The First Fox and Sauk War

Retold from Memory by Pliny Warriner (1828)

This worak was told by a Hocąk chief about 80 years of age in 1828 (b. ca. 1750) in the Ojibwe tongue, which the listener, Mr. Warriner, understood. He later set the story down to the best of his recollection in English. We pick up the narrative as Mr. Warriner and a small group of Hocąk refugees arrive at a special place.


"After traveling several hours across a beautiful prairie, we approached a lake, the bank of which was adorned with a few large trees, and its shore presented a series of regularly ranged mounds, conveying to a distant eye the appearance of a formal town. On entering the cluster of these, each individual, in turn, ascended quite to the top of the highest, preceded by the aged veteran, where he first turned his face to the sun, (which was low in the west,) then towards the Mississippi, and making a violent motion with the right hand, as if wielding the tomahawk, he ejaculated a few words in his native tongue, and immediately rejoined us by the path he had ascended. . . .

[The chief begins a story designed to explain this rite:] 'My friend — the Winnebagoes are not like other men. They came not from the east; they are the only children of the Great Spirit. He put them on one side of the great waters (Lakes) and the two great lights on the other. He gave us the buffalo, the moose, the elk, and the deer, for food, and their skins he taught us to use for clothing. He filled the waters with fish, and covered the land with choice fruits. All these he gave to us; and he marked with his finger between us and the great lights, that we might not approach them. Upon the other side of us he placed a land of winters, where no Indian could live. After this the Big Knives (English) came, not as enemies, but as friends — They took our bows and gave us guns, for our skins they gave blankets and calicoes, and they gave strong drink to our hunters. They enticed away the young squaws, and when the Winnebago went after them they would not come back. Soon the hunter get lazy, love strong drink, and die. Many, very many die so. Then it was that the Great Spirit told his oldest child, the great chief of the Winnebagoes, in his sleep, to leave the country to the Big Knives, and cross the great water to the land nearer the great lights, where no white man had gone. We went forward, found a good land where this river (Fox, which enters into Green Bay) goes into the great water. [inset map] For two moons we found plenty of game, and saw no Indians. We thought the Great Spirit had taken them all away to make room for his children; when one morning we found the river full of canoes and Indians for one day's ride in length. Our chiefs and old men held a talk, and a canoe was sent to the strangers with as many men as there are moons in a year. They carried presents of wampum, fruits, sugar and meat. These never returned. Their pipes of peace were thrown into the river, and their mangled bodies were hung upon the trees. Dogs were fastened in the canoe dressed like the Winnebagoes, and the bark, with these, came down the river to our villages. Our good chief seeing the tears of his warriors for their friends who were slain, struck his foot in wrath upon a solid rock, which sank it to his ankle, and called his father, the Great Spirit, to witness that the tomahawk be unburied with the Foxes, Sacs, and Chippewas, until a tree should grow from the place were his foot stood. He then burnt a council fire in sight of his enemies, and put blood upon the trees that they might see more was soon to be wasted. When they saw this, they fled up the river to Winnebago Lake. [inset map] Our warriors followed — a battle was fought on its banks, which we lost, as part of our fighting men were deceived in the long grass by their guide. The Winnebagoes being swiftest on foot, gained this spot before the evening. It was then the enemy's town, and they soon came, with their prisoners, little thinking we were here. Finding as in their town they kindled their fires upon all sides, and sent in word that they next day they would eat the Winnebago chief. With the dawn the fight began. We soon drove the Foxes down the river, but they went round and joined the Sacs, who were above us. The rest of that day all was quiet, but the next night, at the rising of the moon, they again came out from their hiding places. This fight did not stop for three days; and we lost ten men for each day and night of the year, before it was ended. On the third day our chief fell, covered with wounds. While he still lived, he called to his warriors to remember his wrongs; and, with his own hands he pressed the blood from his wound, where he lay, he opened his mouth, and his spirit departed. In that battle the Winnebagoes kept the town, took many hundreds of canoes and many prisons. These, except the young squaws, we killed. These that escaped fled up the river, and the next day we pursued them. We came to the lake which makes the Fox river, and hunted for our enemy three days. Thinking the Great Spirit had taken them all from the country, to stop our pursuit, we were about to obey his wishes and return, when we discovered a trail in the high grass. This we followed a little, when we came to a strange river (the Ouisconsin,) running towards the Father of Rivers, (the Mississippi,) into which they had put their canoes. We now agreed to follow and fight our enemy, until he should leave this stream, and cross the Father of Rivers. At the Blue Mounds we fought them; and there we were joined by the Pattawatomies, and they by the Menominies. At the mouth of the Ouisonsin they made mounds, and put their women and children behind them, for they expected a great battle. The Winnebagoes had more fighting men than their enemies, but they fought for the last of their country, and the Winnebagoes for revenge. For thirteen days the bloody strife did not cease, and hundreds of brave men fell on each day. At length the Great Spirit raised a loud storm of thunder, lightning, hail and wind, which caused both parties to stop, for they thought the Great Father of all was angry with his children. The Winnebagoes stood still, and their enemies all crossed the Father of Rivers, where they now live, at eternal war with our nation. No Fox or Sac meets a Winnebago, (except in council,) but one must die. All that great land between the Ouisconsin and the Mississippi is to this day disputed ground, and neither can safely occupy it. Chippewa or Winnebago go there, he die — but no matter, Winnebago, Chippewa, Fox and Sac, all have country enough now. Sixty winters have passed over us since my father, who was then strong, told me of these deeds of our nation [1768]. . . .

