A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay Sotor

by George Featherstonhaugh



(1:162) As we advanced the [Fox] river widened, and the country became strikingly beautiful, the banks, with fine trees here and there interspersed, sloping gracefully down on each side, as if the river was gliding through an amphitheatre. Further on the amenity of these slopes became strongly contrasted with the foaming of the most formidable of all the rapids on this river, called in the Menominie tongue Kāwkāwnin, literally “can't get up.” The rocks here are in such amazing numbers, and are so piled up, and the rapid is so strong, the fall being equal to about twenty feet per mile, that it is impossible to get canoes up it. The Canadian voyageurs, who ruin every Indian word they meet with, have called this place, whose Indian name is so significant, Cocolo, by which name it is universally known amongst them. Here, then, we stopped at the eastern end of the portage, it being necessary to unload the canoe and carry it and all our lading to the other end of the portage. Some drunken Winnebago Indians haunt this place for the fish that frequent the rapids, and to assist in carrying heavy loads, expending what they earn in rum and whisky at a low (1:163) dram-shop, which the traveller is sure to find at all such places where there are white men. ...

As I was proceeding across the portage, I met with three dirty ferocious-looking Winnebagoes, more than half-drunk, one of whom, called “the Blacksmith” by the whites, on account of his muscular frame, came and offered me his hand, which when I had taken he endeavoured with a jerk to drag me to the ground, not with an intention to do me any harm, but to show his strength. Seeing, however, by his drunken eye, that he meditated some trick, I was upon my guard, and shutting my fist instead of giving him my open hand, I slipped it out and gave him a knowing sort of nod, which was perfectly comprehended, and his companions laughed heartily at (1:164) him. Nothing can be more deplorable than the state to which these poor Indians, once lords and masters of these forests, have been reduced by the drunkenness which they have been taught by the whites. ...

(1:166) This night, as soon as my evening’s repast was over, I made the entrance to my tent fast, and, with my stores and luggage around me, lay down to sleep. A troop of drunken demon-looking Winnebagoes were bellowing around me till near midnight, but they could not get into the tent, and went to my men's bivouac; finding they could get nothing there, they at last retired, and we all got a few hours' refreshing sleep.

I rose at day break, and after making my toilette, went to an eminence, a little north-west from my camp, from whence I had a fine view of the river and surrounding country. It divides here, and forms a channel on each side of an island, which is almost round.

A group of wretched-looking Winnebagoes were lying about some nearly extinguished embers in the open air, not far from the bank of the river; one of them was quite naked, except his breech-clout; but being accustomed to this mode of life, they appear insensible to its inconveniences. Observing one of the squaws with a papoose, or child, about eighteen months old, I went to my tent, and taking a biscuit, gave it to her, telling her it was for the child. She smiled, and seemed very much pleased, but the papoose seemed not to care much about it, for I saw the mother a short time afterwards eating it. (1:167) Most of the Winnebagoes, who had been so drunk the preceding evening, were lying about, some of them without any fire: they all appeared very much dejected, and nothing could be imagined more miserable than they looked, for the dew had fallen in a remarkable manner during the night.

Finding there were more rapids ahead, I proceeded on foot by the bank of the river, after seeing the men off with the canoe, and walked in the long grass about six miles; but I was so thoroughly wet with the heavy dew upon it, that, after gaining the head of the rapid, I collected some wood and made a fire, which I found very comfortable, and had time to dry myself before the canoe came up, which was about 10 A. M. We breakfasted at this place; and feeling myself perfectly refreshed, I walked to some Winnebago huts, where there was a flag flying, built upon a hill, at no great distance: they were six in number, and one of them was twenty-four feet long. This was a settlement of Indians, that had been formed by the Canadian priests, and professed the Roman Catholic religion. It was a flag of the United States which was flying, with a cross in the centre. There was abundance of corn and pumpkins in the wigwams.

