The Scalping Knife of Wakąšucka

by M. M. Quaife

Milo M. Quaife

Wakąšucka was a Winnebago [Hocąk] Indian who lived in southern Wisconsin 100 years ago. His scalping knife was a poor tool such as might be purchased today at any hardware store for perhaps 50 cents. Yet to this common Indian and his still commoner knife there is a story bloody as any tragedy of ancient Greece. We tell the tale not as veritable history, but as a fair example of the traditionary lore, with a substratum of historic fact, with which in old age the Wisconsin pioneer was wont to regale his hearers.

(15) At Prairie du Chien may still be seen a fragment of old Fort Crawford, which a century ago was one of the most important outposts of America‘s far-flung frontier. Here a doughty Indian fighter, Col. Zachary Taylor, whose exploits in Mexico a quarter of a century later were to win for him the presidency of the United States, with several companies of regulars strove as best he might to keep the peace between the redmen and their white neighbors. A few miles away, on the north bank of the Wisconsin river, was at cabin inhabited by three settlers, who were getting out lumber for the use of the garrison at Fort Crawford, and not far away stood the wigwam of Wakąšucka, the Winnebago.

Such were the stage settings of this early Wisconsin tragedy. To the wigwams of Wakąšucka came one winter two Sioux warriors, Red Wing and Pine Top. "When the grass begins to grow," they said, “our people will go upon the warpath against the white man: but some of the Sioux are reluctant, and to stir their zeal white blood must first he shed. Let us go land kill the three white men on the Wisconsin," they said. "Some Indians will then be killed, and then all our people will be willing to take the warpath."

(16) Wakąšucka assented to the proposal, and the three braves set out for the lonely cabin. They found that the inmates were absent, and so the warriors proceeded to survey the ground and make preparations for a second visit in the night time. The cabin stood on the river bank, its only door in the side facing the stream. Within, a fireplace occupied the up-river end of the room, while a bed filled the opposite end. Wakąšucka made a hole in the chinking under the bed, to afford from without at view of the room, and then the visitors withdrew, leaving no sign of their visit. They took with them the small dog left by the white men to guard the place and when some distance from the house they killed it.

The next night was dark and rainy. At the proper time, the three braves set out for the cabin, each one armed with tomahawk and scalping knife. The plan was to enter the cabin and announce that their canoe had been overturned on the river and their guns lost. At the right moment Pine Top was to give a signal, when each warrior should immediately fall upon and slay the unsuspecting victim whom he had singled out.

Such was the precious plot, as Wakąšucka later related the story. But on drawing near the cabin the two Sioux began to lose their courage. "The men are great hunters," they said, "and always carry their knives. We had better turn back and come tomorrow with our guns and shoot them while they are at work." But the Winnebago did not agree to this proposal. Pine Top and Red Wing were squaws, he said: let them hide in the bushes and watch while he settled the matter alone.

They did, and Wakąšucka crept up to the hole he had made in the cabin wall the day before, and looked in. One man sat on one side of the fireplace smoking his pipe; opposite him the smaller man sat mending his moccasins: while at a table before the fireplace the third inmate was washing dishes. Wakąšucka stole to the door, scratched upon it, and uttered a low, whistling whine; then he jumped back around the corner of the house and applied his eye to the hole. The man who was washing dishes stepped to the door, opened it, and bade the dog to enter. He waited a short time, when, no dog appearing. he closed the door and returned to his task of dish washing. Observing this, Wakąšucka again scratched on the door and once more sprang back around the corner. The dish washer once more opened the door, and after a pause stepped out and walked to the corner of the house. As soon as he looked around it Wakąšucka struck him on the head with his hatchet, and before the man had time to fall grasped him in his arms and drew him past the corner, where he could not be seen from the door.

Wakąšucka again applied his eye to the hole. He saw the smoker rise, knock the ashes from his pipe, and walk to the door. Calling to the first man and receiving no answer, he walked to the end of the house opposite the silent watcher. Then he turned and came to the other end. As he reached the corner, Wakąšucka‘s tomahawk descended on his temple. But the man, who was large, fell to the ground before the slayer could grasp him, and made some noise in falling.

