Chief Wave and the Big Drunk

by Willard Barrows

Willard Barrows

(150) In 1841 while making some explorations in the Sioux and Winnebago Indian country, upon the head waters of the Waubsipinicon, Cedar and Iowa rivers, now Minnesota, I stayed a few days at the village of "Chos-chunka," or Big Wave, a chief of the Winnebagoes. One beautiful moonlight night the Indian children had been playing with unusual life and gayety, the young men and maidens had roamed at large around the village, and the sports and moonlight games had made the wild woods echo with the rude and sometimes boisterous mirth of these sons of the forest. Our host had pointed to our lodgings in one end of his wigwam and all had retired when there came over the stillness of the night one of those Indian yells so familiar to many of our frontier villages. I knew it well, and as two drunken Indians approached the village, a stir among its inmates was heard, as one and another crept from his lodge to hear the news from the trading house or some border whiskey shop. Chos-chunka turned on his bed and with his long pipe stem stirring the embers he soon kindled a blaze, lit his pipe and fell back upon his pallet. There was now a glimmering light from the rekindled embers, so that from beneath my blanket I could see all that passed within the wigwam. The noise increased. Footsteps were heard passing by our lodge; it was evident the Indians were gathering for a "big drunk." Soon the bear skin door of the lodge was pushed aside and one of the wives of the chief who had been absent a few moments entered and whispered something in his ear. She went away and the chief resumed his pipe and lounged upon his bear-skin bed. The wife soon returned. Bearing with her a bottle containing the accursed poison which she presented to Chos-chunka. He refused and bidding her go away he remained upon his bed. But he seemed uneasy and at last arose and sat by the fire. Again his squaw brought the fatal bottle, of which she had evidently tasted, and again he refused it, when she threw her arms around his neck and placed the bottle to his lips. His resolutions were all overcome, and he drank, then bade her begone. But the fatal draught had been taken and its fire was fast passing through his veins. The noise in the adjoining lodge where the festive board was spread had now become loud and boisterous. All at once the chief threw aside his pipe and rushed out of his lodge.

(151) I spoke to my companions, A. W. Campbell and the interpreter, when we at once arose and made our way out to see the condition of things among the Indians. I had messages and a pass or permit to visit the country from Gov. Chambers, endorsed by the Indian agent, Rev. David Lowrey, at Ft. Atkinson on Turkey river, and well knew that under ordinary circumstances I was safe while a guest of the chief and under the protection of his lodge. I well knew, too, that it was the courtesy due to us that so long prevented him joining the festive party, for while he was struggling so hard between whiskey and politeness he turned many sorrowful and imploring glances toward our silent couch. We spent but a short time looking into the lodge where the drunken scene was fast preparing for a bloody ending. As we stood there viewing the circle of Indians within, a dog ran across the ring, when a drunken Indian struck him in the ribs. In a moment the owner grappled with the offender, and soon the melee became general. On all such occasions every weapon of a deadly sort is hid by the squaws before the commencement of the frolic. But in the tussle about the dog they kicked from under the matting a hatchet. The infuriated savage caught it with all the avidity of an avenger of blood, and with one stroke cut the scalp from the other's head from the forehead to the eye. One single yell was heard, and with a rush one side of the wigwam was carried away, and the howling of the dogs and the crying of the squaws soon brought the whole village together. As the motley group poured out of the dilapidated wigwam we soon found our way back to the lodge of the chieftain and snugly ensconced ourselves in bed, covered up head and ears, peep-holes excepted. In a few moments Chos-chunka came in with nine of his braves and friends. The usual circle was soon formed and the bottle began to pass, but in the midst of their revelry the chief would often caution them about too much noise, as he had distinguished friends visiting him and they must not be disturbed. That they were "big captains" and making a picture of their country to show his great father, the president. (I was surveying for my map of Iowa, published in 1845.) In their drunken carousal I could see that same low, vulgar, nonsensical merriment which is often exhibited in the white man on similar occasions. They told their love stories and sang their bacchanalian songs, until one after another fell over and were left to sleep away the fumes of that drink which has carried thousands of these ignorant savages to the grave.

An Indian, when he once tastes liquor, never leaves it until he is drunk or it gives out. He comprehends no other use of it but to stupefy. It is no welcome beverage to him, for they do not love the taste of it, but its effects. The palate of the Indian is as little vitiated as that of a child. They use no salt nor seasoned food, and their taste is keen and remarkably sensitive. I have seen the Indian in apparent agony by drinking whiskey, which is generally well spiced with red pepper and gums to keep up its strength, and I have seen the young man and maiden held by main strength while the whiskey had been administered to teach them to drink.

