The Shrewd Winnebagoes of Dixon’s Crossing

by Judge Joseph Gillespie

“Hon. J. Gillespie, of Edwardsville, has furnished us with the following interesting sketch of his experience in crossing Rock River at an early day.”

(50a) “It was about the 5th day of March, 1827, that thirteen of us who had met together at different places and formed a traveling company for the lead mines, reached the banks of Rock River at the point, where, according to my recollection, Dixon now stands. It was naked prairie on the south side, but there was excellent hickory timber on the opposite side of the river. A band of Winnebagoes were encamped on the south side. It became necessary for a portion of our party to cross the river and prepare our encampment, and make fires in advance of the rest, and a Mr. Reed, my brother and myself were selected for that purpose. We had previously bargained with the Indians for the use of their canoes to ferry us and our wagon over and had given a large amount of bacon and corn meal in payment. The Indians, without any reluctance, took Reed, my brother and myself across the river with our oxen, and as soon as we were separated from our companions, they started down the river with their canoes. This operation was likely to be attended with much inconvenience, and some suffering and exposure to us who had crossed the river and were without provisions or bed-clothes. Our friends followed down after the Indians, who pretended that they understood the contract on their part to have been fulfilled. We knew that they were endeavoring to fleece us. It was found impossible to bring them to agree to our understanding of the bargain, and nothing was left for our side but to make the best terms we could. They would not agree on any conditions we could propose, to ferry our wagon over, pretending to believe that it would sink their canoes. There was in our company a Negro named Frank, from Kaskaskia, who had (50b) joined us when the company consisted of but four persons — old Mr. Reed, his son, my brother and myself; the rest of the company we picked up afterwards. We rather took care of Frank, and protected him when attempts were made to impose upon him, for which he was very grateful. Frank was in great distress when he found that three of his friends were separated from the company, and were without food or bed-clothes. He had a black overcoat, the body of which was about of the texture of an old sleazy blanket, but the capes were really of first rate material, and were fastened to the body with hooks and eyes. One of the Indians took a great liking to Frank's coat, and a bargain was struck on about these terms: Frank was to give the Indian his coat and they were to allow him to bring us over bed clothing and food, and also to ferry the wagon over the next morning, upon terms to be agreed on. Frank rolled up an auger in the blanket to enable us to build a raft in case it should become necessary, but the Indians were too sharp for that. They unrolled the blanket and contended that taking over an auger was not in the bargain, and so Frank came over without it. When they arrived, a great controversy arose between him and the Indians. Frank contended that he was to give only his coat, and they contended that he was to give the cape also. We had by this time become so incensed at the Indians that we felt very little like obeying the scriptural requirement — ‘If any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.’ So we decided in Frank's favor, and he kept his capes. The Indians were very indignant at Frank's strict construction, and we might have had trouble with them; but that night it turned intensely cold, and by the next morning the Indians were as torpid as snakes in winter. They could not get out of their wigwams, and our men helped themselves to the canoes, and everything was pushed across early in the day. I believe the Indians would scarcely have aroused themselves if they had (51a) known that we were about massacreing them, I am satisfied that Indians suffer more from cold weather (clothed as they are) than white men. We experienced very little inconvenience from the cold.

Lest what I have stated might lead persons to believe that all the Indians were thus knavishly inclined, I would remark that in crossing the Winnebago swamps some ten or fifteen miles south of Rock River, we had great difficulty, and would have had more but for some Winnebago Indians who were encamped by the swamps, and who were exceedingly kind and generous to us, and rendered us every assistance in their power.

According to my recollection, there was a house about twelve miles northwest of Fort Clark, (now Peoria,) at which a man named Thomas Cox was lying very sick. We all called to see him although not one of us was acquainted with him; but such was the custom (to some extent) in those days. This house was the last we saw until we reached Vinegar Hill in the mines. The intervening country was one untrodden solitude. In most places the country was, even in that season of the year, of surpassing loveliness. Some of the groves reminded me of the description I have read of the fabled Elysium or of Mohammed's Paradise (save the Houris.) The only indications we found that human beings had been there before us, were where the Indians had cut off the branches of trees in which the honey-bees had made their hives. The groves seemed to have been almost alive with them, judging from the number of trees from which they had been dislodged. The Indians would not cut down the trees, but would climb up and cut off the limb which contained the honey or cut into the side of the tree where the hive was in the trunk. I have observed that for a few years after the honey-bee make its first appearance, it increases with wonderful rapidity, and after some ten or fifteen years begins to decline. I am speaking now of the wild bees. They had been but for a few years in (51b) the country between the Illinois and Rock rivers when I passed through. They had not arrived in the mining country until about 1826, or perhaps the spring of 1827. It is a fact perhaps not generally known that the honey-bee is just in advance of the white population in the settlement of a new country, and its first appearance is a cause of great anxiety to the Indians.”1

In a note accompanying the above sketch Judge Gillespie says, “In regard to the Winnebago Indians I would remark that from all I could learn they were regarded by the other tribes in this vicinity as intruders; that their language was entirely different from the surrounding Indians, and could not be acquired by them; that about the time I have spoken of, they were making their way rather eastwardly, until they were met by the white population coming West. Carver (q.v.), an Englishman, who traveled through this country just before the era of our Independence, found them about Prairie du Chien, where they were governed by a Queen. They had a tradition at that time that they had come from west of the Rocky Mountains; that they had attacked a Spanish cavalcade, or train, loaded with white metal or silver, and killed the attendants, and were consequently driven off by the Spaniards. I mention these circumstances merely from memory, not having seen Carver's Travels since I was I a boy, and so I may be somewhat mistaken as to what he says.”

Commentary."Dixon" — for Dixon's ferry, see the Commentary (under "Ogee"), and the Map (located on the central road crossing Rock River) at Atwater's journal.

"Houris" — in Islam, the ḥūrīyah are the beautiful female companions awaiting those who enter paradise.2

Links: Atwater, Tour to Prairie du Chien.

Stories: mentioning bees: Trickster and the Honey, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark; occurring in Illinois: The Waterspirit of Rock River, Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, Jarrot's Aborted Raid, Jarrot and His Friends Saved from Starvation, Xųnųnį́ka, First Contact (v. 2), How Jarrot Got His Name, Witches; set at Rock River: The Waterspirit of Rock River, Jerrot's Temperance Pledge — A Poem, Xųnųnį́ka, Witches.

Themes: some Hocąks trick white people: The Tavern Visit.


1 Henry Rush Boss, Sketches of the History of Ogle County, Ill., and the Early Settlement of the Northwest (Polo, Illinois: Henry R. Boss, 1859) 50-51.

2 Quran, suras 9, 16, 30, 40, 44, 52, 55.