Big Eagle Cave Mystery
Nowhere along the magnificent beauty of its course does the Wisconsin river take on an atmosphere so mysterious, so legendary, so highly interesting as it does where its broad curves swing in to touch the feet of the northern bluffs near the hamlet of Gotham in Richland county. It is at that point, for instance, that the lost town of Richland City once prospered on the steamboat traffic of the river, eventually to be swept into complete oblivion by "Ol' Man River" along with the very ground under its houses. And it is there that the fabric of mystery has been woven by Indian legend, and more lately enacted by white men. There, even today, baffling mysteries confront the curious adventurer. They concern the numerous caves of the region round about Gotham. Some of these are small, some of them hundreds of feet long with ceilings far above one's head, some, like Big Eagle cave, are filled with beautiful crystalline deposits, containing stalactites and stalagmites in abundance. One need not go to Kentucky to "go caving."
At Gotham the Pine river flows down from the north and enters the Wisconsin, babbling as it does so, of the curious natural rock bridge under which it was privileged to flow well up in Richland County. At the junction of these two rivers there was once a populous village of Winnebago Indians, the beginning of which dated back to an unknown time before the coming of the whites, probably many centuries.
(1) In the far dim past of this tribe, so long ago that the exact time has long since been lost to memory, three adolescent Indian boys left this village one day to hunt deer in the hills. So the legend begins. When they had failed to return for two days, Great Eagle [Čaxcepxetega], the chief of the tribe, sent a band of warriors to follow their trail, fearing that the boys might have been captured by hostile Sacs. The trail led to the head of a deep ravine and ended at the mouth of a cave, into which the trail entered but from which it failed to emerge. Two or three of the braves made rude torches and entered the yawning black cavern, leaving the others without. When they had failed to return for a long time, and the evening sun was fast sinking, the braves outside impatiently called down into the cave for their return. No answer came forth. And as the callers strained to listen, they were perplexed and amazed to hear, very faintly, as though it came from the ends of the earth, the "Death Song of an Indian." It was weirdly beautiful, far beyond anything they had ever heard.
So incongruous a thing startled them (2) and very soon, as it continued, their perplexity grew into uneasiness. What could it mean? Of the remaining eight, six grasped their weapons and darted into the cave. They, too, did not return. "Very soon," they had said. But the sun was all but gone in the west and to the straining ears of the waiting pair came only the vaguely faint and strangely magnificent "Song of the Indian's Death." Their uneasiness increased and by the time the evening sent its shadows creeping into the ravine, it had ripened into an unearthly fear, until back they hurried to the camp of Great Eagle, an ever increasing terror whipping their breasts.
The next day Great Eagle, himself led 100 braves to the cave. The main body stayed without while 30 warriors and five torch bearers cautiously slid into the great black hole. Very soon their lights had disappeared, as did all sound of them, and to the calls of those without came answering echoes and the weirdly beautiful, plaintive notes of the "Song of Death."
In desperation Great Eagle formed his men in a human chain, hand clutching hand. The first an led them courageously into the cavern. He had gone but a short distance when the second man suddenly realized that his hand, which but a moment before had held that of the leader, was clutching nothing! Quickly he reached forward, but as quickly the hand of the third man lost the hand of the second. There had not been as sound of a fall or of any violence., in terror the human chain drew back out of the cave. Great Eagle held a council.
Perhaps what a hand could not hold a tout rope could, Great Eagle reasoned, as he tied the end of a stout rope most securely around the waist of a volunteer. He was to jerk the rope as he proceeded in, and to be pulled out by the men on the outside as soon as his jerking ceased. In he went. He had not gone far when his jerks on the rope ceased. As quickly as lightning the men hauled in the rope. But there came out of the cave only an empty loop, tied just as it had been when put around the man. The man had vanished. There was not a mark on the rope. A ghostly terror settled upon the people in the ravine, and in the stark silence of their fear they heard again the strains of the "Song of Death."
Great Eagle forbade anyone going near the cave, an edict needing no enforcing, except for the foolhardy few led by too curious a spirit who dared to investigate, never to return.
Now after many moons there came one day from out of the forest a man the like of whom had never been seen before. His skin was pale and soft, his hair white and silken, and a great white beard reached to his waist. He was utterly blind and understood not the tongue of the Winnebago nor was he understood by them. He was led by an Indian boy of 10 summers, with a longing, faraway look in his eyes too old for his years. This Indian boy looked identically like one of those who had first gone into the cave even the mother claiming him for her own, but the boy maintained he came from a tribe far to the northwest. This boy acted also as the old man's interpreter.