The next morning after the affray above narrated I visited the lodge of the wounded Indian. He refused in sullen silence to converse upon the subject, and would only say, "too much scuti-appo." No hard feelings were entertained towards the offender: all was charged to the whiskey account.1

Commentary. "Chos-chunka"in the orthography used here, this is Cašcąga. To get "Big Wave" from this, one would suppose it to be analysed as Caš-cąk-ka, where cąk means something like "big," as in Ho-cąk, "Big Voice." However, the word for wave is cašcą, with -ga appended to indicate a personal name. The name, therefore, is simply "Wave." This is ordinarily a clan name given not long after birth in the Waterspirit Clan, as one might expect. Wave, as it happens, was appointed chief by the government (q.v.), which ignored the usual requirement that the chief be drawn from the Thunderbird Clan.

"A. W. Campbel" — Alexander W. Campbell, a member of the Democratic Party, was a County Commissioner, 1838-1840; and ran for county representative in 1842, but lost by 8 votes. Barrows says that

Mr. Campbell was among the most enterprising of the early settlers, having opened a large farm on the bottom land of the river. He sold it to Henry C. Morehead at an early day and removed to the prairie near where the town of Blue Grass now is, where he opened another large farm that now belongs to his heirs. He was elected in February, 1838, one of the county commissioners, it being the first election ever held for officers under the county organization. He also filled other places of responsibility and trust. Being fond of travel and adventure, he frequently took excursions into the interior of Iowa while it was yet in the possession of the Indians, seeming to forget all business cares and enjoy very much the solitude and loveliness of our western wilds. In the spring of 1850 he crossed the plains to California and retumed by way of the Isthmus that fall. The following sum- mer he again set forth for California by the overland route in company with a son and a married daughter whose husband was in California. His health had been for years somewhat impaired and his constitution broken. On Green river [in Utah], in the great basin of the Rocky mountains he sickened and died, and his bones are left to moulder in the cheerless desert with no lasting monument to point the weary pilgrim to his lonely grave.2

Gov. John Chambers

"Gov. Chambers" — John Chambers was born in 1780 in Lexington, Kentucky.  In 1800 he was admitted to the bar. During the War of 1812 he was Gen. William Henry Harrison's aide-de-camp. At various times from 1812 to 1831, he was a Representative in the Kentucky House, and in 1825 he sat on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, after which he was a Representative to the U. S. Congress, up to 1839. He was made Governor of Iowa Territory from 1841-1845. In 1842, he negotiated a treaty in which the Sauk and Fox ceded their lands in Iowa. He died in 1852.3

Rev. David Lowery  

"Rev. David. Lowrey" — Rev. David Lowery was born on January 20, 1796 in Kentucky. Within two years he was orphaned. He was taken in by a family that some have described as "reckless and intemperate," but on turning 18, he attended a Presbyterian revival meeting, and became a passionate convert to that denomination. Not long after he was ordained, he did work in frontier Indiana. Back in Kentucky in late 1830, he initiated the newspaper, the Religious and Literary Intelligencer, the first of his denomination. Having moved to Tennessee, where he became a friend of Andrew Jackson, he published the Cumberland Presbyterian. In 1832, Jackson appointed him to be a teacher for the Winnebago tribe. In 1833, he held a powwow with the Winnebago chiefs to discuss his plan, and although Wakan Decorah spoke against the idea of his mission, the remainder of the attendees at least found it acceptable. After several moves by the Hocągara, he was able to establish a mission school on the Yellow River in Iowa. When the tribe was exiled to Nebraska, Rev. Lowery moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota. He eventually moved back to Iowa where he died of what the pseudo-science of the time called "paralysis of the brain."4

Bill Whittaker
The Ruins of Ft. Atkinson, Iowa

"Fort Atkinson" — Hexom gives a good account of the history of Ft. Atkinson:

