ESCAPE OF THE PRISONERS.
THE Indians did not disperse after the ceremonies of the surrender had been gone through. They continued still in the vicinity of the Portage, in the constant expectation of the arrival of the annuity money, which they had been summoned there to receive. But the time for setting out on his journey to bring it, was postponed by Gov. Porter from week to week. Had he foreseen all the evils this delay was to occasion, the Governor would, unquestionably, have been more prompt in fulfilling his appointment.
Many causes conspired to make an early payment desirable. In the first place, the Winnebagoes, having been driven from their homes by their anxiety to avoid all appearance of fraternizing with the Sacs, had made this year no gardens nor cornfields. They had, therefore, no provisions on hand, either for their present use, or for their winter's consumption, except their scanty supplies of wild rice. While this was disappearing during their protracted detention at the Portage, they were running the risk of leaving themselves quite unprovided with food, in case of a bad hunting season during the winter and spring.
In the next place, the rations which the Agent had been accustomed, by the permission of Government, to deal out occasionally to them, were now cut off by a scarcity in the Commissary's department. The frequent levies of the militia during the summer campaign, and the reinforcement of the garrison by the troops from Fort Howard had drawn so largely on the stores at this post, that there was every necessity for the most rigid economy in the issuing of supplies.
Foreseeing this state of things, Mr. Kinzie, as soon as the war was at an end, commissioned Mr. Kercheval then sutler at Fort Howard, to procure him a couple of boat-loads of corn, to be distributed among the Indians. Unfortunately, there was no corn to be obtained from Michigan; it was necessary to bring it from Ohio, and by the time it at length reached Green Bay, (for in those days business was never done in a hurry,) the navigation of the Fox river had closed, and it was detained there, to be brought up the following spring.
As day after day wore on and "the silver" did not make its appearance, the Indians were advised by their father to disperse to their hunting grounds to procure food, with the promise that they should be summoned immediately on the arrival of Gov. Porter; and this advice they followed.
While they had been in our neighborhood, they had more than once asked permission to dance the scalp dance before our door. This is the most frightful, heart-curdling exhibition that can possibly be imagined. The scalps are stretched on little hoops, or frames, and carried on the end of a pole. These are brandished about in the course of the dance, with cries, shouts and furious gestures. The women who commence as spectators, becoming excited with the scene and the music which their own discordant notes help to make more deafening, rush in, seize the scalps from the hands of the owners, and toss them frantically about with the screams and yells of demons. I have seen as many as forty or fifty scalps figuring in one dance. Upon one occasion one was borne by an Indian who approached quite near me, and I shuddered as I observed the long, fair hair, evidently that of a woman. Another Indian had the skin of a human hand, stretched and prepared with as much care as if it had been some costly jewel. When these dances occurred, as they sometimes did, by moonlight, they were peculiarly horrid and revolting.
Amid so many events of a painful character, there were not wanting occasionally some that bordered on the ludicrous.
One evening, while sitting at tea, we were alarmed by the sound of guns firing in the direction of the Wisconsin. All started up, and prepared, instinctively, for flight to the garrison. As we left the house, we found the whole bluff and the meadow below in commotion. Indians running with their guns and spears across their shoulders, to the scene of alarm; squaws and children standing in front of their lodges and looking anxiously in the direction of the unusual and unaccountable sounds -- groups of French and half-breeds, all like ourselves, fleeing to gain the bridge and place themselves within the pickets so lately erected.
As one company of Indians passed us hurriediy, some weapon carelessly carried hit one of our party on the side of the head. "Oh!" shrieked she, "I am killed! an Indian has tomahawked me! and she was only reassurcd by finding she could still run as fast as the best of us.
When we reached the parade-ground, within the fort, we could not help laughing at the grotesque appearance each presented. Some without hats or shawls -- others with packages of valuables hastily secured at the moment -- one with her piece of bread and butter in hand, which she had not the presence of mind to lay aside when she took to flight.
The alarm, was, in the end, found to have proceeded from a party of Winnebagoes from one of the Barribault villages, who, being about to leave their home for a long period, were going through the ceremony of burying the scalps they and their fathers had taken.
Like the military funerals among civilized nations, their solemnities were closed on this occasion by the discharge of several volleys over the grave of their trophies.
At length, about the beginning of November, Governor Porter, accompanied by Major Forsyth and Mr. Kercheval arrived with the annuity money. The Indians were again asssembled -- the payment was made, and having supplied themselves with a larger quantity of ammunition than usual, for they saw the necessity of a good hunt to remedy past and present deficiencies, they set off for their wintering grounds.
We were, ourselves, about changing our quarters, to our no small satisfaction. Notwithstanding the Indian disturbances, the new Agency House (permission to build which had at length been accorded by Government) had been going steadily on, and soon after the departure of the Governor and our other friends, we took possession of it.
We had been settled but a few weeks, when one morning Lieut. Davies appeared just as we were sitting down to breakfast, with a face full of consternation. "The Indian prisoners had escaped from the black-hole! The Commanding officer, Col. Cutler, had sent for Mr. Kinzie to come over to the fort, and counsel with him what was to be done."
The prisoners had probably commenced their operations in planning escape very soon after being placed in the black-hole, a dungeon in the basement of the guard-house. They observed that their meals were brought regularly, three time a day, and that in the intervals they were left entirely to themselves. With their knives they commenced excavating an opening, the earth from which, as it was withdrawn, they spread about on the floor of their prison. A blanket was placed over this hole, and one of the company was always seated upon it, before the regular time for the soldier who had charge of them to make his appearance. When the periodical visit was made, the Indians were always observed to be seated, smoking in the most orderly and quiet manner. There was never anything to excite suspicion.
