Jarrot and His Friends Saved from Starvation

by Nehemiah Matson

Nehemiah Matson

(308) The winter of 1830-31 was very cold; snow fell about three feet deep, and drifted badly on the prairies. The weather was so excessively cold that calves, pigs, and chickens, in a number of instance, froze to death. As the settlers were unprepared for such a severe winter, much suffering was the consequence. Part of the time the snow was so deep, and the weather so cold, that the Indians could not hunt, causing much suffering among them on account of scarcity of food; some of them were obliged to kill their dogs for subsistence, and many of their ponies died from starvation.

During the snow and cold weather, a party of Winnebago Indians, from Rock river, were encamped in (309) West Bureau timber, near the residence of John M. Gay, Jerro, their chief, having made Gay's acquaintance the year before, while he was engaged at Ogee's ferry (now Dixon). The Indians finding no game in West Bureau timber, went over to Main Bureau to hunt, but met with no better success. The hunters were absent three days, wading through the deep snow in search of game, while their squaws and pappooses were a part of the time without food, and no means of obtaining any until their return. Many times during the second and third days, the squaws were seen to go out to the edge of the prairie to look for the returning hunters, and then with sorrowful hearts go back to their little ones, who were crying for food. It was after dark, of the third day, when the hunters returned to camp, with their feet badly frozen, and nearly starved, as they had killed no game during their absence.

Jerro, their chief, went to Gay's cabin, and told him of their suffering condition, saying that they would all perish unless assisted. Mr. Gay, although short of provisions himself, opened his potato hole and divided with them his scanty supply of potatoes and corn. For many days these Indians were kept from starvation, by contributions from Gay, Henry and Ezekiel Thomas. As soon as the weather moderated, Jerro and his band of followers left for their own country, saying to their benefactors that they should never again come to Bureau to hunt.1

John McKee Gay, 1841

Commentary. "John M. Gay" — this is John McKee Gay (1797-1877). His father John Gay was a prosperous rancher in Virginia, who provided his son with an education. The younger Gay studied law at William and Mary, but, as his daughter Nancy tells us, "[He] did not follow his profession, because he said he could not take the side he did not believe was right. He was a tall, gentlemanly person, and could take his place anywhere with credit to himself." While briefly in Urbana, Illinois, he married Sarah Thomas, a cousin of the Henry Thomas mentioned below. In 1832 he moved to what was to become Bureau County, Illinois, where he was Justice of the Peace. He and his family had to flee during the Black Hawk War, but returned in the spring. In the town of Princeton, in addition to his farm, he build the first frame structure building there, and opened a dry goods store as well as running the post office. In the early 1840's, the Gays moved to Potosi in southwestern Wisconsin. In the late 1850s, when his brother James died, he took over his brother's grist mill operation in Garnavillo, Iowa. The town of Gays Mill is named for his family.2

"Jerro" — the proper form of his name is Jarrot, having acquired this nickname in an unusual way (see "Jarrot Gets His Name."). The name Jarrot would be transliterated in Hocąk as Žaro[ga]. Whitney's note on Jarrot sums up much of what is known about him:

Jarrot was a Winnebago Indian, perhaps a minor chief, whose village was on the Rock River north of Dixon (Gratiot Journal, April 22, 23, 1832). His Indian name was Owanico, but he was usually called Jarrot or one of its variants — Jahro, Jarot, Jarro, Jerro, Sharro, Zharro. He was given this name for preventing the murder of trader Nicholas Jarrot by a group of unfriendly Indians at a camp near Prairie du Chien just before the outbreak of the War of 1812. The Winnebago Jarrot signed the 1829 treaty.3

Jarro's Hocąk name, elsewhere given as Owanico, is probably Howánika, "He Seizes," from howáni, "to take." 