Nothing can be more filthy than these Indians in their persons: the wandering part of the nation live principally upon fish; and, as they neither wash their food nor themselves, are necessarily a frowsy odoriferous race. The French, who found them with the same manners and customs they have at present, gave them the name of Puants, a soubriquet they well deserve now. How they got the name of Winnebagoes I know not — they do not know the word. It seems to resemble Winnipec, the (1:168) name of the lake into which Red River flows; but whether derived from it or not, it is certain that it has been given to them by others, and is another instance of the folly of distinguishing the Indian tribes by any but national names. Every one of them that I conversed with stated the name of the nation to be Howchungerah [Hočągara], from howrah [hora], fish, and wungerah [wągᵋra], man; they being a fish-eating tribe of the great Nacotah nation, further to the west, a dialect of whose tongue they speak, and having separated from whom, they settled in a lake country abounding in fish, which thus became their principal diet.

Making use of every opportunity to increase my vocabulary, I succeeded in getting more words than phrases. Beau Pré, my pilot, who had been a great deal amongst them, and knew many of their customs, encouraged me to suppose he could interpret for me; but he knew nothing beyond a few words, and these he pronounced very improperly. Whenever I desired him to ask questions of them, with a view to obtain their answer, and they did not comprehend him, he always laid the blame upon the Indians, and said, “Que voulez-vous Monsieur? Ce ne sont que des pauvres diables de Puants!” ...

(1:169) At a place called La petite Butte des Morts the river widened into a small lake. Here Mr. Whitney told me he had an agent, a Mr. Cottrell, to whom he had requested me to deliver a message: accordingly I left the canoe, and walked through the forest to his house. On approaching it, I perceived several Canadians and Indians in and about it most uproariously drunk, and very much disposed to be too familiar with me — some of them trying to take my gun away. After a long attempt to get an interview with Mr. Cottrell, he at length made his appearance, but intoxicated in so beastly a manner, that I was excessively disgusted. At first he insisted upon my stopping with him and “taking a drink,” as he called it; but when he heard me say, that, “being a friend of Mr. Whitney’s, I had promised to call and see how he was going on,” he seemed quite as anxious to get rid of me. ...

(1:170) We now proceeded a mile and a half further to the foot of Lake Winnebago, a very extensive sheet of water, running north and south; and the day drawing to a close, I thought it not advisable to enter upon the navigation of the lake until morning: we accordingly made for a rich prairie flat on the right bank of the lake, where there were a few Indian wigwams, and there I directed the tent to be pitched. Beau Pré advised me to encamp nearer to the woods, on account of the fuel; but being desirous of talking to the Indians, and getting a few phrases from them, I overruled him, and committed, as I soon found, an error; for in the first place the men had to do three times the work to collect fuel for the night; and next, having gone to talk to the Indians after I had seen the canoe brought ashore, I found upon my return that the men had pitched my tent in a place where it was impossible for me to permit it to remain; the fact being, that these poor Indians, who had been a long time (1:171) encamped here, had shifted their bivouac from time to time, to escape the inconvenience of a practice which places them upon a level with the beasts of the field; and it had been my bad luck to get my tent pitched in one of their old nests, which was not long in detecting. Dark as it was, with the aid of torches I selected a clean place, and immediately had the encampment removed, so that it was late in the night before we got settled: but the men behaved very well; and by the alacrity with which they completed all the arrangements, seemed to wish to compensate for their previous misconduct.


(1:172) I arose at sunrise, and seeing the Indians stirring, went to them. The squaws were bringing in wood on their backs for fuel, whilst the men were squatted down on the ground with a dirty blanket thrown over their shoulders, grinning hideously, and looking as if the muscles of their faces had been trained to nothing but to express suffering. The women appeared to be resigned slaves, and the men clearly intended to keep them so. Such is man in the state of nature, or the point where civilization has not begun; worse than the brute animals, in putting all the burthens upon the woman, for I have often seen the cock, — who ranks amongst the brutes, — when he comes from his roost in the early morning, picking up the matutinal delicacies, and laying them in the most graceful and gentlemanly manner at the feet of the hen.