Unable to move him, Wakąšucka again returned to the hole. He saw the moccasin mender, apparently alarmed, in an attitude of listening. Then he stepped to his rifle over the replace, and taking it down, came to the door and called to his companions. Receiving no answer, he walked toward the river corner of the cabin. Quick as a flash, Wakąšucka was behind him. and the third white man fell beneath the blows of' the deadly tomahawk.

The Winnebago had shown the faint-hearted Sioux what at real warrior might do, but the lesson was not yet completed. Calling to them to come, with his knife he scalped the dead men. Red Wing and Pine Top said he should give them each at scalp; but Wakąšucka replied that these were the scalps of white men who were great hunters; if they wished a scalp, let them dig up the body of the white woman who had died at the fort.

Such a deed could not long remain at secret. Indeed, it was Wakąšucka himself who made known his part in it. Encamping in the coulee where McGregor, Iowa, now stands, he procured some liquor and while under its influence boasted of what he had done. Learning this, Col. Taylor sent a file of soldiers to seize him. Brought before the commander, he vaingloriously related the story as it has been told above. He was put in irons, and (17) Red Wing and Pine Top were soon his companions in captivity. Their pride would not brook such a disgrace. Red Wing would eat no food, and in two weeks he was dead. Pine Top sent for his wife; she came, and after the interview left him weeping. A day or two later she returned with some soup for him, which he drank and soon afterward died.

Wakąšucka, alone, scented to thrive in captivity. In due time, from considerations which are foreign our story, he was released, and stepped forth from Fort Crawford a free man. But he did not long escape the vengeance of Providence. From time immemorial Prairie du Chien had been at famous playground for the performance of athletic games. Within a few days there was at large gathering of Indians at the prairie, and the usual sports were begun in the area before the fort. To a group of Indians engaged in shooting arrows upward a muscular white man stepped up, and asked that he might join in the sport. A bow was handed him, and reaching for the quiver of Wakąšucka, who was present, he drew by chance an arrow tipped with bone. This he shot upward with all his force. Descending. it entered the eye of Wakąšucka and pierced his brain.

The last murderer had now followed his victims to the other world. Only Wakąšucka‘s scalping knife remains behind, a mute reminder of the gory tragedy; after the lapse of many years it was presented to the Iowa Historical Society.1

Commentary. "Wakąšucka" —  the original article gave the name of the protagonist as Wakonshutskee. I have taken the liberty of replacing it with a corrected version of the name. Waką-šuc-ka means, "Red Snake," an appellation that might lead one to think that this name belongs to the Snake Clan, were it not for such a name as "Blowsnake," which is a Thunderbird Clan name. Snake names find their way into the Thunderbird Clan by virtue of the resemblance of the meandering path of a lightning bolt to a winding serpent.

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

Ft. Crawford, 1816-1831   Ft. Crawford, After 1831

"Fort Crawford" — a fort built in 1816 near the strategic confluence of the Mississippi and the Wisconsin Rivers at Prairie du Chien. The site on which the fort was built was subject to flooding, and since it was constructed almost entirely of wood, the timbers began to rot. After the flood of 1826, the fort was abandoned in favour of Ft. Snelling near Minneapolis. With the Winnebago War of 1827, troops were returned to the site, but it was decided to build a new fort on higher ground overlooking the Mississippi. The new fort was constructed mainly out of limestone, and was not fully completed until 1835, although it was occupied in 1832. In that year, Black Hawk surrendered to then Col. Zachary Taylor at the fort. Once the Hocągara had been removed from Wisconsin, the fort lost its raison d’être, and was abandoned in 1849 (although briefly reoccupied in 1855).5

