The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong
retold by Richard L. Dieterle
There sat a village. It was a Hočąk village, and it was not far from Lake Koshkonong. In that village there lived two brothers. The people would always say that the lake was inhabited a Waterspirit of unusual power. If the proper offerings were not made, it was said, then the Waterspirit would always drown those who dared to cross its lake. Now the two brothers scoffed at what the people said, and declared that there was no Waterspirit in the lake at all. To prove it, they took their canoes to opposite sides of the lake and started to cross it in opposite directions. As they were about to meet in the center of the lake, there, unexpectedly, a fierce storm suddenly welled up out of nowhere. The swirling waves capsized their canoes and sucked the brothers under.
When their kinsmen found their bodies washed up on the shore, they noticed that both men had white clay in their nostrils and ears. This proved that they had been drowned by a Waterspirit.1
Commentary. "white clay" — Waterspirits are believed to live in underground caverns lines with white clay, which is said to be their dung.2 Consequently, to find such clay on the brothers' bodies is taken as proof positive of an attack by a Waterspirit.
Comparative Material. White settlers and their descendants have claimed to have seen this "demon" themselves.
A. I. Sherman of Fort Atkinson and his cousin, Charles Bartlett of Milwaukee, were duck hunting on Lake Koshkonong. While rowing down the south edge of a bay in the northeastern part of the lake, they both spotted, about 150 feet away, a huge snake-like object swimming toward the center of the lake. It swam with the head raised about two feet above the water, and about ten feet of the trunk, which appeared to be eight inches thick, was partly visible. The water being very calm at that time, the highly visible wake left by the creature indicated it was about thirty or forty feet long.
Without a thought about the wisdom of their actions, and following the instincts of the inveterate hunters they were, Sherman and Bartlett put their oars into the water and began rowing at top speed toward the animal hoping to kill it and examine it at close range. But the creature, for it could not truly be called a snake, a fish, or a lizard, spotted them and at once slipped under the surface leaving the pair befuddled, astonished, and thoroughly disappointed at having to abandon the chase.
Forever after, the two nimrods stoutly maintained they were in no way under the influence of the ardent spirits and they never failed to remind the skeptics that at least six times a similar sighting had been reported in Red Cedar Lake only a few miles away.3
C. E. Brown relates two incidents connected to the mysterious denizen of this lake:
Indians had a legend of the presence of a destructive water demon in Lake Koshkonong. White residents of its shores, therefore, had every right to similar beliefs. Some former carp fishermen once told how their seine engaged a very large water animal which completely wrecked its meshes. It may have been a huge pickerel, but they thought otherwise from the way it twisted and tore the stout seine.
A farmer living on the west side of this big lake was quite sure that this same animal devoured several of his pigs which were feeding off shore. Others saw a strange water animal they could not identify off the mouth of Koshkoning Creek.4
Stories: in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, The Story of the Medicine Rite, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake.
Themes: Waterspirit sucks under men in canoes: The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake; a Waterspirit kills a human: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Waruǧabᵉra, The Two Children, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Seer, The Twin Sisters, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Blanket.
1 From the website of John R. Sill, Koshkonong - The Lake We Live On.
2 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896) 52. Paul Radin, "The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #44: 1-74.
3 From a summary of an article in the Watertown Republican, November, 1887. Ben Feld, The Lake Koshkonong Monster (http://www.watertownhistory.org/Articles/LakeKoshkonongMonster.htm).
4 Charles E. Brown, Sea Serpents (Madison: Wisconsin Folklore Society, 1942) 9.