Or, Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains

by James Watson Webb

James Watson Webb

Volume I

(xvi) My instructions were, to employ the Potawatomie as a guide to the Rock River, where the country of the Winebagoes commenced, and then take a Winebago as a guide to Fort Armstrong — the leading object being so to arrange our line of travel as to avoid the prairies, upon which, we would necessarily suffer from the cold. I had been apprised that I would find an old Canadian voyageur residing with his Indian family in a trading hut on Rock River, and it was to him my Potawatomie was to guide me.

Toward evening on the fifth day, we reached (xvii) our place of destination; and old La Saller, recognizing us as whites, and of course from the fort, intimated by signs, as he conducted us to the loft of his hut, that we were to preserve a profound silence. All who live in the Indian country learn to obey signs; and it is wonderful how soon we almost forget to ask questions. I knew that something was wrong, but it never entered my head to inquire what it was — Indian-like quite willing to bide my time, even if the finger closely pressed upon the lips of the old man had not apprised me that I should get no answer until it suited his discretion to make a communication.

It was nearly dark when we were consigned to the loft of the good old man; and for three long hours we saw him not. During this period there was abundant time for meditation upon our position; when all at once the profound stillness which reigned in and around the hut, was broken by the startling sound of a Winebago war-dance in our immediate vicinity! This as you may imagine, was no very agreeable sound for my sergeant or myself, but it was perfectly horrifying to my Potawatomie; all of which tribe, as also their neighbours, were as much in awe of a Winebago, as is a flying-fish of a dolphin. But all suspense (xviii) has its end; and at length the war-dance ceased — the music of which, at times, could only be likened to the shrieks of the damned, and then, again partook of the character of the recitative in an Italian opera, until, at length, it died away, and all was silence. Then came old La Saller, whose head, whitened by the snows of eighty winters, as it showed itself through the trap in the floor, was a far more acceptable sight than I could have anticipated it would be when I left the fort. Having been informed who we were, and my desire to procure a Winebago to guide me to Fort Armstrong, he inquired whether we had not heard the war dance, and if we could not conjecture its object! He then proceeded to state that two Winebagoes, who had been tried and sentenced to be executed for the murder of a soldier at Fort Armstrong, had escaped from the jail at Kaskaskia, and arrived on the river a few days previous; that in consequence, the whole nation was in a state of extraordinary excitement, and that the war-dance to which we had listened, was preparatory to the starting of a war-party for Fort Armstrong to attack it, or destroy such of the garrison as they could meet with beyond its palisades; and that of course our only safety was in (xix) making an early start homeward. I inquired whether I could not avoid the Indians by crossing the Great Prairie, and thus striking the Mississippi above the fort. He answered, that by such a route I would certainly avoid the Indians until I reached the vicinity of the Mississippi; but that we would as certainly perish with the cold, as there was no wood to furnish a fire at night. The mercury in the thermometer, as I well knew had stood at five degrees below zero when I left the garrison, and it had certainly been growing colder each day; and therefore I apparently acquiesced in his advice, and requested to be called some three hours before daylight, which would give us a fair start of any pursuing party — and bade him good-night.

But the old man doubted my intention to return to the fort; and shortly after, paid us another visit, accompanied by a very old Winebago, who avowed himself the firm friend of the whites, and proceeded to point out the folly of any attempt to proceed in my expedition. He inquired its purport; and when I told him that it was to visit a dying friend, he said I had better postpone the meeting until after death, when we would doubtless meet in the Paradise of the white man! but at the same time gave me to understand that (xx) he did not believe such was the object of my visit to the banks of the Mississippi. Indian-like, he sought not to pry farther into my affairs, but expressed his respect for all who knew how to keep to themselves their own counsels and the counsels of their government. His remarks were kind, and in the nature of approbation for the past and advice for the future; and coming from such a source, made a lasting impression.

Again we were left to ourselves; and then, doubtless, I wished myself safe in garrison. But to return, and that too, from fear, and the object of my journey unaccomplished, was inevitable disgrace. But what was still more important, was the consequence to others of my return. I could not but think there was an understanding between the Winebagoes and the Sioux; and if there had lingered on my mind a doubt of the story of the Potawatomie chief, that doubt was now at an end; and of course, a sense of duty to a whole regiment of officers and men, their wives and children, was as imperative in requiring my advance, as was the fear of disgrace in forbidding my return. ...

Commentary. "Fort Armstrong" — a fort built on Rock Island, the largest island in the Mississippi. It was built in 1816 and decommissioned in 1836. Rock Island is about 100 miles downstream from Galena, Illinois.

