The Duel

Version 1

by Franc Wilkie

Franc B. Wilkie

(42) "In the Spring of ’37, the first duel 'on record,' in Iowa, was fought between a couple of Winnebago Indians. A party of the tribe was here fishing, and encamped on Rock Island. A couple of young men were carousing at Stephenson, and, in a little while, commenced quarreling. The blow was passed. Too refined, by their intercourse with the whites, to avenge the blow with knife or tomahawk, they resorted to the code of honor. Unfortunately for one of them, the choice of weapons was not fully up to the prevailing principles of the code duello. One had a shot gun, the other wisely took the rifle. On the willow island, below the city, they drew up the required distance, and blazed away. The heavy lead of the cracking rifle was 'too much' for the lighter pellets of its more noisy brother — the Shot Gun. The shot gun and its holder went down, and the latter was buried not far from the grave yard below the city, and upon the banks of the noble Mississippi, whose everlasting voices hymned his advent to the Spirit Land.

The Rifle hero fled to his home in Rock River country. But vengeance overtook him even there. (43) The friends and relations of the slain clamored for the blood of the slayer — and the sister of the latter went for the survivor. She found him — entreated him to come back to Rock Island, and be killed, to appease the wrathful manes of the departed. Such logic was irresistible — he came — and in a canoe paddled by his own sister, he reached the Island, singing his death song. A shallow grave was dug, and kneeling upon its brink, his body tumbled into it, and his death song was hushed as the greedy knives of his executioners drank the blood of his brave heart. Can the white man show a nobler act than this, among all his bravest deeds in the arena of the duellist. The chiaro oscuro of Spartan deeds presents no more beautiful blending of heroism and duty than this — nay, verily."1

Version 2 (Original)

by Willard Barrows

Willard Barrows

(100) "On one occasion. soon after I arrived there, a dispute arose between two young Indians in a drunken frolic, when one struck the other — an indignity that an Indian seldom submits to, as it places him in the position of a dog. The matter remained until morning, when both were sober. They then repaired to a little (101) island off the lower part of Davenport, armed, one with a rifle and the other with a shot-gun, to settle the difficulty in an honorable way, after the white man's fashion. The friends of both parties were present, but left the two to make their own arrangements. When it was determined that they should shoot at each other, the hero of the shot-gun marched off for the agreed distance; but, before he could turn and fire, he of the rifle shot him through the head, and then fled like a deer. He was a Winnebago, and lived on Rock River, at Shab-be-na's Grove. His friends were in deep distress, for they well knew his doom, in accordance with Indian law.

"The relatives of the deceased clamored for blood. He was sent for by his friends, his own sister going after him. He was found in his wigwam, with blackened face, brooding in silence over his doom, well knowing, that the Great Spirit was angry with him, and that no sacrifice was too great to appease his wrath.

"He returned to Rock Island with that sister, whom he tenderly loved, and who urged him, for the honor of his family and tribe, to submit to his fate. One bright morning in June, about a month after the murder, the quiet camp of the Indians on the island was startled by the doleful chant of the death-song. A few canoes, with a white flag in the bows of the foremost, which was paddled by an Indian girl of some twenty summers, came gliding around the lower point of the island. In the forward part of the canoe, wrapped in his blanket, with his face blackened, sat the murderer, singing his last song, this side the good hunting-grounds.

(102) "The long, protracted howl of the wigwam crier soon put in motion the camps on both sides of the river. From every nook and eddy along the river there soon shot forth canoes filled with excited savages, eager to participate in the bloody scene at hand. Grave old men were there, the mothers of many a young warrior, and maidens who had often played on the green earth where they now stood. All looked on with stoical indifference, while the wailing and lamentation of the culprit's sister were enough to pierce a heart of stone.

"The prisoner was led up the bank from the canoe by his sister, bowed with grief; but no muscle of his moved, nor any tear came to his eye. He chanted his death-song as he moved slowly to the place of execution. This was a large, open green, with a stone for his seat. The spot was surrounded by hundreds of Indians, but no sound could be heard as they marched into the circle, except the smothered grief of the sister and relatives. After being seated, his blanket was taken from his shoulders, and the black wampum of Pagunk (death) was put into his hands by one of the 'medicine men.'

"The nearest relative of the murdered man then approached from behind him, with a tomahawk, and commenced the death-song in a dance. Soon others joined who were next of kin, until all the relatives were in the circle, armed with knives and tomahawks, and dancing around the prisoner. This ceremony was kept up for some time, when other braves entered, and the yell became deafening.