The Monument to Henry Thomas  

"Henry and Ezekiel Thomas" — Henry Thomas may have been the first white settler in Bureau County, having arrived in 1828, after having scouted out a stage route from Peoria to Galena. His house in Bureau County was known as a "stage stand," "where man and beast were entertained with the best the country could then afford. ... [He] was a man who was honest, peaceable, quiet, and was never in debt or had lawsuits ..." When he first moved there, his nearest neighbor was 35 miles away. His daughter Mary, born 15 January 1830, was likely the first white person born in that county. In 1830, Ezekiel Thomas, Henry's cousin and the brother of Sarah Gay, settled nearby. In 1831, Henry Thomas became the first Postmaster of Bureau County, with a salary of around 25¢ a year.4 During the Black Hawk War of 1832, a fort was erected on Henry Thomas' property and appropriately named "Fort Thomas." The monument to Henry Thomas shown above reads, "Henry Thomas family, first permanent white settlers in Bureau county located here May 5, 1828. Col. Zachary Taylor, later president of the United States and Jefferson Davis lodged here en route to Galena on Peoria-Galena state road at the beginning of the Black Hawk war. Site of Ft. Thomas, also Bureau, first post office in the county."5

Links: ...

Stories: about Chief Jarrot: Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, How Jarrot Got His Name; about famous Hocąk warriors and warleaders: How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, The Masaxe War (Hogimasąga), Wazųka, Great Walker's Warpath (Great Walker), Great Walker's Medicine (Great Walker, Smoke Walker, Dog Head, Small Snake), Šųgepaga (Dog Head), The Warbundle Maker (Dog Head), Black Otter's Warpath (Dog Head, Black Otter), The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara (Smoke Walker, Dog Head, Small Snake), Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath (Big Thunder, Cap’ósgaga), The Osage Massacre (Big Thunder, Cap’ósgaga), The Fox-Hocąk War (Cap’ósgaga), The Origin of Big Canoe's Name, White Thunder's Warpath, Four Legs, The Man who Fought against Forty (Mącosepka), Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, The Hills of La Crosse (Yellow Thunder), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Fighting Retreat, Mitchell Red Cloud, jr. Wins the Medal of Honor (Mitchell Red Cloud, jr.), How Jarrot Got His Name, Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, They Owe a Bullet (Pawnee Shooter); occurring in Illinois: The Waterspirit of Rock River, Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, The Shrewd Winnebagoes of Dixon’s Crossing, Xųnųnį́ka, First Contact (v. 2), How Jarrot Got His Name, Witches.

Themes: starvation: The Brown Squirrel, White Wolf, The Red Man, The Old Man and His Four Dogs, A Man and His Three Dogs, Sun and the Big Eater, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Kaǧiga and Lone Man, The Shaggy Man, The Bungling Host, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head.


1 Nehemiah Matson, Reminiscences of Bureau County (Princeton, IL: Republican Book and Job Office, 1872) 308-309.

2 John Barrett Robb, "John Barrett Robb, Family Historian > The Surname GAY > My GAY Ancestors." Harriet Anna (Gay,) Robb, “Memories” (Minneapolis: ca. 1930). [Nancy (Gay) Barker] & Estella Barker Ordway, “Genealogy of the Gay Family” (Angels Camp, CA: no date) typescript? George B. Harrington, Past and Present of Bureau County, Illinois (Chicago: The Pioneer Publishing Co., 1906), 107, 103, 127. Matson, Reminiscences of Bureau County, 34, 89, 203.

3 The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832: Vol. II, Letters and Papers; Part I, April 30, 1831-June 23, 1832. Ed. Ellen M. Whitney (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1973) 60-61 note. Whitney also cites the following: William D. Barge, Early Lee County, Being Some Chapters in the History of the Early Days in Lee County, Illinois (Chicago: Barnard and Miller, Printers, 1918) 73, 74, 76-77; History of Lee County, Dr. Cochran (Chicago: H. H. Hill, 1881) 154; Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County (Dixon, IL: Inez A. Kennedy, 1893) 262-267; Nehemiah Matson, Memories of Shaubena. Incidents Relating to the Early Settlement of the West (Chicago: D. B. Cook and Co., 1878) 235-237; Nehemiah Matson, Reminiscences of Bureau County (Princeton, IL: Republican Book and Job Office, 1872) 308-9; Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Vol. II, Treaties. Compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904) 302.

4 Henry C. Bradsby, History of Bureau County, Illinois (Chicago: World Pub. Co., 1885) 83-84, 109, 549.

5 Doris Parr Leonard, A Pioneer Tour of Bureau County, Illinois (Princeton, IL: Bureau County Republican, 1954) 23-24.