Wenona was the light of her father’s wigwam the pride of the band of Sissetons, whose village is on the shores of beautiful Lake Travers.
However cheerfully the fire might burn in the dwelling of the aged chief, there was darkness, for him when she was away and the mother’s heart was always filled with anxiety, for she knew that Wenona had drawn upon her the envy of her young companions, and she feared that some one of them would cast a spell 1 upon her child, that her loveliness might be dimmed by sorrow or sickness.
The warriors of the band strove to outdo each other in noble deeds, that they might feel more worthy to claim her hand; while the hunters tried to win her good will by presents of buffalo and deer. But Wenona thought not yet of love. The clear stream that reflected her form told her she was beautiful; yet her brother was the bravest warrior of the Sissetons; and her aged parents too was not their love enough to satisfy her heart! Never did brother and sister love each other more; their features were the same, yet man’s sternness in him was changed to woman’s softness in her. The “glance of the falcon” in his eye was the “gaze of the dove” in hers. But at times the expression of his face would make you wonder that you ever could have thought him like his twin sister.
When he heard the Sisseton braves talk of the hunts they had in their youth, before the white man drove them from the hunting-grounds of their forefathers; when instead of the blanket they wore the buffalo robe; when happiness and plenty were in their wigwams and when the voices of weak women and famished children were never heard calling for food in vain then the longing for vengeance that was written on his countenance, the imprecations that were breathed from his lips, the angry scowl, the lightning from his eye, all made him unlike indeed to his sister, the pride of the Sissetons!
When the gentle breeze would play among the prairie flowers, then would she win him from such bitter thoughts. “Come, my brother, we will go and sit by the banks of the lake, why should you be unhappy! the buffalo is still to be found upon our hunting-grounds the spirit of the lake watches over us we shall not want for food.”
He would go, because she asked him. The quiet and beauty of nature were not for him; rather would he have stood alone when the storm held its sway; when the darkness was only relieved by the flash that laid the tall trees of the forest low; when the thunder bird clapped her wings as she swept through the clouds above him. But could he refuse to be happy when Wenona smiled? Alas! that her gentle spirit should not always have been near to soften his!
But as the beauty and warmth of summer passed away, so did Wenona’s strength begin to fail; the autumn wind, that swept rudely over the prairie flowers, so that they could not lift their heads above the tall grass, seemed to pass in anger over the wigwam of the old man for the eye of the Dahcotah maiden was losing its brightness, and her step was less firm, as she wandered with her brother in her native woods. Vainly did the medicine men practice their cherished rites the Great Spirit had called and who could refuse to hear his voice? she faded with the leaves and the cries of the mourners were answered by the wailing winds, as they sang her requiem.
A few months passed away, and her brother was alone. The winter that followed his sister’s death, was a severe one. The mother had never been strong, and she soon followed her daughter while the father’s age unfitted him to contend with sorrow, infirmity, and want.
Spring returned, but winter had settled on the heart of the young Sisseton; she was gone who alone could drive away the shadow from his brow, what wonder then that his countenance should always be stern. The Indians called him Eta Keazah, or Sullen Face.
But after the lapse of years, the boy, who brooded over the wrongs of his father, eagerly seeks an opportunity to avenge his own. His sister has never been forgotten; but he remembers her as we do a beautiful dream; and she is the spirit that hovers round him while his eyes are closed in sleep.
But there are others who hold a place in his heart. His wife is always ready to receive him with a welcome, and his young son calls upon him to teach him to send the arrow to the heart of the buffalo. But the sufferings of his tribe, from want of food and other privations, are ever before his eyes. Vengeance upon the white man, who has caused them!
Winter is the season of trial for the Sioux, especially for the women and children. The incursions of the English half-breeds and Cree Indians, into the Sisseton country, have caused their buffalo to recede, and so little other game is to be found, that indescribable sufferings are endured every winter by the Sissetons.
Starvation forces the hunters to seek for the buffalo in the depth of winter. Their families must accompany them, for they have not the smallest portion of food to leave with them; and who will protect them from the Chippeways!
However inclement the season, their home must be for a time on the open prairie. As far as the eye can reach, it is a desert of snow. Not a stick of timber can be seen. A storm is coming on too; nothing is heard but the howling blast, which mocks the cries of famished children. The drifting of the snow makes it impossible to see what course they are to take; they have only to sit down and let the snow fall upon them. It is a relief when they are quite covered with it, for it shelters them from the keenness of the blast!
