent part in the Council and signed the treaty giving up his land on Geneva Lake. Before they left the Grand Council, some $83,000 in goods and $50,000 in silver coins were dispersed to the various tribes in attendance. The final scene at the Grand Council was a great “war dance,” in which some 800 took part.

In a piece titled, “Chicago’s Last Great War Dance,” the Chicago Tribune later described the dance as follows: “The warriors armed with tomahawks and war clubs gathered on the north side of the river, east of the present State Street and west of the ‘Lake House,’ a hotel which was at the northeast corner of Rush and Water Streets. All the Indians were naked, except for a strip of cloth around the loins. Their bodies were covered over with a great variety of brilliant paints. On their faces, they seemed to have their art of hideous decoration: foreheads, cheeks, and noses painted with curved stripes of red and vermillion, and edged with black points, giving the appearance of a horrid grin. Their long, coarse black hair was gathered into scalp locks on the top of their heads and decorated with a profusion of hawk and eagle feathers, some of which were strung together extending down the back nearly to the ground. The procession was led by what answered for a band of music, which created a discordant din of hideous noises produced by beating on hollow vessels and sticks and clubs together.

“The Indians advanced, not with a regular march but a continual dance. The dance consisted of leaps and spasmodic steps, now forward, then backward or sideways, with the whole body distorted into every imaginable position, most generally stooping forward with head and face thrown back, the back arched down, with first one foot thrown forward and then withdrawn, and the other similarly thrust out and back, the dancer frequently squatting quite to the ground, and all with lightning-like movements.”

It was estimated some 500 Potawatomis were living around Geneva Lake when they left for Kansas in the fall of 1836. Before leaving for the long trek to the west, Chief Big Foot visited the burial place of his wives and children at Williams Bay (their deaths were possibly caused by a whooping cough epidemic which had ravaged the tribe earlier that year). Likewise, he had placed his arm around the Council Pole at Fontana and taken a long last look at the lake and the coffin of his son in the treetop overlooking the fishing grounds. Then, after stopping for a word of farewell with Mrs. Van Slyke and commending the care of the treetop grave to her, Big Foot led his tribe over the hills toward the long trail to Kansas. Not much is known about Chief Big Foot after he left for Kansas, but it is thought his band of Potawatomi settled in western Iowa.

Michelle Bie Love is a member of the Williams Bay Historical Society and co-author of “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin On Beautiful Geneva Lake.”

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