The canoes of these Indians were in the water, close to their encampment, and I was desirous of engaging one of them to take me out upon the lake, and show me their manner of fishing; but I found the man whom I had engaged, and the canoe also when I had entered it, so indescribably filthy, and the stench so intolerable, (1:173) that I am sure, if I had gone upon the lake, I should have jumped overboard and swam ashore, so I gave it up; and as soon as my own canoe was ready, got into it, and pushed off into the lake to a small island about ten miles off, opposite to a Winnebago village. The west shore of the lake, as we coasted it, was low, and very fertile, as I could perceive by the fine trees growing there, with occasional lodges of Indians, all of them fishermen. We had no sooner reached the island, which was very commodious for our purpose of breakfasting, than the Indians began to cross over, bringing with them potatoes and Indian corn, which we exchanged for a little pork, more for the purpose of keeping on friendly terms with them, than because we wanted them. And here a rather droll incident occurred. My tea-kettle was boiling at the men's fire, and the tea being already in my tea-pot, as soon as the kettle began to boil I took it from the fire, and hastening to a nice shady place where the oil-cloth was laid, upon which my breakfast things were placed, I tripped, the lid of the kettle came off, and I scalded my hand. But the joke came from another quarter. A fat, lazy old Indian, one of their chiefs, after very minutely inspecting my preparations for breakfast, had dignifiedly laid himself down with his face next to the grass, close to my oil-skin, and the boiling hot water — a considerable quantity of which came out of the kettle when I tripped — fell upon his nobler parts. Prince Bare-behind, who could not have the slightest idea that I was near him with such a thing as a boiling tea-kettle, and was probably half asleep, immediately took to grinning, kicking, and roaring, as if a set of angry bees had alighted upon his sequitur, and jumping up, saw the fatal cause of his mishap in my hand. As I was not master enough of (1:174) his language to explain how the accident had happened, it struck me that he might think I was a sort of hot water Baptist preacher, and had done it on purpose; and as that was not the fact, and I wished to avoid a quarrel, I immediately took to kicking and grinning, and wringing my hand as if I had been injured as much as himself, though I had a great deal to do to suppress my laughter. Misery certainly loves company, for after he had made up his mind to believe that he had a fellow-sufferer, he called to one of the squaws, and giving some lamenting grunts, got into a canoe, and crossed over to his village. I called this place in my journal “Hotwater Island.” ...

(1:180) At noon the river averaged about fifty yards in breadth, and the banks rose twenty-five feet out of the water with a gentle slope to it. Here we came up with a mound about twenty feet high, where a famous chief of the Winnebagoes, called Yellow Thunder, is interred. ...

(1:182) The river became very winding again, which made our progress in a straight line rather tedious. In a little more than an hour we reached the lodge of a chief called “the Sturgeon,” but he was gone south with his band. These savages, as they are sometimes called, have one good custom, unknown to civilized men. When they go upon distant excursions, they leave their houses, containing what furniture, implements, and property belonging to them they do not wish to carry with them, with the doors unfastened, and frequently do not return until after an absence of several months. But the others never rob them or destroy their property in time of peace.

Having made about twelve miles, we stopped to breakfast, and were under way again before ten. Our course to Fort Winnebago was S. S. W., but the river twisted about so that we were often going N. N. E. At 11 A. M. there were no longer any banks to the channel, and we appeared to be going through an ancient lake grown up with reeds and zizania. About 2 P. M. we had struggled through all this tall grass, and got to a lake called Apachquāy, or “Lake of Rushes.” Three Winnebagoes here came to us with a deer they had killed and a wild duck, but they refused to part with the whole deer; they would let us have a part of it when we got across the lake, they said; so we crossed it upon a south-west course, by compass, to an Indian trader's by the name of Gleeson. We never saw the hunters again, however. This Gleeson had a Winnebago wife, who had borne him several little urchins, that were running about like wild animals. Her husband was from home, and whilst the men were cooking their dinner I entered into conversation with his wife, who was very civil, and spoke English tolerably well. This was a good opportunity of enriching my vocabulary, and I availed myself of it. I also read over to her the words and phrases I had already collected, and she gave me the correct pronunciation, which I noted down with care, as I always did when I had good authority. Their national name, she said, was Howchūngera [Hocągᵋra], the middle syllable having a strong nasal accent and being long, and the e penultimate being very short. A great many of their words have this nasal ng, as whūngera [wągᵋra], a man; and the termination era [-ᵋra] is very common to their nouns. The distance from this house across the country to Fort Winnebago was only twenty-five miles, whilst by (1:184) water I was informed it was about sixty, owing to the serpentine course of the channel. ...

