Wabaunsee, Potawatomi Chief
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In the portrait which accompanies this sketch, we are happy to have it in our power to exhibit an excellent likeness of a very distinguished man. It is to be regretted that so few anecdotes of him have been preserved; but his general character, which is well known, is that of a warrior of uncommon daring and enterprise, and a chief of great intelligence and influence. His tribe take pride in recounting his numerous feats in war; and the agents of our government, who have met him in council, speak in high terms of his capacity for business. Though cool and sagacious, he was a bold orator, who maintained the interests of his people with untiring zeal and firmness. He was the principal war-chief of the Pottawatimie of the Prairie, residing on the Kankakee River, in Illinois.
The following anecdote, while it marks the daring spirit of this chief, is more especially characteristic of his race, and is one of the numerous instances of individual exploit with which the traditional lore of the frontier abounds. Some years ago, a small hunting’ party of Pottawatimie, having wandered far to the west, were discovered by a band of Osages, who surprised them, and slew two or three of their t number. It seems almost marvelous that such transactions should so frequently occur in the story of Indian life that, in a country of such immense breadth, with a savage population so comparatively small, and with the melancholy proofs before their eyes of a decrease in numbers so rapid as to threaten a speedy extermination of the race, the individuals of different tribes seldom meet without bloodshed. The propensity for carnage seems to be an innate and overmastering passion, which no reflection can chasten, nor the saddest experience eradicate. Even their dread and hatred of the white man, and the conviction of the common fate which impends over the whole race, in consequence of the superior numbers of those who are daily usurping their places, have no restraining effect upon their wanton prodigality of blood. Although it is obvious, even to themselves, that the most fruitful source of their rapid decay is to be found in their own unhappy dissensions, their destructive habits continue unrestrained and so many are their feuds, so keen their appetite for blood, so slight the pretense upon which the tomahawk may be lifted, that two hunting-parties from opposite directions can scarcely meet in the wilderness with out suggesting a stratagem, and leading to the spilling of blood.
But, common as such deeds are, they do not pass off without important consequences. Although murder is an everyday occurrence in savage life, the Indian resents it as a crime, and claims the right to avenge the death of his friend. On the occasion alluded to, one of the slain Was the friend of Wabaunsee, and he deter mined to revenge the violence. It was long, however, before an opportunity offered, the distance between the lands of the Pottawatimie and Osages being so great that the individuals of the respective tribes seldom came in collision. But no interval of time or distance cools the passion of revenge in the Indian bosom. At length, while on one of his hunting expeditions, Wabaunsee heard that some Osages were expected to visit one of the American military posts not far distant, and thither he bent his steps, intent upon the completion of his purpose. On his arrival, he found the Osages there, and they met coldly, as strangers, without friendship, and without feud. But smothered fires burned under that exterior apathy. Wabaunsee was determined to imbrue his hand in the blood of the tribe in whose lodges the scalp of his friend was hung; and the Osages no sooner learned the name of the newly-arrived visitor than they guessed his purpose, and took counsel with each other how they might avert or anticipate the blow. Wabaunsee pitched his camp without the fort, while the O sages thought to secure their safety by sleeping within the fortress. But neither breastworks nor sentinels afford security from the hand of the savage, who is trained to stratagem, who finds no impediment in the obscurity of the thickest darkness, and can tread the forest with a step so stealthy as not to alarm the most vigilant listener. In the night, Wabaunsee crept towards the fort, and, evading the sentries, scaled the ramparts, and found admission through an embrasure. Alone, within a military post, surrounded by men sleeping on their arms, he glided swiftly and noiselessly about, until he found his victim. In an instant, he dispatched one of the sleeping Osages, tore the scalp from his head, and made good his escape before the alarm was given. As he leaped from the wall, a trusty companion led up his horse, and the triumphant chief mounted and dashed off, followed by his little band; and, before the sun rose, they had ridden many miles over the prairie, and shouted often in exultation and derision over this bold, but impudent exploit.
In the war of 1812, this chief and his tribe were among the allies of Great Britain, and were engaged in active hostilities against the United States. But, at the treaty held at Greenville, in 1814, he was one of those who, in the Indian phrase, took the Seventeen Fires by the hand, and buried the tomahawk. He has ever since been an undeviating friend of the American government and people.
He was one of the chiefs who negotiated the treaty of the Wabash, in 1826. At the close of the treaty, while encamped en the bank of the river, near the spot where the town of Huntingdon now stands, he engaged in a frolic, and indulged too freely in ardent spirits. A mad scene ensued, such as usually attends a savage revel, in the course of which a warrior, who held the station of friend, or aid, to Wabaunsee, accidentally plunged his knife deep in the side of the chief. The wound was dangerous, and confined him all winter; but General Tipton, the agent of our government in that quarter, having kindly attended to him, he was carefully nursed, and survived. His sometime friend, fearing that he might be considered as having forfeited that character, had fled as soon as he was sober enough to be conscious of his own unlucky agency in the tragic scene. Early in the spring, General Tipton was surprised by a visit from Wabaunsee, who came to announce his own recovery, and to thank the agent for his kindness. The latter seized the occasion to effect a reconciliation between the chief and his fugitive friend, urging upon the former the accidental nature of the injury, and the sorrow and alarm of the offender. Wabaunsee replied instantly, ” You may send to him, and tell him to come back. A man that will run off like a dog with his tail down, for fear of death, is not worth killing. I will not hurt him.” We are pleased to be able to say that he kept his word.
At the treaty held in 1828, at which he assisted, one of the chiefs of his tribe, who was thought to be under the influence of a trader, after the treaty had been agreed upon by the chiefs and braves, refused to sign it unless the commissioners would give him a large sum of money. Wabaunsee was very indignant when he heard of this circumstance. “An Indian,” said he, “who will lie, is not worthy to be called a brave. He is not fit to live. If he refuses to sanction what we agreed to in council, I’ll cut his heart out.” It was with some difficulty that he was prevented from putting his threat in execution.
In 1832, when the faction of Black Hawk disturbed the repose of the frontier, it was feared that the Winnebago and Pottawatimie would also be induced to take up the hatchet; and it is supposed that they were tampered with for that purpose. They were too sagacious to listen to such rash counsels; and Wabaunsee relieved his own conduct from doubt by joining the American army with his warriors.
In 1833, the Pottawatimie sold their lands in Illinois and Indiana, to the United States, and accepted other territory west of the Mississippi, to which they agreed to remove; and, in 1835, he visited the city of Washington, for the purpose, as he said, of taking his Great Father by the hand. The next year, he led his people to their new home, near the Council Bluff, on the Missouri, where, in 1838, he was still living.