My friend, this place was long since called, by white men, 'Bout de Morte.' The mounds you see were raised, each over the grave of some renowned chief, who fell in the great battle here. By a custom of our nation, every Winnebago who comes in sight of this mound upon which we are now seated, must ascend to the top, and observe the rites you witnessed. When turning to the sun, we swear that our arm, while it has power, shall be exerted in defence of this land, in remembrance of the son of the Great Spirit who sleeps below; and when facing the Sacs and Foxes, we swear ever to remember to revenge the death of the best of Chiefs, the favorite son of the Great Spirit, who fell by their hands'."1

Commentary. "Great Spirit" — the constant reference to the Great Spirit intervening and being appealed to by the Hocągara is inauthentic. The Hocąk Great Spirit, Earthmaker, is not a god who interferes in daily life, nor does he wield the thunder as suggested above. Furthermore, he is completely a god of peace. The warlike wielders of thunder are the Thunderbirds, called Wak'ąja in Hocąk and literally meaning, "Divine Ones." This was probably confused in translation with the term Manitou, "Spirit," having been used. The term "Great Spirit" is known to the Hocągara (Waxop’ini Xetera), but is in origin an Algonquianism, from Gitchi Manitou. Another Algonquianism is "tomahawk," by which we would ordinarily understand a hatchet-like weapon. The Hocągara used warclubs (mące) in preference to axes. The author also uses the word "squaw," another loan word from the Algonquian languages, and last but not least, he refers to the Hocągara by the term used by their Algonquian enemies — "Winnebago." These several Algonquianisms probably owe to the fact that the story was told in Ojibwe, rather than any deliberate distortion on the part of the writer.

"the great waters (Lakes)" — the writer is confused on geography as well. That the Hocągara were on the other side of the Great Lakes before they established themselves at Red Banks on Lake Michigan belongs to a tradition about the primordial age, not the period at which they were in contact with the whites (Big Knives). According to the writer's understanding, the Hocągara were on one side of the Great Lakes and the Fox and Sauk were on the other, which is not what is historically or traditionally attested. However, Lake Winnebago, into which the Fox River also empties, was the boundary between these nations. This is the lake meant, since the Hocąk name for it is Te Xete, "Great Lake." Thus the confusion with what the whites call the "Great Lakes." The migration referred to, therefore, is to the lands on the other side of Lake Winnebago, which better matches the time frame.

"two great lights" — It is said that the Great Spirit "put them [the Hocągara] on one side of the great waters (Lakes) and the two great lights on the other." These "lights" may be fireplaces, a metonymic term for nations. The closely related Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa formed the "Three Fires," but by the time of this writing, Lower Michigan was not much occupied by the Ojibwe, leaving the latter two "lights" or fires. However, it seems likely that since the enemy tribes being referred to are the Sauk and Fox, that the "two lights" almost certainly refers to them.

"a battle" — C. C. Trowbridge has this to say about the first war with the Sauk and Fox, six years before the present account was published:

They were also at war with the Sacs & foxes, before the arrival of the french, the Sacs at that time occupying the Country about Winneebaágoa lake, from whence they removed to the mouth of the river upon the establishment of a trading post.2

Links: Earthmaker (Great Spirit), Lake Winnebago, The Wazija.