The prisoners had never read the memoirs of Baron Trenek, but they had watched the proceedings of the badgers; so, profiting by their example, they worked on, shaping the opening spirally, until, in about six weeks, they came out to the open air beyond the walls of the fort.
That they might be as little encumbered as possible in their flight, they left their blankets behind them, and although it was bitter cold December weather, they took to the woods and prairies with only their calico shirts and leggings for covering. We can readily believe that hope and exultation kept them comfortably warm, until they reached an asylum among their friends.
It would be compromising our own reputation as loyal and patriotic citizens, to tell of all the secret rejoicings this news occasioned us.
The question now was, how to get the fugitives back again. The agent could promise no more than that he would communicate with the chiefs, and represent the wishes of the officers that the prisoners should once more surrender themselves, and thus free those who had had the charge of them from the imputation of carelessness, which the Government would be very likely to throw upon them.
When, according to their custom, many of the chiefs assembled at the Agency, on New Year's day, their father laid the subject before them.
The Indians replied, that if they saw the young men, they would tell them what the officers would like to have them do. They could, themselves, do nothing in the matter. They had fulfilled their engagement by bringing them once and putting them in the hands of the officers. The Government had had them in its power once and could not keep them -- it must now go and catch them itself.
"The Government" having had some experience the past summer in "catching Indians," wisely concluded to drop the matter.
About this time another event occurred which occasioned no small excitement in our little community. Robineau, the striker from the blacksmith establishment at Sugar Creek, near the Four Lakes, arrived one very cold day at the Agency. He had come to procure medical aid for Mâtâ's eldest daughter, Sophy, who, while sliding on the lake, had fallen on the ice and been badly hurt. Her father was absent, having gone to Prairie du Chien, to place his youngest daughter at school. Two or three days had elapsed since the accident had happened, but as a high fever had set in, and the poor girl was in a state of great suffering, it had been thought best to send Robineau to us for advice and aid, leaving Turcotte and a friendiy Indian woman from a neighboring lodge to take charge of poor Sophy.
The commanding officer did not think it prudent, when the subject was laid before him, to permit the surgeon to leave the post, but he very cheerfully granted leave of absence to Curie, the hospital steward, a young man who possessed some knowledge of medicine and surgery.
As it was important that Sophy should have an experienced nurse, we procured the services of Madam Bellair, the wife of the Frenchman who was generally employed as express to Chicago -- and as an aid and companion, Agatha, daughter of Day-kau-ray, who lived in Paquette's family, was added to the party.
Of Agatha I shall have more to say hereafter, but at present I must proceed with my story.
The weather was excessively cold when Robineau, Currie and the two women set out for Sugar Creek, a distance of about forty miles. We had taken care to provide them with a good store of rice, crackers, tea and sugar, for the invalid, all of which, with their provisions for the way, were packed on the horse Robineau had ridden to the Portage. It was expected they would reach their place of destination on the second day.
What, then, was our surprise, to see Turcotte make his appearance on the fourth day after their departure, to inquire why Robineau had not returned with aid for poor Sophy! There was but one solution of the mystery. Robineau had guided them as ill as he had guided the boat at the Grande Chûte the summer before, and although he could not shipwreck them, he had undoubtedly lost them in the woods or prairies. One comfort was, that they could not well starve, for the rice and crackers would furnish them with several days' provisions, and with Agatha, who must be accustomed to this kind of life, they could not fail in time of finding Indians, and being brought back to the Portage.
Still, day after day went on and we received no tidings of them. Turcotte returned to Sugar Creek with comforts and prescriptions for Sophy, and the commanding officer sent out a party to hunt for the missing ones, among whom poor Currie, from his delicate constitution, was the object of the greatest commiseration.
As the snow fell, and the winds howled, we could employ ourselves about nothing but walking from window to window watching, in hopes of seeing some one appear in the distance. No Indians were at hand whom we could despatch upon the search, and by the tenth day we had almost given up in despair.
It was then that the joyful news was suddenly brought us, "They are found! They are at the Fort!" A party of soldiers who had been exploring had encountered them at Hastings' Woods, twelve miles distant, slowly and feebly making their way back to the Portage. They knew they were on the right track, but had hardly strength to pursue it.
Exhausted with cold and hunger, for their provisions had given out two days before, they had thought seriously of killing the horse and eating him -- nothing but Currie's inability to proceed on foot, and the dread of being compelled to leave him in the woods to perish, had deterred them.
Agatha had from the first been convinced that they were on the wrong track, but Robineau, with his usual obstinacy, persevered in keeping it until it brought them to the Rock River, when he was obliged to acknowledge his error, and they commenced retracing their steps.
Agatha, according to the custom of her people, had carried her hatchet with her, and thus they had always had a fire at night, and boughs to shelter them from the storms, otherwise they must inevitably have perished.
There were two circumstances which aroused in us a stronger feeling even than that of sympathy. The first was, the miserable Robineau having demanded of Currie, first, all his money, and afterwards his watch, as a condition of his bringing the party back into the right path, which he averred he knew perfectly well.
The second was, Bellaire having given his kind, excellent wife a hearty flogging "for going off," as he said, "on such a fool's errand."
The latter culprit was out of our jurisdiction, but Mons. Robineau was discharged on the spot, and warned that he might think himself happy to escape a legal process for swindling.
I am happy to say that Sophy Mâtâ, in whose behalf all these sufferings had been endured, was quite recovered by the time her father returned from "the Prairie."
1 A belt of land termed the Neutral Ground of the different opposing Nations.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 460-470.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.