In 1840 the Winnebago Indians were removed to their new home on the Neutral Ground. In order to protect them from the incursions of their neighbors, among whom were the Sauk and Fox tribes, as well as from intrusions of the whites, and in turn to prevent them from trespassing beyond the limits of the reservation, soldiers were stationed among them. A detachment of the 5th Infantry (Company F) under command of Captain Isaac Lynde left Fort Crawford, with a complement of eighty-two officers and enlisted men, and went into camp, May 31, 1840, in the neighborhood of Spring creek (now known as Goddard's creek) on the Turkey river. The camp was named "Camp Atkinson" in honor of Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, U. S. Army, the Department Commander who was so prominent in military operations in the upper Mississippi valley. Barracks and quarters sufficient to accommodate one company were erected, and in March, 1841, the Secretary of War ordered that the station be known as Fort Atkinson.
    The fort was situated in the northwestern part of Washington township (on the old military road constructed from Fort Snelling to Fort Gibson) and stood on a rock-ribbed hill overlooking the site of the town which now bears its name. This hill is about eighty-four feet above the Turkey river. ... The top of the stockade consisted of spikes driven into the sharpened ends of the logs. Portholes were cut at about every four feet. ... In two corners of the stockade were located cannon-houses; and in the other two corners, the Quartermasters' store house (adjoined by the sutler's store) and the magazine, or powder-house.
    Concerning the Indian agency which was established in connection with the fort, Mr. Kingsley relates that,"The Winnebagoes were given food, clothing, gold, and silver. In money they received $46.00 per head, twice a year. ...
    February 24, 1849, the Post was finally abandoned. It was turned over to the Secretary of the Interior for disposition January 10, 1851. At the present time all that is still standing of the fort is the cannon-house of the southwest corner. ... The fort became useless as government property, and was sold at public auction to one J. M. Flowers for $3, 521. The reservation is described as containing 1,920 acres. This land was finally disposed of under the provisions of the acts of Congress of July 30, 1856, and June 7, 1860.5

"dog" — dogs are held in very high esteem and are usually treated like family members, even to the point of setting a place for them at the family meal. Therefore, striking a dog is similar to striking a family member.

"salt" — concerning salt, Belden (p. 36) says the same thing about the Sioux, among whom he lived for 12 years.

"scuti-appo" — this is for Ojibwe ishkode-wābō, from ishkode, "fire," and ābō, "water, liquid."

Links: ...

Stories: mentioning Chief Wave (Cašcąga): Chief Wave Tries to Take the Whiskey, Chief Wave Bars Explorers; mentioning whiskey (fire water): Little Fox and the Ghost, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, Turtle and the Merchant, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Brawl in Omro, Chief Wave Tries to Take the Whiskey, Sodom and Gomorrah; mentioning drunkeness: The Drunkard's Self-Reflections, Soft Shelled Turtle Gets Married, Chief Wave Tries to Take the Whiskey, The Brawl in Omro, Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Version 1, Little Fox and the Ghost, Version 1, Migistéga's Death, Version 1, The Spanish Fight, Snowshoe Strings; relating to dogs or wolves: The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, A Man and His Three Dogs, White Wolf, Wolves and Humans, The Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Old Man and His Four Dogs, Worúxega, The Dogs of the Chief's Son, The Dog that became a Panther, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Wild Rose, The Man Whose Wife was Captured, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Canine Warrior, The Dog Who Saved His Master, The Raccoon Coat, Wojijé, The Big Eater, Why Dogs Sniff One Another, The Healing Blessing, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Trickster Loses His Meal, Sun and the Big Eater, Redhorn's Sons, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Hog's Adventures, Holy One and His Brother, The Messengers of Hare, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Grandmother's Gifts, The Hocąk Migration Myth, Bladder and His Brothers, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Old Man and the Giants, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, Kunu's Warpath, Morning Star and His Friend, Black Otter's Warpath, Peace of Mind Regained (?); occurring in Iowa: Chief Wave Tries to Take the Whiskey, Chief Wave Bars Explorers, The Duel, Sodom and Gomorrah.

Themes: ...


1 Willard Barrows, History of Scott County, Iowa (1859), which is contained in Harry E Downer, History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1910) 106-286 [150-151]. Barrow's history was originally published in Annals of the State Historical Society of Iowa, 1, #1 (Jan., 1863): 8-47; 1, #2 (April, 1863): 49-85; 1, #3 (July, 1863): 99-134; 1, #4 (Oct., 1863): 150-176; 1, #5 (Jan., 1864): 207-236; 1, #6 (April, 1864): 241-261.

2 Barrows, History of Scott County, Iowa, 119, 159, 548, 550, 554.

3 John C. Parish, John Chambers (Iowa City, Iowa: The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1909).

4 The Cumberland Presbyterian, April 12, 1877, page 2.

5 Charles Philip Hexom, Indian History of Winneshiek County (Decorah, Iowa: A. K. Bailey and Son, Inc., 1913) 53-60.