(1:186) About 2 P. M., finding a commodious place, we landed, and as soon as the smoke of our fire arose, some wild-looking Winnebagoes came to us, all naked except their breech-clouts, and offered us wild plums and service berries. The first they called chāngera [xąjᵋra], the ch being a strong guttural; the other (Sorbus am.) they called chāshera [xāšᵋra], using the same guttural. I could get no information from these Indians: they seemed to be very poor; and as soon as I gave them some biscuit, they went away. My Canadians seemed to pity my simplicity in (1:187) asking so many questions; and finding that I was not a trader, were at a loss what to make of me. They literally cared for nothing but eating, and as to their knowledge of the Indian tongues, of which they boasted when I engaged them, it amounted to nothing at all. If I asked them the Indian name of the night-hawk, the answer was, “Ah, ce b——— là, c’est le mangeur de marengoins;” and a rail, “Ce n’est rien qu’un mangeur de folles,” meaning the wild rice. In this they copy the aborigines, who attend to nothing but the operations of nature, and have no artificial knowledge whatever. ...



(2:79) May 24 [1835] — In the course of the day I met with a very clever sort of person, called Messersmith, uniting in (2:80) himself the vocations of miner and farmer. He informed me that his settlement was not much out of the way to Tychōberah, or the Four Lakes, and invited me to call and see him on my way there. The account he gave me of the sufferings of the Indians from the small-pox was very affecting. He had found a chief dead in one of the purification lodges of the women: having become blind and helpless, his two squaws, fearing that he and they would perish from the infection, as the whole tribe had almost done, had abandoned him and endeavoured to reach another part of the country; but they also were found dead in the woods some time after, of the same disorder. ...


May 31. — (2:99) Having now fully made up my mind that I was in an Indian country as wild and unsettled as any I had yet visited, I hastened to the shore of the lake to espy what truly turned out to be the nakedness of the land, not a vestige of any human being or habitation being to be discerned. Rambling, however, along the lake-shore, picking up unios and (2:100) anadontas, I came upon a wigwam, inhabited by a squaw of the Winnebago tribe, and learnt from her that her mate was a French Canadian, and was fishing from a canoe a little lower down. Thither I hied, and having found him, engaged him, with the assistance of his squaw, to procure us a mess of sunfish. This being accomplished, I sent them to Mrs. Peck, and following my messenger to Madison City, requested her to prepare them for our breakfast. No time was lost in doing this, and we made a very hearty meal without putting her to the trouble of preparing us any coffee. Sallying out again, I walked across a tongue of land which separated this from the fourth lake, and soon reached its shore, from whence I had a view of an extremely beautiful sheet of water.

Advancing along, I found more signs of humanity: two men were cutting some poles down; the one a Canadian, the other a somewhat desperado-looking young American, with cropped hair. Near to the lake I observed other poles laid aslant upon a fallen tree, forming a sort of shed, and looking beneath, beheld a youthful Winnebago squaw lying down on a filthy blanket, thoroughly drenched with the rain of the preceding night. She was pursy and immensely fat, but had some good features. Near to her was a bower of similar character, containing an elderly squaw, with only one eye, as hideously wrinkled and frowsy as she could well be. Whilst I was standing near to these creatures, the men came up, and I soon saw that the young American was the cavaliero of the fat squaw, and that the (2:101) couch where she was lying was their bower of bliss. This fellow, having a canoe, agreed, for a dollar, to take me out upon the lake, and down a channel that connects the fourth with the third lake, and thence to Madison City. Accordingly, getting into a badly-constructed log canoe with his fat beauty, we paddled off.