Stories: about the migration of the Hocągara:   The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Hocąk Arrival Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Spanish Fight, Quapah Origins, cf. Hocąk Clans Origin Myth; mentioning the Fox (Mesquaki): The Fox-Hocąk War, The Masaxe War, The Mesquaki Magician, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Little Priest's Game, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (Extracts ...), Introduction; mentioning the Sauk (Sac, Sagi): Mijistéga and the Sauks, Black Otter's Warpath, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Little Priest's Game, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e (St. Peet ...), A Peyote Story, Introduction; mentioning the Big Knives (white Americans): The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Brawl in Omro, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, A Prophecy, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, Turtle and the Merchant, The Hocągara Migrate South, Neenah, Run for Your Life, The Glory of the Morning, First Contact, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistéga’s Magic, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Mighty Thunder, The Beginning of the Winnebago, Soldiers Catch Two Boys, a Black One and a White One; mentioning the Ojibwe (Chippewa, Ojibway): White Fisher, White Thunder's Warpath, Great Walker and the Ojibwe Witches, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, The Annihilation of the Hocągara II, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, First Contact (vv. 2-3), Introduction; mentioning the Wazija: The Hocąk Migration Myth, Trickster and the Geese, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, Deer Spirits, Waruǧábᵉra, The Creation of Man; about the (post-Columbian) history of the Hocągara: The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, Annihilation of the Hocągara II, First Contact, Origin of the Decorah Family, The Glory of the Morning, The Fox-Hocąk War, The Masaxe War, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Black Otter's Warpath, Great Walker's Medicine, Great Walker's Warpath, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, The Spanish Fight, The Man who Fought against Forty, The Origin of Big Canoe's Name, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, They Owe a Bullet, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee," A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Origin of the Hocąk Name for "Chicago"; mentioning sacred (artificial) mounds: The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Green Lake Band, Baraboo in the 1840s, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 1), Buffalo Dance, Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 12), Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 5), Little Priest’s Game, The Story of How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, The Resurrection of the Chief’s Daughter, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Featherstonhaugh's Canoe Voyage; see also, The Archaeology of the Wazija, Indian History of Winneshiek County, Habitat of the Winnebago, 1632-1832, The Winnebago Tribe, The Hocąk Notebook of W. C. McKern from the Milwaukee Public Museum, The McKern Papers on Hocąk Ethnography, The Wisconsin Winnebagoes, Information Respecting the Hitory, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, The Smoky Mountain Massacre, The Thunderbird Warclub; set at Lake Winnebago (Te Xete): White Thunder's Warpath, Traveler and the Thunderbird War (v. 2), The Great Fish, The Wild Rose, The Two Boys, Great Walker's Warpath, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Fox-Hocąk War, Holy Song, First Contact (v. 2), Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Two Children (?); set on the Fox River: Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Foolish Hunter, Winneconnee Origin Myth, Neenah, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter.

The story, The Hocągara Migrate South, is an excerpt of the present worak.

Themes: the Hocągara arrive in the Wazija by crossing a great body of water: The Hocąk Arrival Myth, The Hocąk Migration Myth; the Hocągara are the first human beings: The Creation of Man (v. 2); descriptions of human warfare: Black Otter's Warpath, Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Warbundle Maker, Black Otter's Warpath, Great Walker's Medicine, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, Wazųka, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Fox-Hocąk War, Great Walker's Warpath, White Fisher, The Lame Friend, White Thunder's Warpath, The Osage Massacre, A Man's Revenge, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, They Owe a Bullet, The Spanish Fight, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee," The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), Tobacco Man and Married Man, The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka; anthropophagy and cannibalism: A Giant Visits His Daughter, Turtle and the Giant, The Witch Men's Desert, The Were-Grizzly, Grandfather's Two Families, The Roaster, Redhorn's Father, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Lost Blanket, Young Man Gambles Often, White Wolf, The Shaggy Man, The Twins Get into Hot Water, Partridge's Older Brother, The Fox-Hocąk War, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, Morning Star and His Friend, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Seven Maidens, Šųgepaga, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Shakes the Earth, The Stone Heart, Thunder Cloud is Blessed.


1 Pliny Warriner, "Legend of the Winnebagoes," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Year 1854 (Madison: State Historical Society, 1855) 1:86-93 [Appendix 6]. Originally published in the Buffalo [New York] Journal, September 15, 1829. The informant was an unnamed Hocąk chief.

2 Charles C. Trowbridge, "Manners, Customs, and International Laws of the Win-nee-baa-goa Nation," (1823), Winnebago Manuscripts, in MS/I4ME, Charles Christopher Trowbridge Collection (02611), Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, 88.