"At a given signal from the first that entered, all (103) sprang at the victim with the most horrid outburst that human voices could make, and in a few moments all that was left of the prisoner was a clotted mass of flesh and blood."2

Willow Island

Commentary. "willow island" — an island in the Rock River within the city limits of Davenport, Iowa. It is 551 feet in elevation and has the coordinates 41.5036436 -90.605971.

"sister" — the emphasis is that of the author. His shock is partly due to the pronounced closeness of the sister-brother relationship during the historical period of Romanticism. In the Victory Dance, the man who has taken a scalp or head distributes presents to a certain class of female relatives: his hinųk (sisters), his hicų́wį (paternal aunts), and his hicųją́k (father's sisters' daughters). In other words, the gifts, which are worn on the neck and paraded about, are given to all of the scalp-winner's paternal grandfather's female descendants. It can be seen from this, that a sister becomes a repository of a man's honor, and his achievements (and by extension, his demerits) are reflected in or upon her, and his grandfather's distaff progeny. The grandfather has the highest honor within a family, so a man must take care not to reflect ill upon him, and by extension, his women. The males of the clan will defend any member, since the whole clan is held responsible for his actions; but the grandfather's women are all either married into another clan, or born into another clan. Since a sister is a kind of repository of a man's honor, yet not obliged to defend him regardless of his conduct, she would seem to be the one most likely to urge him to do what is best, as she will carry the demerits of his failures just as she carried the gifts of his success.

"appease the wrathful manes of the departed" — this is likely a Western imputation. The dead exacting vengeance upon the living is a theme not yet encountered, except for minor powers of those slain on the warpath. In Hocąk society, a homicide is avenged by the immediate relatives first, but if they are unable to effect it, and have not forgiven their transgressor, it is the duty of the clan to avenge their fellow clansman. If the perpetrator has fled, then this imperative for revenge may be executed upon another member of his family or even one of his clansmen. The chief of the village always tries to intervene on behalf of the killer to secure forgiveness. Even with a pardon, the guilty party must pay a wergild as an act of atonement. In this story, we see this step omitted, but we may presume that it has taken place and that the killer was not forgiven by his living victims. So he submitted to the demands of the offended clansmen in order to prevent disrepute being cast upon his grandfather's women, and to prevent inter-clan warfare.

"chiaro oscuro" — the use of pronounced shadow in painting to accentuate solidity and three-dimensionality. It is particularly noted in the work of Rembrandt.

Shaubena in Indian Dress

"Shab-be-na's Grove" — located on the Rock River in Lee County, Illinois. A settler's guide from 1852 has this to say about it:

In the southeastern part of Lee county are two pleasant and valuable groves, with fine settlements of good farmers in and around them; one is known as Malugin's Grove; and the other, as Shab-he-na's Grove; it is so called from an Indian Chief of that name, who was friendly to the whites, and rendered good and timely service to them, in time of the Black Hawk war, by keeping a watch on the stealth and advance of the Indians, and giving the inhabitants warning of their movements, which, in some instances, saved the whites from massacre. Shabbena lives in this grove; which, with a tract of prairie adjoining it, was reserved and donated to him by the Government; much of which, however, some graceless villains in that region have contrived to swindle him out of, and apparently with impunity. He is now very old, and is a man of noble nature, sagacity, and peaceful dispositions; and is justly deserving similar honors as are paid to white heroes who have protected or rendered service to their kind in times of conflict and danger.3

"with blackened face" — blackening the face with charcoal is done in mourning, and when a suppliant is "crying to the spirits." It symbolizes death and mortality.

"for the honor of his family and tribe" — this explicit statement comes close to the analysis given in the other version above.

"a white flag" — if this is true, it is a practice adopted from white people. The "surrender" flag is white, or blank (blanc), to void it of any partisan symbolism. White to the Hocągara, and probably to many other peoples, otherwise represents holiness, probably because it has no blemish or "discoloration."

"summers" — the Indians generally, and the Hocągara in particular, counted years in winters, probably because winters represent the time of highest mortality (from hunger, disease, war, and freezing).

Links: The Wanąǧi Mónąc.

Stories: occurring in Iowa: Chief Wave Tries to Take the Whiskey, Chief Wave Bars Explorers, Chief Wave and the Big Drunk, Sodom and Gomorrah.

Themes: ...


1 Franc B. Wilkie, Davenport, Past and Present; Including the Early History (Davenport: Luse, Lane & Co., 1858) 42-43.

2 Willard Barrows, The General ; or, Twelve Nights in the Hunters' Camp: a Narrative of Real Life (Boston, Mass.: Lee and Shepard, 1869) 100-103.

3 Daniel S. Curtiss and Joseph Parrish Thompson (1819-1879) Western Portraiture, and Emigrants' Guide: a Description of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa; with Remarks on Minnesota, and Other Territories (New York: J. H. Colton, 1852) 263.