Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon

by Captain Don Saunders

[9] [Chief Yellow Thunder (1774-1874)] as a young man roamed through the beautiful country lying between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay; tall and lithe, wise and observant; skilled with spear ad bow. He fought with valor in the war of 1812, on the side of the British but returning home after the British campaign had failed he and his people remained peaceful for many years. He was wedded to an Algonquin girl whose father was the chief of a village near Portage. Because of his courage and wisdom, he was promoted to War Chief by his people who looked to him for direction and council. The whites were covetous of the lands occupied by the Winnebagoes and in 1837 he was invited to Washington to visit the president. Two young chieftains, the Elder Dandy and War Eagle accompanied him. When the subject of a treaty came up Yellow Thunder and his men declared that they had no authority to sign treaties. Their arguments were of no avail; meant very little to the politicians who are determined to wrest the lands away from the Indians. They finally signed, giving away hundreds of thousands of acres for some land in Iowa. They were told that they had eight years in which to move but the treaty stipulated eight months. The Indians could not read and the portly pale face politicians must have had many a good chuckle over their fat cigars and heartwarming bourbon.

In 1840, troops arrived in Portage. The head men of the villages were invited to Portage by the military leaders who promised them many provisions. Arriving in Portage they were thrown into the guardhouse and fastened to ball and chain. They were released on their word that they would bring their bands to Portage within three days. Then followed a scene that for pathos matched the exiling of the Arcadians as portrayed by Longfellow in his "Evangeline." Put into boats, sent down the river, away from everything that had been dear to them; away to strange lands with strange people, far, far away, ever to return.

Yellow Thunder did return, walked back from Iowa and arrived in his home territory long before the troops. The journey back, undertaken with his wife and a few of his band, was a matter of 500 miles. Sympathetic neighbors (he was a devout [10] Catholic) advised him to apply for a 40-acre homestead and his claim was honored at Mineral Point. He settled o the west bank of the Wisconsin about 5 miles below the Dells. Eulogized by the members of the Sauk County Historical Society, where the guide learned much from their archives, we hear one of them saying —

There he lived for over 30 years with his faithful family, his death occurring in February 1874. Yellow Thunder lived to see his land pass from barbarian to civilization; his own race disappear and another take its place: "the dug-out gave way to floating palaces, Indian trails become railways burdened with commerce," and proud cities where once he saw his own villages.1

During the course of Yellow Thunder's residence on his 40-acres he had several occasions to loan money to needy neighbors and the loans were always made with gold pieces. It was soon rumored by envious chieftains that the old Chief had accepted a huge bribe to sign the Washington treaty and he had made a deal whereby he could return from Iowa without any opposition. Anyone knowing Yellow Thunder's character would scoff at the gossip but rumors do get around and after his death a diligent search was made for his hidden treasure. The guide had heard the tale when working on the Upper Dells. It had been told to him by young Albert Yellow Thunder, a great-grandson. The youth had confided that the Chief's gold was buried in the Canyon. The two friends made frequent trips to Lost Canyon and it seemed that others had the same belief for there were many sand banks and soft sandstone patches that showed signs of having been disturbed. The guide found no gold but he did find a war-club that he prized. It was a vicious weapon with a head that resembled a black sparrow hawk. A large arrowhead protruded out to form a wicked beak. Young Albert's dad looked at it one day and astounded the guide by telling him that it was Black Hawk's favorite weapon. Albert's father was a prominent member of the Medicine Dance Lodge and well versed in the lore of his people and the area. He said that the "Great Rebel" had sought council with the Winnebagoes in 1830 — about the time that he was having trouble with white poachers on his Rock river lands — and he was trying to persuade the old Yellow Thunder to join the Sauk and Fox [11] leaders in their planned uprising against the encroaching settlers. The pow wow had taken place in the "Place of Buried Canoes" and many of the Winnebago warriors were sympathetic to the Sauk's cause but the council broke up in disorder when it was found that Black Hawk's sacred war bundle was missing. The famous War Chief had given a wonderful oration and when he attempted to bring forth his war bundle from his pony's saddle bag, to add emphasis to his confidence in the military adventure, he was shocked to learn that it had been stolen. The Winnebagoes were shocked too, for they not only knew that Black Hawk was doomed to defeat and an inglorious end — they also knew that someone in their own tribe had committed the unforgivable sin. Yellow Thunder's own daughter came under suspicion. It was known that she had a white soldier lover at Portage and it was obvious that she did not want her people to go to war against the Americans. The war-club must have been left in the Canyon during Black Hawk's second trip, undoubtedly after his defeat at Bad Axe river. It was an historical fact that the hunted leader had been captured in the Dells by two Winnebagoes, Chaetar and the one-eyed Decorah and turned over to General Street at Prairie du Chien.2

Yellow Thunder   Yellow Thunder, Chief of the Tribe, prior to 1874

Commentary."Yellow Thunder"in Hočąk, Wakąjaziga, which means "Yellow Thunderbird," a clan name of the Thunderbird Clan.