It was soon evident that the strange man with the long beard was a great healer with powers far beyond those of any medicine man of the tribe. In a comparatively short time, because of his unusual skill, power and kindness, he was called "The Great Healer" by the Winnebagoes, and revered by everyone.
One day Great Eagle told the Great Healer, through the boy, his interpreter, of the cave of the Indian "Song of Death."
"Lead me to this cave," said the blind healer.
And Great Eagle led him to the ravine, all the people following and forming a great semi-circle about the mouth of the cave. Not a sound disturbed the forest as all eyes watched the Great Healer and his youthful guide walk slowly and deliberately down in the darkness. Again there came the "Song of Death," but louder now and closer it seemed, (3) so that the leaves of the trees stirred to and fro to its rhythm. All the warriors in the assembly nervously fingered their weapons.
The footsteps of the two going into the cave finally died out and with a suddenness that filled the ravine with an alarming silence, the "Song of Death" stopped. Then, faintly at first, but gradually louder, the sound of footsteps came from the cave, until, after an endless minute, the lone figure of the Great Healer issued from the cave. His eyes were closed and a beautiful, calm and serene smile delicately touched his lips. He stopped, lifted his face and arms towards the sun whose slanting evening rays filtered down through the leaves and in an unknown tongue he sang the "Song of Death" while he walked slowly and deliberately toward the river, the people following him. At the river's edge he stepped into a canoe, and without a paddle the canoe swung into the river and carried the Great Healer, whither no one knew, never to be seen again.
Several days later, a brave, bolder than his companions, ventured into the silent cave. To the amazement of his comrades who had tried to prevent his entrance, he came out again saying that he had followed the cavern until it became so low that he would have been forced to crawl had he gone farther.
With another companion he again entered and this time the two crawled on hands and knees until they reached a gigantic room. After lighting a torch their light revealed the skeletons of hundreds of Indians, lying face downward with arms outstretched toward a gigantic throne formed in the far wall. The great throne was empty. In terror the two Indians returned to the outer light and told their story.
Great Eagle and his council surmised that the cave was sacred to some great spirit and they decreed that the cavern entrance be closed with dirt and rocks. After a few generations knowledge of its location perished among the Indians and after a few more generations even the story of the cave was lost, save by a certain few story loving warriors of the forest.
"One morning in the spring of 1887 I received in my mail a letter postmarked Richland City, Wis., U. S. A. It was from Paul Seifert, whom I had known at school. He wrote that he had gone to America, landed in New York, drifted to northern Wisconsin, floated down the Wisconsin river on a raft and become acquainted with a German living at Richland City. He had married this man's beautiful daughter, was living very happily and had four daughters. So we renewed our friendship by letter.
I asked Paul in one of my letters whether he could send me some relics of the American aborigines. In a very short time I received a package. It contained most magnificent relics of American prehistoric times.
In 1891 (?) I paid him a visit. Finally the last day of my visit came. It was a beautiful moonlight night. I spoke to Paul about his promise to show me the place where he had found the relics. He said, 'Will you promise to follow me where I lead?' My reply was, 'I shall be your shadow.' ...
Darkness and damp air surrounded us. Paul lit another torch. I cannot describe the horror I felt. The bottom of the cave was covered with skeletons of a vanished race. Skulls were everywhere. Here perished a tribe; very near I could say, a nation. Their belongings were scattered among the bones. Battle axes of stone, ancient pottery, whole and in fragments, flint arrows and spears, whole and broken, everywhere.
'Here,' said Paul, 'is the mine of the relics I have sent you.'
Now I understand his remark, 'The chills ran down my back.' How true. Here on a shelf of stone I found a beautiful (4) quartzite spear beside the bones of a human hand. So we went along the cave until we entered another passageway, beginning to hear a curious noise.
As we went farther it sounded louder, more and more so, until it sounded like the howling of a lot of maniacs and the moaning of the dying under torture. I asked Paul to tell me, for the love of heaven, what it was making that terrible noise. He said that it was the falling waters and the rushing of the wind through the crevices above.
All at once I saw a blue light flicker here and there. It came nearer and nearer. I could not stand it any longer. 'Oh, how horrible, oh, Paul, let us get out of here.' So we retraced our steps through the cave of the dead, passed on back to the long rope, climbed up, passed through cave and passage, till we stood once more in the open air."
