The Gratiots and the Hocągara

by Henry Rene Gratiot and O. D. Brandenburg

Col. Henry Gratiot

One of the leading families by far in southwestern Wisconsin some ninety years ago and for many years later, was that of the Gratiots,— two brothers, Henry and John P. B. Today in Madison resides a grandson of Henry, altogether the more prominent of the two. This Madisonian, Henry Rene Gratiot, 76 years of age, is the son of Charles Hempstead Gratiot, a son of Henry,—courteous, low-spoken, of fine understanding, a bit deaf, of moderate stature, a little gray, somewhat stooped.1

"Grandfather Gratiot was [an] Indian agent and enjoyed the fullest confidence of the aborigines. They protected him and his family in many ways at various times and he always could rely upon their fidelity. On one occasion a lot of them called on him to represent them at a conference in Prairie du Chien, and he offered some goods to pacify them. They all took umbrellas! These they tucked into their packs until nearing Prairie du Chien when, apparently to make an impression, all were raised, and thus the Indians walked up."2

"This is how my grandfather, Col. Henry Gratiot, found the lead mines which he afterwards developed at Gratiot's Grove. The Winnebagoes tried to keep the knowledge of the existence of lead in southern Wisconsin from the whites, but Grandfather Gratiot was so well like by them that one of the Indian chiefs said to him: 'Go where my son is and pick up the arrows that he shoots.' My grandfather did so. He met the Indian boy at a certain point; the boy fired an arrow; grandfather picked it up; the boy came to him, took the arrow, shot it forward again; father again picked it up and where the arrow struck last, there grandfather found the ore. That is the legend in our family."3

"Do I remember any Indians myself? Indeed I do. Winnebagoes used to camp near the woodpile at our house about four rods from the back door. One, Cutnose, was chief. He and his little band would come to our place every two or three years. Cutnose and father were born on the same day, and by Indian tradition that circumstance bound them together so that each was expected to stand by the other to the death.

I remember grandmother telling of Whirling Thunder, another Winnebago chief being at our house once during a heavy rainstorm. While lightning flashed and thunder rolled he went out to the porch and earnestly addressed the great spirit, evidently trying to smooth its ruffled temper."4

"Mr. Gratiot remembers hearing his grandmother tell of knocking down an Indian with a poker. A drunken Winnebago had come into her home and put his arm round her when she seized the poker and struck him. Young squaws in the house ran out shouting what had occurred when some Indian bucks took the intruder away, tied him to a post and gave him a good whipping."5

Notes to the Text

1 this introductory paragraph was written by O. D. Brandenburg. Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," 1a.
2 Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," 1b.
3 Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," 4a.
4 Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," 2a.
5 Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," 1b.

Commentary. "Grandfather Gratiot" — his surname is pronounced GRASH-it. He was born on April 25, 1789 in St. Louis, then under the governance of the Spanish. He was an ardent opponent of slavery, and when Missouri was admitted as a slave state, he moved north to the Galena area in Illinois so that he might live in a Free State. He and his brother purchased from the Hocągara mining rights to the lead deposits for which this region was known. Gratiot developed close personal relationships with the Hocąk nation. During the Winnebago War of 1827, however, he did allow the government to build what they later called "Ft. Gratiot" on his property. In 1830, he was given the post of Subagent to the Hocąk Nation. At the onset of the Black Hawk War in 1832, he was sent as an emissary with Little Priest and other prominent Hocągara to deliver a message from Gen. Atkinson, but they barely escaped with their lives. In 1834, he sold his mining interests and established a farm in the area. Every autumn a band of Hocągara would camp on his land to visit with him and his family. In 1835, the bad condition of the Rock River bands came to his attention, so he undertook successfully to reestablish their annuities from the government. He fell ill while attempting to return to Wisconsin from Washington, and died in Baltimore, April 27, 1836. In Wisconsin, he is remembered in the names of the village of Gratiot, and the town of the same name.1

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."2 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 ...3

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.4

"Gratiot's Grove"the following locales are shown on this map (generally north to south). Gratiot's Grove is near the Michigan Territory line, between Galena and Brodhead.