Fort Armstrong as Seen from the Illinois Shore

"voyageur" — French Canadian long distance fur traders of the XVIIIᵀᴴ and XIXᵀᴴ centuries. Voyageurs were licensed by the Crown, and were part of an organized effort to supply France with prized furs. The trade was conducted, often in an arduous fashion, by canoe. In time, the voyageurs had become legendary. A retired voyageur once said,

I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur's life!1

"La Saller" — a well known individual in the history of Lee County, Illinois.

LaSallier, spelled also LeSaller and LeSellier, a Frenchman, probably was the next person to invade the country, and beyond any doubt, he became the first settler of Lee county. During the Illinois trip of Major Long, in the year 1823, mentioned later on LeSallier, according to Keating, the secretary of the party, must have settled on Rock river in the year 1793. He is said by some to have married a Pottawatomie woman, although Keating, who generally was accurate, said he married a Winnebago woman. In Carr's book mentioned hereafter this woman was called a Pottawatomie.2

On June 11, 1823 (Vol 1 p. 175), when the expedition at Chicago had decided to select the route to Galena, rather than Fort Armstrong, no person could be found to guide it along that route until "an old French engagé, of the name LeSellier, undertook to direct it. This man, says Keating, "who had lived for upwards of thirty years with the Indians had taken a wife among the Winnebagoes, and settled on the headwaters of Rock river; knowing the country as far as that stream, he presumed that he could find his way thence to Fort Crawford." This remark tallies to a nicety with Webb's and adds the important information that for upwards of thirty years he had lived with the Indians. The added information about his having settled on the headwaters of the Rock river, easily enough might have been a mistake in the writer's knowledge of geography. ... the man had lived where Webb found him since about the year 1793. He could not have remained long after Webb's visit, because, when in 1830 John Dixon took up his residence at the ferry, there was no LaSallier and in 1835, when Joseph Crawford surveyed in the neighborhood, the cabin had rotted into a mass of sticks and dirt. It is difficult to imagine how in so short a space, a solid log cabin could push itself into a state of complete decay unless it had burned, and inasmuch as the stones now on the mound wear the appearance of having been subjected to fire, the cabin must have burned or else the stones were part of a fireplace. LaSallier guided the party safely until the Pektannons (Pecatonica) had been reached a few miles above its mouth. Here LaSallier informed the party that the Sauks pronounced the diminutive of a word by adding a hissing sound, — LaSallier must have been a man of some information! At this point too it became evident that he had reached the limit of his knowledge of the country. Accordingly he was sent ahead to secure an Indian to act as guide for the rest of the trip to Prairie du Chien. The elder brother of the chief of the village to which LaSallier went, a Sauk, so-called, was secured. LaSallier had explained his mission and with one accord the Indians, mostly Winnebagoes, greeted the party with manifestations of friendship. The new guide's name was Wanebea. On page 194 LaSallier is credited with translating certain words uttered by a Winnebago, into the Sauk; then into French; then into English in order to test the accuracy of some of the vocabulary Major Long had written during a former trip. La Sallier did this work with surprising accuracy.

LaSallier built a trading post on the south side of what is now known as the Franklin creek, about thirty or thirty five rods from the Rock river. This point is in Lee county and across the river from the present village of Grand Detour and about five miles northeast of the city of Dixon. The ruins of this cabin were visible as late as 1835, when they were observed by Joseph Crawford, one of the early settlers of Dixon. LaSallier was one of the agents of the American Fur Company.3

"Kaskaskia" (37°55′17″N 89°54′59″W) — originally the site of a large Illini village, the area was settled, starting in 1703 with a Jesuit mission, by French Canadians as part of Louisiana. One of the attractions of the site was the lead deposits on the opposite side of the Mississippi. The town consisted at first mainly of Illini who had been converted to Catholicism and Canadian fur trappers. By 1707, the town had a population estimated at 2,200 souls. Kaskaskia became the capital of Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1818, when the capital was moved to Vandalia. In 1819, the population was about 7,000 people. Today it numbers but 40 individuals.

Notes to the Commentary

1 James H. Baker, "Lake Superior," Minnesota Historical Collections, 3:342.
2 Edson Irving Carr, The History of Rockton, Winnebago County, Illinois, 1820 to 1898 (Rockton: Herald Office Print, 1898).
3 Frank Everett Stevens, History of Lee County, Illinois, Volume 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914) I:18, 25-26, 241.


James Watson Webb, Altowan, Or, Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846).