Alas! for the children; the cry of those who can speak is, Give me food! while the dying infant clings to its mother’s breast, seeking to draw, with its parting breath, the means of life.
But the storm is over; the piercing cold seizes upon the exhausted frames of the sufferers.
The children have hardly strength to stand; the father places one upon his back and goes forward; the mother wraps her dead child in her blanket, and lays it in the snow; another is clinging to her, she has no time to weep for the dead; nature calls upon her to make an effort for the living. She takes her child and follows the rest. It would be a comfort to her, could she hope to find her infant’s body when summer returns to bury it. She shudders, and remembers that the wolves of the prairie are starving too!
Food is found at last; the strength of the buffalo yields to the arrow of the Sioux. We will have food and not die, is the joyful cry of all, and when their fierce appetites are appeased, they carry with them on their return to their village, the skins of the animals with the remainder of the meat.
The sufferings of famine and fatigue, however, are followed by those of disease; the strength of many is laid low. They must watch, too, for their enemies are at hand.
In the summer of 1844 a large party of half-breeds and Indians from Red river, English subjects, trespassed upon the hunting grounds of the Sioux. There were several hundred hunters, and many carts drawn by oxen for the purpose of carrying away the buffalo they had killed. One of this party had left his companions, and was riding alone at some distance from them. A Dahcotah knew that his nation would suffer from the destruction of their game fresh in his memory, too, were the sufferings of the past winter. What wonder then that the arrow which was intended for the buffalo, should find its way to the heart of the trespasser!
This act enraged the half-breeds; they could not find the Sioux who committed it but a few days after they fell in with a party of others, who were also hunting, and killed seven of them. The rest escaped, and carried the news of the death of their braves to their village. One of the killed was a relative of Sullen Face. The sad news spread rapidly through the village, and nothing was heard but lamentation. The women cut long gashes on their arms, and as the blood flowed from the wound they would cry, Where is my husband? my son? my brother?
Soon the cry of revenge is heard above that of lamentation. “It is not possible,” said Sullen Face, “that we can allow these English to starve us, and take the lives of our warriors. They have taken from us the food that would nourish our wives and children; and more, they have killed seven of our bravest men! we will have revenge we will watch for them, and bring home their scalps, that our women may dance round them!”
A war party was soon formed, and Sullen Face, at the head of more than fifty warriors, stationed himself in the vicinity of the road by which the half-breeds from Red river drive their cattle to Fort Snelling.
Some days after, there was an unusual excitement in the Sioux village on Swan lake, about twenty miles northwest of Traverse des Sioux. A number of Indians were gazing at an object not very distant, and in order to discover what it was, the chief of the village, Sleepy Eyes, had sent one of his young men out, while the rest continued to regard it with looks of curiosity and awe.
They observed that as the Sioux approached it, he slackened his pace, when suddenly he gave a loud cry and ran towards the village.
He soon reached them, and pale with terror, exclaimed, “It is a spirit, it is white as the snow that covers our prairies in the winter. It looked at me and spoke not.” For a short time, his fears infected the others, but after a while several determined to go and bring a more satisfactory report to their chief. They returned with the body, as it seemed only, of a white man; worn to a skeleton, with his feet cut and bleeding, unable to speak from exhaustion; nothing but the beating of his heart told that he lived.
The Indian women dressed his feet, and gave him food, wiped the blood from his limbs, and, after a consultation, they agreed to send word to the missionaries at Traverse des Sioux, that there was a white man sick and suffering with them.
The missionaries came immediately; took the man to their home, and with kind nursing he was soon able to account for the miserable situation in which he had been found.
“We left the state of Missouri,” said the man, whose name was Bennett, “for the purpose of carrying cattle to Fort Snelling. My companions’ names were Watson and Turner. We did not know the road, but supposed a map would guide us, with what information we could get on the way. We lost our way, however, and were eagerly looking for some person who could set us right. Early one morning some Sioux came up with us, and seemed inclined to join our party. One of them left hastily as if sent on a message; after a while a number of warriors, accompanied by the Indian who had left the first party, came towards us. Their leader had a dark countenance, and seemed to have great influence over them. We tried to make them understand that we had lost our way; we showed them the map, but they did not comprehend us.
“After angrily addressing his men for a few moments, the leader shot Watson through the shoulder, and another sent an arrow through his body and killed him. They then struck Watson’s brother and wounded him.