Portage, Wisconsin

"Portage" now the city of Portage, Wisconsin. To the Hočągara it was Wawá’ą, essentially of the same meaning. (Kinzie, Jipson, Miner) With respect to Europeans, the place was first used as a portage by the explorers Marquette and Joliet on June 14, 1673. To the French, it became known simply as le portage. A trading post was set up in 1792, after which a thriving business was conducted porting boats of any size over the mud flats using teams of oxen. In 1824, the American Fur Company hired the Hočąk translator, Pierre Pauquette, who was fluent in Hočąk, French, and English, to run its operations there. On the Fox River side of the portage, the government built Fort Winnebago in 1828.3

"Elder Dandy"

George Catlin
Old Decorah and His Family

"War Eagle" — more properly, "White Eagle" [Čaxšépsgaga], more commonly known as "Old Decorah." He fought on the British side during the War of 1812.10 He was present at the Battle of the Thames when Tecumseh was killed.11 It was he who brought the "Winnebago War" to a close by handing over Red Bird and his associates to General Atkinson, after he himself had been held hostage at Prairie du Chien.12 His village was originally located Puckaway Lake, but in 1793 he moved about two miles above Portage, then in 1816 he moved another 6 miles up the river. In 1834, his village was located about eight miles below the Portage.13 When he died at Peten well, April 20, 1836, at about 90 years of age, his village was the largest, containing over 100 lodges.14

U. S. A. Coin Book
Twenty Dollar Gold Piece, 1878

"gold pieces" — this is the Twenty Dollar Gold Piece, the 1876 dollar is now (2015) estimated to be worth about $228 dollars, so the gold piece, in terms of purchasing power, would now be $4,560.

"Albert Yellow Thunder" — an important informant for Don Saunders, and is pictured in more than one of his books.

    Google Topozone
Lost Canyon   Map Showing Lost Canyon

"Lost Canyon" — this is located south of Lake Denton about 2.5 miles south of Wisconsin Dells, coordinates 43.5943018°N, -89.7807249°W.

NAA 1915
A Hočąk Spiked Warclub

"warclub" — this is a club of roughly the sort shown above.

Black Hawk   The Surrender of Black Hawk   The Life Cast of Black Hawk

"Black Hawk"Mahkatēwi-meši-kēhkēhkwa ("Big Black Hawk") was a Sauk Warleader and chief of the British Band, who gave his name to the Black Hawk War of 1832. He was born in 1767 on Rock Island in the village of Sakenuk, the son of a prominent medicine man, Pyesa. His father took him on a raid against the Osage when he was 15 years old. There he won his first war honor, killing and scalping an enemy. At age 19, he led a large, successful raid of 200 warriors against the Osage. He inherited his father's Medicine Bundle when Pyesa was KIA in a war against the Cherokee. His difficulties with the white Americans began when he opposed the cession of land made in the 1804 treaty of St. Louis. When war with the American state broke out in 1812, Black Hawk allied himself with the Crown. The British gave him the rank of Brigadier General and command over the Indian allies headquartered at Green Bay. Black Hawk's warriors fought in numerous engagements, but in 1816 were obliged to sign a peace treaty with the U. S. recognizing the stipulations of the Treaty of 1804. In 1828, Sauk representatives consented to remove their tribe west of the Mississippi, but Black Hawk with many followers, refused to recognize this treaty's legitimacy. In 1830 and 1831, he made non-military incursions east of the Mississippi without reoccupying the land. In April, 1832, he moved his British Band of 1500 people back into Illinois, but hoped for allies did not materialize, and he began a withdrawal. His retreat was intercepted by the Illinois Militia at Old Man's Creek, and the Battle of Stillman's Run ensued, in which Black Hawk's forces routed the militia. The Sauk then moved north into what is now Wisconsin, headed for the village of White Cloud, the Winnebago Prophet. Only a few of the Hočągara had joined his force, which was made up of Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and later some Potawatomies. In a series of battles in Wisconsin, Black Hawk's force suffered serious attrition, culminating in the massacre at Bad Axe. At Prairie du Chien on August 27, 1832, Black Hawk surrendered to Gen. Joseph Street. Black Hawk, along with less than a dozen other leaders, were imprisoned for eight months at Jefferson Barracks. President Jackson, wishing to impress upon these leaders the true strength of white America, sent them on a tour through the east to Washington, where he met them in person. They proved to be quite an attraction in all the cities through which they passed. From Washington they were sent to prison at Fortress Monroe in Norfolk, Virginia, for six months. After their imprisonment, they were sent on a tour back to the west, where they received a positive reception in the eastern cities, but often a negative response in those places closer to the action of the war. In 1833, Black Hawk's autobiography was published. Black Hawk returned to live with his people in Iowa where he died on October 3, 1838.15