Maguire (?), Beao
A Colorized Photo of Zachary Taylor,
ca. 1845-1848

"Col. Zachary Taylor" — was born in 1784, the son of Richard Taylor, a colonel in the American Revolution. Richard Taylor moved his family to Kentucky at the site of what is now Louisville, and moved up in prosperity from a log cabin to a great estate. Zachary joined the Army as a first lieutenant in 1808, and was married two years later. He was promoted to Captain in that same year. After commanding Ft. Knox, during the War of 1812, he successfully defended Ft. Harrison, and was given the brevet rank of Major. After two years commanding Ft. Howard at Green Bay, he was promoted to Lt. Col. in 1819. Shortly afterwards, he established his family in Baton Rough, Louisiana. After serving on Gen. Atkinson's staff in the Black Hawk War of 1832, he next distinguished himself in the Seminole War of 1837, earning the name "Old Rough and Ready." In 1841, he was made commander of the Second Department of the Army's Western Division. In the Mexican War, he rose to national prominence with his victories at Battle of Palo Alto and the nearby Battle of Resaca de la Palma. After these successes, he was promoted to the rank of Major General. Taylor then took Monterrey. In Feb. 1847, Taylor was attacked by a large force under Santa Anna, but was able to repulse this force at the Battle of Buena Vista. In 1848, Taylor recieved the Whig nomination for president, and went on to win the election. However, Taylor accomplished little, dying in 1850 well before the end of his term of office.6

George Catlin
"Ball-play of the Women, Prairie du Chien"

"athletic games" — the painter George Catlin made witness to the veracity of this statement in his painting of a women's lacrosse game that the Sioux conducted on the prairie in 1835 just outside Ft. Crawford near what is now the city of Prairie du Chien.

BAE 37: Pl. 10
A Hocąk Bone Point

"an arrow tipped with bone" — an example of such a point can be seen in the photograph above, taken ca. 1913.

Links: ...

Stories: about scalping: The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Moiety Origin Myth, Turtle's Warparty, White Fisher, Black Otter's Warpath, The Dog that became a Panther, Wazųka, Great Walker's Warpath, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Fox-Hocąk War; mentioning the Sioux (Šąhą): The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee," Little Priest's Game, Berdache Origin Myth, Great Walker's Warpath, Potato Magic, The Masaxe War, White Flower, The Man who Fought against Forty, First Contact (vv. 2-3), The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Love Blessing, Run for Your Life, Introduction; mentioning the Big Knives (white Americans): The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Brawl in Omro, 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 War of Indian Tribes against White Soldiers, The Cosmic Ages of the Hocągara, Turtle and the Merchant, The Hocągara 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, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Mighty Thunder, The Beginning of the Winnebago, Soldiers Catch Two Boys, a Black One and a White One; set on the Wisconsin River (Nįkúse Xųnųnį́gᵋra): Turtle and the Merchant, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Chief of the Heroka, The Lame Friend, The King Bird, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake (v. 1), The Chief Who Shot His Own Daughter, Gatschet's Hocank hit’e.

Themes: a Hocąk warrior single handedly fights an overwhelming enemy force (taking at least one enemy head or scalp): The Warbundle Maker, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier (Arapaho), Little Priest's Game (Sioux), The Man who Fought against Forty (Dakota), Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath (Osage), The Osage Massacre (Osage), Fighting Retreat; descriptions of human warfare: Black Otter's Warpath, Annihilation of the Hocągara II, The Warbundle Maker, The First Fox and Sauk War, Great Walker's Medicine, The Annihilation of the Hocągara I, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, Little Priest's Game, Wazųka, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, Big Thunder Teaches Cap’ósgaga the Warpath, The Fox-Hocąk War, Great Walker's Warpath, White Fisher, The Lame Friend, White Thunder's Warpath, The Osage Massacre, A Man's Revenge, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, They Owe a Bullet, The Spanish Fight, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee," The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2), Tobacco Man and Married Man, The War of Indian Tribes against White Soldiers.


1 Milo M. Quaife, "The Scalping Knife of Wakonshutskee," Milwaukee Journal (March 5, 1922): 15-17.
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 Bruce E. Mahan, Old Fort Crawford and the Frontier (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1926).
6 K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985). Holman Hamilton, Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic, vol. 1 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1941); vol. 2 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1951).