After visiting various parts of the lake, and being more than once nearly upset from the awkward management of this youth, at whom the squaw laughed heartily, we entered the channel which connects the two lakes. It was about three miles and a half long and about forty feet in breadth, and we found the current so very strong at the entrance, that we shot down it with great rapidity, the shores on each side being, for the greatest part of the distance, a swamp very little raised above the level of the stream. At length we came to a piece of ground where a part of the band of Winnebagoes had their wigwams. Three horrible-looking frowsy she-savages were eviscerating fish, which they were curing by fire on some stakes. Their matted, coarse, black locks stood out at right angles, like the strands of a mop when it is twirled; scarce any thing was to be discerned in their lineaments that was human, and more loathsome and disgusting objects I never beheld. Every thing about the wigwams was in keeping with their revolting and odious persons; ordure and dead fish in the last stage of corruption made a perfect pestilence around, amidst which they moved in the most contented and philosophic manner. Alecto, (2:102) Megara, and Tisiphone, the far-famed furies, must have been beauties compared to these hags. I just stayed long enough to purchase form them a fine alligator gar (Esox osseus) for the sake of its skeleton, and then came away. Just as we were starting, one of these she-devils, wanting to visit the one-eyed squaw we had left behind, strode into our canoe, and a pretty inside passenger we had of her. The canoe itself was a wretched, tottering affair, imperfectly hollowed out of a small log, and wobbled about in such a doubtful manner that we had been several times near upsetting in crossing the lake. In this "dug-out — for that is the expressive name they go by — I had taken my seat on the bottom near the prow, with my face towards the stern, holding the sides with my hands; thus situated, this she-monster, clapping herself immediately in front of me, and seizing a paddle, of which she seemed a perfect mistress, most vigorously began to ply it. At first I was amused by her motions; but, alas! my satisfaction was of short duration, for warming with the exercise, every time she raised her brawny fins to propel the canoe, she at each stroke almost bobbed a particular part of her person into contact with my nose, when such lots of unknown odours came from her that I soon became wretchedly sick at my stomach, and was delighted when we arrived at dear little Mrs. Peck's paradise.

These Howchungerahs, or Winnebagoes, well deserve the name of “Puants,” which the first French adventurers gave them. Establishing themselves (2:103) where fish is plentiful, they never change the site of their wigwams, at the entrances to which they throw down the entrails and offal of their fish. They have thus become notorious amongst the other Indians for the filthy existence they lead. I learnt form our hostess that the young Adonis, in whose canoe I had been, had deserted from the American garrison of Fort Winnebago, had been apprehended, flogged, his head shaved, and then drummed out of the fort to choose his own mode of life. He had wandered about until he fell in with this band of Indians, and, rejected by his own race, had found refuge and a mistress amongst the savages.

As soon as we had taken a good reconnaissance of the country around, and packed up the unios, and other fresh-water shells I had collected, we bade adieu to the little inhabitant of Madison City and turned our faces to the prairie again. It has been part of my plan to strike across the country to a branch of Rock River, being desirous of examining the remains of an ancient city which I had heard a great deal about, and to which the name of Aztalan had been given. This had been described as of large dimensions, having archways and casements made with brick and mortar, as if a city had in ancient times existed here, built of cal y cant, like those which Cortez found when he advanced into Mexico. But having spoken with various Indians well acquainted with the country, who declared they had never seen or heard of any thing of the kind, or indeed any thing but some mounds near the supposed locality, and considering the small (2:104) success I had had in my researches after modern cities, I have up my intention of looking up this ancient one. It would have taken us at least two days to reach the mounds, and being without a guide in a region where there was neither road nor inhabitants betwixt the lakes and them, we inclined more willingly to the supposition that it was quite as likely that the whole affair was a poetical speculation got up to establish a modern Thebes upon the ruins of the older one for the purpose of selling the lots; an ingenious device, of which we soon had a curious and instructive instance. ...