"Place of Buried Canoes" — this would be Wajᵋxeja in Hočąk.

The Battle of Bad Axe

"Bad Axe" this is the Battle of Bad Axe, a massacre that ended the Black Hawk War. After their defeat at Wisconsin Heights, July 22, 1832, the Sauks retreated west intending to cross back over the Mississippi. At this point, their Potawatomi and Hočąk allies had slipped away, and starvation had taken a heavy toll among the remainder. On August 1, they reached the Mississippi River with the Army in hot pursuit. During the day, an action of a couple of hours ensued, with significant casualties among the Sauk. Black Hawk decided that rather than crossing the Mississippi under the guns of the U. S. Army, that it was more prudent to flee north. However, a great many of the band refused to follow him further. Most of the force and the civilians trying to escape, were trapped against the river. The gunboat Warrior entered the fray as most of the Sauks attempted to cross the Mississippi. The result was a massacre. Those who did not drown were shot. The fate of those who succeeded in crossing the river was not much better, as the pursuing Dakota allies of the government brought back 68 scalps and 22 prisoners. Black Hawk himself, accompanied by a small band of survivors, escaped north, but on 27 August 1832, under the urging of the Hočągara, he surrendered at Prairie du Chien. The 120 prisoners held by Gen. Scott were released before the end of August.16

J. O. Lewis
Wajᵋxetega, Big Canoe, 1825

"One-Eyed Decora"the third son of "Old Decorah." He is also known by the name "Big Canoe." He distinguished himself in action against the British, for which see, "The Origin of Big Canoe's Name."

   Gen. Joseph Street

"General Street" — General Joseph Montfort Street (October 18, 1782 – May 5, 1840), was a frontiersman in the old Northwest Territory, and a friend of Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor. After a stormy career as a newspaper owner in Kentucky, he established himself in Shawneetown, Illinois, in 1812. He was made general of the local militia. In 1827 he became the Indian agent to the Hočągara. He attempted to keep white settlers out of the lands reserved for the tribe, but it proved a hopeless task, so he came to believe that Indian removal was the only answer. In 1832, he was able to keep most of the Hočągara neutral in the Black Hawk War. In 1834, the Fox and Sauk were added as his charges. This diffusion of his labors caused the abortion of his school for the Hočągara at Prairie du Chien, which closed the year that he died.17

Prairie du Chien in 1830 by Henry Lewis

"Prairie du Chien" — its French name means, "Prairie of the Dog," and denotes a plain about 9 miles north of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. On an elevation near the Turkey River, the Fox tribe had a large village at the base of which the Dog Band resided. It is from this Dog Band that the whole prairie took its name. The site of the present town was "the principal trading post on the Mississippi; the depot of the fur traders; the ancient meeting-place of the Indians tribes."18 The area was gradually settled by French farmers, and once it fell under the sovereignty of the British Crown, many new British settlers as well. During the War of 1812,

The peculiar position which Prairie du Chien occupied in the Indian country at once pointed it out as a most important place — of the value of which both the hostile Powers were fully cognizant — from the fact that whichever army took possession of it could command that immense territory inhabited by the warlike tribes of the West ... which lay along the west frontier of the United States ...19

The expedition of Zebulon Pike passed through the area and he noted the strategic character of this site and recommended to the War Department that they build a fort there, which was done in 1816 with the erection of Ft. Crawford. It was the frequent site of Indian gatherings for treaties with the United States government, and by 1823, Prairie du Chien was a major steamboat port, although in just a couple of decades, it was eclipsed by Minneapolis.20

Links: -.