In Wisconsin: Portage — north central on this map. Prairie du Chien — located in Wisconsin on the Mississippi. Koshkonong — located on the shores of Lake Koshkonong at the mouth of the northern part of the Rock River. Round Rock Village — located in the center of Rock County on the Rock River north of Turtle Village. Turtle Village — on the Rock River right on the border between Wisconsin and Illinois. Brodhead — on the Sugar River not too far north of the Illinois border. Gratiot's Grove — just outside Shullsburg, between Brodhead and Galena.
In Illinois: Galena — located in extreme NW Illinois on the Mississippi River. Freeport — located at the bend of the Pecatonica. Sycamore Village — located midway between Turtle Village and Dixon. Kishwaukee — a river that flows into Rock River at Sycamore Village. Grand Detour — located on the Rock River about 5 miles north of Dixon. Dixon — centrally located on the Illinois stretch of the Rock River. Prophet's Village (Prophetstown) — situated on the Rock River about midway between Dixon and Rock Island. Rock Island — an island in the Mississippi River near its confluence with the Rock River. It is opposite what is now Dubuque, Iowa.
    The Rock River Area    

R. A. Lewis  
Whirling Thunder (Wakąjagiwįxka)
New York, 1865

"Whirling Thunder"Wakąjagiwįxka, a name that actually means, "Whirling Thunderbird" (Wakąwįxka would literally mean, "Whirling Snake"). He signed the Treaty of 1829.5 General Anderson says, "Whirling Thunder and Little Priest appeared to be about thirty-five years of age, I can say but little of either, save that Whirling Thunder was morose and sullen in his appearance, and had the reputation of being cruel. He was short and thick-set, not more than five feet, eight inches in height."6 However, Washburne says, "Whirling Thunder was a man of great repute for his sagacity and wisdom in council."7 Col. Dodge briefly detained Whirling Thunder and two other chiefs as security for the good behavior of the tribe during the Black Hawk War.8 However, probably due to the fact that his son Mą́zᵋmąnį́ga (Iron Walker) killed Pierre Paquette, "Whirling Thunder had fallen into disgrace with the other chiefs, as he did not live in the country with the Nation; but lived in the Mines, pitching his wigwam near the dwelling of a man by the name of Doherty, who had taken Thunder's daughter's for his wife; and as Pauquette, Doherty thought, stood in his way of influence with the Nation, as well as trade, it was believed he felt it in his interest to prejudice the chief and his son against Pauquette, and the son got so wrought up that he determined to make way with him."9

"the great spirit" — the Great Spirit, known to the Hocągara as Mą̄’ų́na, "Earthmaker," was a largely otiose deity, and rarely the object of personal prayers and entreaties. Whirling Thunder, as a member of the Thunderbird Clan, could expect himself to possess some unknown measure of influence over the Thunderbirds, the deities responsible for his clan's descent.

BAE GN 03806F 06609500
Hocąk Whips

"whipping" — this sounds as if it is to be taken literally, since he was tied to a post. The right to administer a whipping is held exclusively by the mą̄́ną̄́pe, or police, whose function is exercised by the Bear Clan.

Notes to the Commentary

1 Timothy R. Mahoney, Provincial Lives: Middle-Class Experience in the Antebellum Middle West (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 57-59.
2 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].
3 Bulger, "Events at Prairie du Chien Previous to American Occupation, 1814," 2.
4 Mary Elise Antoine, Prairie Du Chien (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011) 7.
5 Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "A Check List of Treaty Signers by Clan Affiliation," Journal of the Wisconsin Indians Research Institute, 2, #1 (June, 1966): 50-73 [Wakaŋjágiwiŋxgǝ, 62, #51].
6 General Robert Anderson, "Reminiscences of the Black Hawk War," Wisconsin Historical Collections, X (1888): 167-212 [191].
7 E. B. Washburne, "Col. Henry Gratiot — a Pioneer of Wisconsin," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, X (1888): 235-260 [253].
8 Moses M. Strong, "The Indian Wars of Wisconsin," Wisconsin Historical Collections, VIII (1879 [1910]): 241-286 [272].
9 Henry Merrell, "Pioneer Life in Wisconsin," Wisconsin Historical Collections, VII (1876): 366-402 [388-389].


O. D. Brandenburg, "Col. Henry Gratiot's Madison Descendants," The Madison Democrat; Madison, Wisconsin; Sunday, 5 October 1919, pp. 1-4; Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; viewed online at on 5 February 2023.