Conjecture if you will whether this be the cave of the legend. Seifert admitted to representatives of the state historical society that there was such a cave but he refused consistently to tell its location, saying that, 'No one will ever find the cave. I have planted grass and bushes to grow over its mouth.'
A neighbor of Seifert, hearing a loud blast on the bluff many years ago, climbed the hill and found Seifert blasting. On inquiry Seifert said, 'There was a hole in the rocks here and I was afraid boys might fall into it sometime, so I have closed it up.'
Dr. John Booher, jr., Richland Center, and Tom Lewis, Watertown, hoping that this may have been the entrance to the mystery cave, sank a shaft on the spot in September, 1929, but found no possible opening to a cave.1
This newspaper picture of a room in a cave is said to come from Big Eagle Cave near Muscoda, Wisconsin. The caption adds, "The large stalagmite is ten feet high and every inch of wall and ceiling is covered with crystaline deposits."
Commentary. "a great white beard" — although some photographs of Hočąk men of the XIXᵀᴴ century show an occasional beard, not of any great length, as a rule the practice of growing facial hairs was contrary to tradition. A man with a long beard is most likely to be a white man. This is obviously reinforced by his soft, pale skin.
"utterly blind" — blindness usually implies a greater "inner sight," that is, a high degree of wisdom.
"summers" — this is odd, since the Hočągara measure years in winters.
"interpreter" — that the boy speaks the language of the mysterious stranger suggests that he has come from the same place, said here to be somewhere in the northwest. The direction associates both with the north and the west at once. North Spirits are often inimical to the interests of humanity, and the west is the land of the dead. The north, as a land of cold, and the west as the land of the setting sun, are places where Hąp, "Light & Life," is weak. Therefore, both have some association with death.
Interpretation. This story certainly sounds as if it were an allegory, but the exact interpretation is not easily arrived at. It is tempting to see the blind man, who is "completely white," as a symbol of white people. Perhaps the "big eagle" in the cave's name is a reference to the Great Seal of the United States. We are invited to take the boy as one of the dead who has been reborn. He brings with him a person of great power. This is stated explicitly in terms of his ability to cure people, but is also implicit in his being white, the color of holiness and power. Since the boy is reborn from the cave, it seems logical to suppose that his powerful companion is also from the cave.
Stories: mentioning caves: Blue Mounds Cave, Silver Mound Cave, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Woman Who Married a Snake, Little Human Head, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, A Giant Visits His Daughter, Kunu's Warpath, Soft Shelled Turtle Weds, The Story of the Medicine Rite; mentioning Medicine Men: Visit of the Medicine Man, Holy One and His Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, The Phantom Woman; mentioning blind people: A Raccoon Tricks Four Blind Men, Raccoon and the Blind Men, Hare Visits the Blind Men, The Raccoon Coat, The Roaster, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Owl Goes Hunting; 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, The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Little Priest's Game, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e (St. Peet ...), A Peyote Story, Introduction.
Themes: a group (of brothers), a few at a time, go out looking for one of their number who is missing, but each searcher disappears in turn: Wojijé, Waruǧábᵉra, Bladder and His Brothers; a powerful spirit lives in a cave: Blue Mounds Cave, Silver Mound Cave, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Woman Who Married a Snake, Little Human Head, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds; someone has a very pale complexion: The Woman Who Became an Ant, The Roaster, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle; something is of a (symbolic) pure white color: White Bear, Deer Spirits, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), White Flower, The Fleetfooted Man, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Worúxega, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket (white spirits), Skunk Origin Myth, He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Messengers of Hare, The Brown Squirrel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bladder and His Brothers, White Thunder's Warpath, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Dipper, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Creation of the World (v. 12), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Descent of the Drum, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), The Diving Contest, Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Grandmother's Gifts, Four Steps of the Cougar, The Completion Song Origin, North Shakes His Gourd, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Peace of Mind Regained; two people look (almost) exactly alike: The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, The Green Man, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Redhorn's Father; inanimate things automatically respond to human commands: Spear Shaft and Lacrosse (corn plant), The Old Man and the Giants (boat), Wojijé (metal boat), The Raccoon Coat (metal boat), The Sky Man (knots), Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (everything), cf. How the Thunders Met the Nights (pontoon boat).
1 "Mysterious Cave of the Song of Death. Legend of Wisconsin Cavern into which Scores of Indians were Said to have Vanished Still Puzzles Whites and Red Men, Alike." Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1930. See also, Craun, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, 55-58.