Stories: mentioning Yellow Thunder: The Hills of La Crosse; mentioning Big Canoe (One-Eyed Decorah): The Origin of Big Canoe's Name; about famous Hočąk 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), The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara (Smoke Walker, Dog Head, Small Snake), Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath (Big Thunder, Čap’ósgaga), The Osage Massacre (Big Thunder, Čap’ósgaga), The Fox-Hočąk War (Čap’ósgaga), The Origin of Big Canoe's Name, White Thunder's Warpath, Four Legs, The Man who Fought against Forty (Mąčosepka), 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, Jarrot and His Friends Saved from Starvation, They Owe a Bullet (Pawnee Shooter); mentioning Warbundles: Waruǧápara (Thunderbird), The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons (Thunderbird), Redhorn's Sons (Thunderbird), The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty (Thunderbird), The Warbundle of the Eight Generations (Thunderbird), Wanihéga Becomes a Sak’į (Thunderbird), Šųgepaga (Eagle), The Warbundle Maker (Eagle), The Masaxe War (Eagle?), The Blessing of a Bear Clansman (Bear), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo), Paint Medicine Origin Myth (Hit’énųk’e Paint), The Blessing of Kerexųsaka (Sauk), Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store (Potawatomi), A Man's Revenge (enemy); mentioning the Sauk (Sac, Sagi): The First Fox and Sauk War, Mijistéga and the Sauks, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I (v. 2), Annihilation of the Hočągara II, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Little Priest's Game, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e (St. Peet ...), A Peyote Story, Introduction; mentioning the Big Knives (white Americans): The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara, Little Priest's Game, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, A Prophecy, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Cosmic Ages of the Hočągara, Turtle and the Merchant, The Hočągara Migrate South, Neenah, Run for Your Life, The Glory of the Morning, First Contact, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistéga’s Magic, Mighty Thunder; set in the Wisconsin Dells: The Twin Sisters, White Flower, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Sunset Point, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Red Cloud's Death; mentioning Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (Niučjeja): The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, How Jarrot Got His Name, Oto Origins, Run for Your Life, Gottschall: Debate and Discussion.

Themes: -.


1 Harry Ellsworth Cole (1861-1928), A Standard History of Sauk County, Wisconsin (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1918) 179. What is quoted is an address given by James Hoyt Hill, Sr. (1882-1958) on the occasion of the dedication of a memorial to Yellow Thunder and his wife and their new burial site on August 27, 1909. Most of Don Saunder's account Yellow Thunder is either a direct quote from his address or a close summary or paraphrase.
2 Don Saunders, Temple Bells in the Pagan Dells. Historical . . . Mythical and Pictorial Review of the Beautiful Wisconsin Dells (Kilbourn: Wisconsin Dells Events, 1959) 9-11.
3 from the official City of Portage website (> History), viewed 1/2/18.
4 For Four Legs and his village, see See 3, Wisconsin Historical Collections, 286; 5, W. H. C., 96; 10, W. H. C., 74; 11, W. H. C., 395; 2, The Wisconsin Archeologist, 52; and 1906, Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
5 11, W. H. C., 395.
6 12, W. H. C., 187-188.
7 Juliette Augusta McGill Kinzie, Wau-Bun, The "Early Day" in the North-west (Chicago & New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1873 [1856]) 62 [53].
8 Kinzie, Wau-Bun, 86 [71].
9 2, Wisconsin Historical Collections, 176; 5, W. H. C., 96; 14, W. H. C., 87; Publius V. Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," Wisconsin Archeologist, 6, #3 (July, 1907) 78-162 [142-144].
10 Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," 103, 138.
11 Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," 139.
12 2, W. H. C., 167; 13, W. H. C., 449; 5, W. H. C., 153; Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," 109.
13  3, W. H. C., 288-89; 2, W. H. C., 178; 7, W. H. C., 375.
14 7, W. H. C., 355-56.
15 Black Hawk, Autobiography of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, ed. John Barton Patterson (St. Louis: Continental Printing Co., 1882). William R. Smith, The History of Wisconsin, In Three Parts, Historical, Documentary and Descriptive, Part I, Vol. I (Madison: Beriah Brown, 1854) 221-406.
16 James Lewis, The Black Hawk War of 1832 (Illinois Humanities Council, 2000).
17 Reuben Gold Thwaites, Notes to Wau-Bun, Caxton Club Edition (1901), 404 nt. 49
18 Alfred Edward Bulger, "Events at Prairie du Chien Previous to American Occupation, 1814," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 13 (1895): 1-9 [1-2].
19 Bulger, "Events at Prairie du Chien Previous to American Occupation, 1814," 2.
20 Mary Elise Antoine, Prairie Du Chien (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011) 7. .