Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in the Mississippi Valley

by John W. Spencer (1801-1878)

(14) Soon after I came, having business at Galena (Illinois), and the officers of the garrison being anxious to hear who had been elected President, in November, it being now the 20th of December (1828), it was arranged that I should carry the mail to Galena, and bring one in return, for which I was to receive five dollars. This trip had to be made on foot, as I had sent my team home. So they fitted me out with a knap sack, and taking a pair of skates, I started on my trip, stopping the first night at the head of the rapids. From this point to Mr. Davidson’s, the first house, was about fifty miles, and the days being the shortest of the year, it required some energy to reach this house, which would make a good stopping place for the night. In the course of the day I met a large party of Winnebagoes, who were (15) moving and were traveling across my track. I was not then much acquainted with the Indians, and hardly knew what would be the best course to pursue, but concluded it was best to pass right along among them, as though I was not at all disturbed. They gathered around me, and all I could under stand was that they wanted bread. I was skating along, as that time, on a large pond, and the Indian boys followed after me, very much pleased with this, to them, novel way of going.

(26) [The Sauks brought back from their winter hunt] little besides the sugar just made and dried meat, their skins and furs having been disposed of to the Indian traders where they had been. Now they commenced looking for their corn, beans, and dried squashes they had cached in the fall. This was done by good hiding. The most common way was to select a dry piece of ground where there was a blue grass sod. They then cut out a circular sod about eighteen inches in circumference, or as large as would admit a person’s body. This sod was laid aside, and then a large hole dug, enlarging as they went down, to the depth of five or six feet, so as to make it of sufficient size to hold the corn, beans, squashes, and sometimes crab apples of one family. These were put in sacks of their own making. They then put in bark on the bottom and sides. and inside of this they put these sacks of provisions, for the next spring’s use. Then they were covered with bark and filled with dirt, and the sod was carefully replaced, so as to make it look perfectly natural. They then cleaned up all the surplus dirt and hid it away, so there was nothing to indicate that anything had been buried there, or the earth disturbed at all. It depended on (27) the hiding whether there would be any corn in the spring, for as soon as they were gone the Winnebagoes and other Indians came here hunting for their treasure. These Indians, by the aid of their muskrat spears, feeling in the ground, often succeeded in finding, and would take the supplies of several families. One family with whom I was acquainted, buried their supplies in the center of their wigwam, where they had their fire. After burying their treasure, they had made a large fire to make it look all right. But the Winnebagoes hunted around and stuck their spears in the ground, and finally discovered the place, and took it all. The old squaw to whom it belonged wept bitterly. When a family had been robbed in this way of all they had, it was the custom to send some of the young men around the village, from one wigwam to another, and collect a small quantity of each one for the sufferers. This robbery made no disturbance between the different tribes.

(28) There happened this year a circumstance of some note. Our Indians [the Sauks], in an attack on the Sioux camp on Turkey river, near where Dubuque now stands, killed several Sioux, and among the rest a Winnebago squaw and a Menominee boy. They hastened to the Winnebagos, and settled their mistake by giving them some horses. This seems to be the currency of the Indians. They always seemed to wish to avoid a rupture with the Winnebagos, who were 8,000 strong.

(64) This last battle fought on the Mississippi, was the noted battle of Bad Axe, and Black Hawk, feeling that he and his people were thoroughly overcome, did not cross the river, but went up the river and gave himself up to the Winnebagoes, who brought him a prisoner to Prairie du Chien. 

Commentary. "garrison" — this is a reference to Ft. Armstrong on Rock Island, the largest island in the Mississippi. It was built in 1816 and decommissioned in 1836. Rock Island is about 100 miles downstream from Galena.

Fort Armstrong as Seen from the Illinois Shore

"President" — Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams 178 electoral votes to 83.

"five dollars" — adjusted for inflation, this would be about $130 in today's currency.

"muskrat spear" — the photo below shows a muskrat spear from Wisconsin of the sort sold by Indian traders.

UBB Central   McKenney & Hall
A Wisconsin Muskrat Spear   Black Hawk

"Bad Axe" — a battle fought in present day Wisconsin on Aug. 1-2, 1832, between the Fox and Sauk Indians under their chief Black Hawk, and the Army, supplemented by militia units from Illinois and Michigan Territory. In the second day of the fight, the Indians were trapped with their backs to the river, and many women and children drowned or were shot while trying to escape.1 Of those who did cross the river, a great number were killed or captured by the Sioux on the opposite bank. The battle, better termed a "massacre," resulted in hundreds of the Indians being killed, and their lands east of the Mississippi expropriated.

Notes to the Commentary

1 Black Hawk and Antoine LeClair, Autobiography of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Or Black Hawk: Embracing the Traditions of His Nation, Various Wars in which He Has Been Engaged, and His Account of the Cause and General History of the Black Hawk War of 1832, His Surrender, and Travels Through the United States. Ed. John Barton (St. Louis: Patterson Press of Continental Printing Company, 1882) 110.


John W. Spencer, Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in the Mississippi Valley (Davenport, Iowa: Griggs, Watson & Day, 1872).