WHAT we had long anticipated of the sufferings of the Indians, began to manifest itself as the spring drew on. It first came under our observation by the accounts brought in, by those who came in little parties begging for food.
As long as it was possible to issue occasional rations their father continued to do so, but the supplies in the Commiseary Department were now so much reduced that Col. Cutler did not feel justified in authorizing anything beyond a scanty relief and this in extreme cases.
We had ourselves throughout the winter used the greatest economy with our own stores, that we might not exhaust our slender stock of flour and meal before it could be replenished from "below." We had even purchased some sour flour which had been condemned by the commissary, and had contrived by a plentiful use of saleratus, and a due proportion of potatoes, to make of it a very palatable kind of bread. But as we had continued to give to party after party, as they would come to us to represent their famishing condition, the time at length arrived when we had nothing to give.
The half-breed families of the neighborhood, who had, like ourselves, continued to share with the needy as long as their own stock lasted, were now obliged, of necessity, to refuse further assistance. These women often came in to lament with us over the sad accounts that were brought from the wintering grounds. It had been a very open winter. The snow had scarcely been enough at any time to permit the Indians to track the deer, in fact, all the game had been driven off by the troops and war parties scouring the country through the preceding summer.
We heard of their dying by companies from mere destitution, and lying stretched in the road to the Portage, whither they were striving to drag their exhausted frames. Soup made of the bark of the slippery elm, or stewed acorns, were the only food that many had subsisted on for weeks.
We had for a long time received our food by daily rations from the garrison, for things had got to such a pass that there was no possibility of obtaining a barrel of flour at a time. After our meals were finished, I always went into the pantry, and collecting carefully every remaining particle of food set it aside to be given to some of the wretched applicants by whom we were constantly thronged.
One day as I was thus employcd, a face appeared at the window with which I had once been familiar. It was the pretty daughter of the elder Day-kau-ray. She had formerly visited us often, watching with great interest our employments -- our sewing, or weeding and cultivating the garden, or our reading. Of the latter, I had many times endeavored to give her some idea, showing her the plates in the Family Bible, and doing my best to explain them to her, but of late I had quite lost sight of her. Now, how changed, how wan she looked! As I addressed her with my ordinary phrase, "Tshah-ko-zhah?" (What is it?) she gave a sigh that was almost a sob. She did not beg, but her countenance spoke volumes.
I took my dish and handed it to her, expecting to see her devour the contents eagerly, but no -- she took it, and making signs that she would soon return, walked away. When she brought it back, I was almost sure she had not tasted a morsel herself.
The boats -- the boats with the corn! Why did they not come? We both wrote and sent to hasten them, but alas! everything and everybody moved so slowly in those unenterprising times! We could only feel sure that they would come when they were ready, and not a moment before.
We were soon obliged to keep both doors and windows fast, to shut out the sight of misery we could not relieve. If a door was opened for the admission of a member of the family, some wretched mother would rush in, grasp the hand of my infant, and placing that of her famishing child within it, tell us pleadingly, that he was imploring "his little brother" for food. The stoutest-hearted man could not have beheld with dry eyes the heart-rending spectacle which often presented itself. It was in vain that we screened the lower portion of our windows with curtains. They would climb up on the outside, and tier upon tier of gaunt, wretched faces would peer in above, to watch us, and see if; indeed, we were as ill-provided as we represented ourselves.
The noble old Day-kau-ray came one day, from the Barribault, to apprise us of the state of his village. More than forty of his people, he said, had now been for many days without food, save bark and roots. My husband accompanied him to the commanding officer to tell his story, and ascertain if any amount of food could be obtained from that quarter. The result was, the promise of a small allowance of flour, sufficient to alleviate the cravings of his own family.
When this was explained to the chief; he turned away. "No," he said, "if his people could not he relieved, he and his family would starve with them!" And he refused, for those nearest and dearest to him, the proffered succor, until all could share alike.
The announcement, at length, that "the boats were in sight," was a thrilling and most joyful sound.