Commentary. "George Featherstonhaugh" (1780-1866) — born in England, he lived for some time as an ex patriot in the United States, having arrived here in 1808. He was instrumental in the construction of the Albany and Schenectady Railroad in New York (begun in July of 1830). In 1834 he became the first U. S. government geologist, assigned to explore the country between the Missouri and Red rivers. The canoe voyage, excerpts of which appear here, was conducted in 1835, and his journals published in 1847. He returned to England with his family in 1838, but came back to the United States to negotiate the border now extant between this country and Canada. After this success, the British government appointed him consul to the departments of Calvados and Seine, France. When Louis Napoleon seized power in France, Featherstonhaugh used his position to effect the escape of the royal family, to the great acclaim of the British public.

"a flag of the United States which was flying, with a cross in the centre" — this is called an "Earthmaker flag." The centerpiece, a light green Greek cross (), is the standard symbol of Earthmaker, the Hočąk Great Spirit. It is inscribed on articles of sacrifice intended for the deity. The green cross is superimposed over the blue field of stars.

"Nacotah" — by which is meant Sioux, more appropriately, Dakota. The Assiniboine call themselves "Nakoda," the Yankton, "Nakota"; and the Teton Sioux, "Lakota." Hočąk is indeed a Siouan language, showing strong affinities to the Chiwere group (Ioway, Oto, Missouria).

"Que voulez-vous Monsieur? Ce ne sont que des pauvres diables de Puants" — "What do you expect, sir. These Puants are such poor devils."

"a mound" — it is of some interest that a mound was raised over him. This seems rather more like a Mississippian practice than what we are familiar with from more recent times.

"chāngera" — the standard and well attested word for plum is kąč. However, Featherstonhaugh is emphatic about the guttural character of the initial letter, so it is quite possible that kąč has a variant as xą̄č, which when the definite article is added, becomes xą̄jᵋra. The other word is unattested thus far. It suggests xāš, but this should yield the form xāžᵋra when the definite article is added. It may well be the case that there was confusion, and they were actually saying xą̄č, which was misunderstood as xāš, in which case they thought that he was still asking for the name used for plums.

"Ah, ce b[âtard ?] là, c’est le mangeur de marengoins" — "Ah, that b[astard ?] there, it's the one that eats sandflies (midges)."

"Ce n’est rien qu’un mangeur de folles" — "This is nothing but a rice eater."

"Tychōberah" — for Te Jōbᵋra, with the meaning given.

"the purification lodges" — this is the menstrual hut where menstruating women were sent some distance from the family lodge, since menstruation was thought to weaken the power of war weapons, and posed a general danger to males of a less clear sort. No male in his right mind would put himself in such an out building.

"unios" — a bivalve mollusk river mussel.

Unio pictorum   Anodonta anatina

"anadontas" — better known as the "duck mussel," a river mussel belonging to the same family as the unio.

"Madison City" — now simply called "Madison," the capital of the state of Wisconsin.

"Esox osseus" — now reclassified as Lepisosteus osseus. This is actually the Longnosed Gar, which the author has confused with a species of gar found only in the southern states.

Steven G. Johnson

"Aztalan" — long viewed as a Mississippian outpost in the north, it has recently been suggested that Aztalan was constructed by the ancestors of the Hočągara.1 Shown below is one of the mounds in Aztalan with a reconstructed palisade. See Carver's remarks on Hočąk palisades.


1 Nancy Oestreich Lurie and Patrick J. Jung, The Nicolet Corrigenda. New France Revisited. (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2009) 109-112.


George William Featherstonhaug, A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay Sotor. 2 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1847).