“In the mean time the other Indians had been killing our cattle; and some of the animals having run away, they made Watson, who was sadly bruised with the blows he had received from them, mount a horse and go with them to hunt the rest of the cattle. We never heard of him again. The Indians say he disappeared from among the bushes, and they could not find him; but the probability is that they killed him. Some seemed to wish to kill Turner and myself but after a while they told us to go, giving us our horses and a little food. We determined to retrace our steps. It was the best thing we could do; but our horses gave out, and we were obliged to leave them and proceed on foot.
“We were soon out of provisions, and having no means of killing game, our hearts began to fail us. Turner was unwell, and on arriving at a branch of Crow river, about one hundred miles northwest of Fort Snelling, he found himself unable to swim. I tried to carry him across on my back, but could not do it; he was drowned, and I barely succeeded in reaching the shore. After resting, I proceeded on my journey. When I came in sight of the Indian village, much as I needed food and rest, I dreaded to show myself, for fear of meeting Watson’s fate. I was spared the necessity of deciding. I fainted and fell to the ground. They found me, and proved kinder than I anticipated.
“Why they should have molested us I know not. There is something in it that I do not understand.”
But it is easily explained. Sullen Face supposed them to belong to the party that had killed his friends, and through this error he had shed innocent blood.
Who that has seen Fort Snelling will not bear testimony to its beautiful situation! Whichever way we turn, nature calls for our admiration. But beautiful as it is by day, it is at night that its majesty and loveliness speak to the soul. Look to the north, (while the Aurora Borealis is flashing above us, and the sound of the waters of St. Anthony’s Falls meets the ear,) the high bluffs of the Mississippi seem to guard its waters as they glide along. To the south, the St. Peter’s has wandered off, preferring gentle prairies to rugged cliffs. To the east we see the “meeting of the waters;” gladly as the returning child meets the welcoming smile of the parent, do the waves of the St. Peter’s flow into the Mississippi. On the west, there is prairie far as the eye can reach.
But it is to the free only that nature is beautiful. Can the prisoner gaze with pleasure on the brightness of the sky, or listen to the rippling of the waves? they make him feel his fetters the more.
I am here, with my heavy chain!
And I look on a torrent sweeping by.
And an eagle rushing to the sky,
And a host to its battle plain.
Must I pine in my fetters here!
With the wild wave’s foam and the free bird’s flight,
And the tall spears glancing on my sight,
And the trumpet in mine ear?
The summer of 1845 found Sullen Face a prisoner at Fort Snelling. Government having been informed of the murder of Watson by two Dahcotah Indians, orders were received at Fort Snelling that two companies should proceed to the Sisseton country, and take the murderers, that they might be tried by the laws of the United States.
Now for excitement, the charm of garrison life. Officers are of course always ready to “go where glory waits” them, but who ever heard of one being ready to go when the order came?
Alas! for the young officer who has a wife to leave; it will be weeks before he meets again her gentle smile!
Still more alas for him who has no wife at all! for he has not a shirt with buttons on it, and most of what he has are in the wash. He will have to borrow of Selden; but here’s the difficulty, Selden is going too, and is worse off than himself. But no matter! what with pins and twine and trusting to chance, they will get along.
Then the married men are inquiring for tin reflectors, for hard bread, though healthy, is never tempting. India rubber cloaks are in requisition too.
Those who are going, claim the doctor in case of accidents. Those who stay, their wives at least, want him for fear of measles; while the disciple of Esculapius, though he knows there will be better cooking if he remain at home, is certain there will be food for fun if he go. It is soon decided the doctor goes.
Then the privates share in the pleasure of the day. How should a soldier be employed but in active service? besides, what a capital chance to desert! One, who is tired of calling “All’s well” through the long night, with only the rocks and trees to hear him, hopes that it will be his happy fate to find out there is danger near, and to give the alarm, Another vows, that if trouble wont come, why he will bring it by quarrelling with the first rascally Indian he meets. All is ready. Rations are put up for the men; hams, buffalo tongues, pies and cake for the officers. The battalion marches out to the sound of the drum and fife; they are soon down the hill they enter their boats; hand-kerchiefs are waved from the fort, caps are raised and flourished over the water; they are almost out of sight they are gone.
When the troops reached their destination, Sullen Face and Forked Horn were not there, but the chief gave them three of his warriors, (who were with the party of Sullen Face at the time of the murder,) promising that when the two murderers returned they would come to Fort Snelling, and give themselves up.
There was nothing then to prevent the immediate return of our troops. Their tramp had been a delightful one, and so far success had crowned their expedition. They were in the highest spirits. But a little incident occurred on their return, that was rather calculated to show the transitoriness of earthly joys. One dark night, when those who were awake were thinking, and those who slept were dreaming of their welcome home, there was evidently a disturbance. The sleepers roused themselves; guns were discharged. What could it be?