Hundreds of poor creatures were at once assembled on the bank, watching their arrival. Oh! how torturing was their slow approach, by the winding course of the river, through the extended prairie! As the first boat touched the bank, we, who were gazing on the scene with anxiety and impatience only equalled by that of the sufferers, could scarely refrain from laughing, to see old Wild-Cat, who had somewhat fallen off in his huge amount of flesh, seize "the Washington Woman" in his arms, and hug and dance with her in the ecstasy of his delight.
Their father made a sign to them all to fall to work with their hatchets, which they had long held ready, and in an incredibly short time, barrel after barrel was broken open and emptied, while even the little children possessed themselves of pans and kettles full, and hastened to the fires that were blazing around to parch and cook that which they had seized.
From this time forward, there was no more destitution. The present abundance was followed by the arrival of supplies for the Commissary's Department; and refreshed and invigorated, our poor children departed once more to their villages, to make ready their crops for the ensuing season.
In the course of the spring, we received a visit from the Rev. Mr. Kent, and Mrs. Kent, of Galena. This event is memorable, as being the first occasion on which the Gospel, according to the Protestant faith, was preached at Fort Winnebago. The large parlor of the hospital was fitted up for the service, and gladly did we each say to the other, "Let us go to the house of the Lord!"
For nearly three years had we lived here without the blessing of a public service of praise and thanksgiving. We regarded this commencement as an omen of better times, and our little "sewing society" worked with renewed industry, to raise a fund which might be available hereafter, in securing the permanent services of a missionary.
Not long after this, on a fine spring morning, as we were seated at breakfast, a party of Indians entered the parlor, and came to the door of the room where we were. Two of them passed through, and went out upon a small portico -- the third remained standing in the door-way at which he had at first appeared. He was nearly opposite me, and as I raised my eyes, spite of his change of dress, and the paint with which he was covered, I at once recognized him.
I continued to pour the coffee, and as I did so, I remarked to my husband, "The one behind you, with whom you are speaking, is one of the escaped prisoners."
Without turning his head, he continued to listen to all the directions they were giving him about the repairing of their guns, traps, &c., which they wished to leave with the blacksmith. As they went on, he cautiously turned his head towards the parlor door, and replied to the one speaking to him from there. When he again addressed me, it was to say,
"You are right, but it is no affair of ours. We are none of us to look so as to give him notice that we suspect anything. They are undoubtedly innocent, and have suffered enough already."
Contrary to his usual custom, their father did not ask their names, but wrote their directions, which he tied to their different implements, and then bade them go and deliver them themselves to M. Morrin.
The rest of our circle were greatly pleased at the young fellow's audacity, and we quite longed to tell the officers that we could have caught one of their fugitives for them, if we had had a mind.
The time had now come when we began to think seriously of leaving our pleasant home, and taking up our residence at Detroit, while making arrangements for a permanent settlement at Chicago.
The intelligence, when communicated to our Winnebago children, brought forth great lamentations and demonstrations of regret. From the surrounding country they came flocking in, to inquire into the truth of the tidings they had heard, and to petition earnestly that we would continue to live and die among them.
Among them all no one seemed so overwhelmed with affliction as Elizabeth, our poor Cut-nose. When we first told her of our intention, she sat for hours in the same spot, wiping away the tears that would find their way down her cheeks, with the corner of the chintz shawl she wore pinned across her bosom.
"No! never, never, never shall I find such friends again," she would exclaim. "You will go away, and I shall be left here all alone."
Wild-Cat too, the fat, jolly Wild-Cat, gave way to the most audible lamentations.
"Oh! my little brother," he said to the baby, on the morning of our departure, when he had insisted on taking him and seating him on his fat, dirty knee, "you will never come back to see your poor brother again!"
And having taken an extra glass on the occasion, he wept like an infant.
It was with sad hearts that on the morning of the 1st of July, 1888, we bade adieu to the long cortege which followed us to the boat, now waiting to convey us to Green Bay, where we were to meet Governor Porter and Mr. Brush, and proceed, under their escort, to Detroit.
When they had completed their tender farewells, they turned to accompany their father across the Portage, on his route to Chicago, and long after, we could see them winding along the road, and hear their loud lamentations at a parting which they foresaw would be forever.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 481-489.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.