The cause was soon ascertained. To speak poetically, the birds had flown in plain language, the prisoners had run away. They were not bound, their honor had been trusted to; but you cannot place much reliance on the honor of an Indian with a prison in prospect. I doubt if a white man could be trusted under such circumstances. True, there was a guard, but, as I said, ’twas a dark night.
The troops returned in fine health, covered with dust and fleas, if not with glory.
It is time to return to Sullen Face. He and Forked Horn, on their return to the village, were informed of what had occurred during their absence. They offered to fulfill the engagement of the chief, and accompanied by others of the band, they started for Fort Snelling. The wife of Sullen Face had insisted upon accompanying him, and influenced by a presentiment that he should never return to his native village, he allowed her to do so. Their little boy quite forgot his fatigue as he listened to his father’s voice, and held his hand. When they were near the fort, notice of their approach was sent to the commanding officer.
The entire force of the garrison marched out to receive the prisoners. A large number of Indians assembled to witness the scene their gay dresses and wild appearance adding to its interest.
Sullen Face and Forked Horn, with the Sioux who had accompanied them, advanced to meet the battalion. The little boy dressed as a warrior, his war-eagle plumes waving proudly over his head, held his father’s hand. In a moment the iron grasp of the soldier was on the prisoner’s shoulder; they entered the gate of the fort; and he, who had felt that the winds of Heaven were not more free than a Dahcotah warrior, was now a prisoner in the power of the white man. But he entered not his cell until he had sung a warrior’s song. Should his enemies think that he feared them? Had he not yielded himself up?
It was hard to be composed in parting with his wife and child. “Go my son,” he said, “you will soon be old enough to kill the buffalo for your mother.” But to his wife he only said, “I have done no wrong, and fear not the power of my enemies.” The Sissetons returned to the village, leaving the prisoners at Fort Snelling, until they should be sent to Dubuque for trial.
They frequently walked about the fort, accompanied by a guard. Sullen Face seemed to be indifferent to his fate, and was impressed with the idea that he never would return to his home. “Beautiful country!” said he, as he gazed towards the point where the waters of the Mississippi and St. Peter’s meet. “I shall never look upon you again, the waters of the rivers unite, but I have parted forever from country and friends. My spirit tells me so. Then welcome death! they guard me now with sword and bayonet, but the soul of the Dahcotah is free.”
After their removal to Dubuque, the two prisoners from Fort Snelling, with others who had been concerned in the murder, suffered much from sickness. Sullen Face would not complain, but the others tried to induce him to make his escape. He, at first, refused to do so, but finding his companions determined upon going, he at last consented.
Their plans succeeded, and after leaving the immediate neighborhood, they broke their shackles with stones. They were obliged, however, to hide themselves for a time among the rocks, to elude the sheriff and his party. They were not taken, and as soon as they deemed it prudent, they resumed their route.
Two of the prisoners died near Prairie du Chien. Sullen Face, Forked Horn, and another Sioux, pursued their journey with difficulty, for they were near perishing from want of food. They found a place where the Winnebagoes had encamped, and they parched the corn that lay scattered on the ground.
Disease had taken a strong hold upon the frame of Sullen Face; he constantly required the assistance of his companions. When they were near Prairie le Gros, he became so ill that he was unable to proceed. He insisted upon his friends leaving him; this they at first refused to do, but fearing that they would be found and carried back to prison, they consented and the dying warrior found himself alone.
Some Indians who were passing by saw him and gently carried him to their wigwam. But he heeded not their kindness. Death had dimmed the brightness of his eye, and his fast-failing strength told of the long journey to the spirits’ land.
“It was not thus,” he said, “that I thought to die! Where are the warriors of the Sissetons? Do they listen to my death song?” I hoped to have triumphed over the white man, but his power has prevailed. My spirit drooped within his hated walls? But hark! there is music in my ears ’tis the voice of the sister of my youth “Come with me my brother, we wait for you in the house of the spirits! we will sit by the banks of a lake more beautiful than that by which we wandered in our childhood; you will roam over the hunting grounds of your forefathers, and there the white man may never come.”
His eyes are closing fast in death, but his lips murmur “Wenona! I come! I come!”
- The Indians fear that from envy or jealousy some person may cast a fatal spell upon them to produce sickness, or even death. This superstition seems almost identical with the Obi or Obeat of the West India Negroes.[↩]