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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.


For the week of 1/13/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Last week we began to examine Dr. C.V. Porter’s stone marker entitled “Site of Red Bird’s Village”, located along the Mississippi River on Highway 35 in Vernon County. Various sources in the museum’s collection lead me to think that the Ho Chunk man named Red Bird did not actually live in a village at this spot where the Bad Axe River empties into the Mississippi, but that he did live in the region.

Porter calls what happened at this site the “First Battle of the Bad Ax” – and that’s what’s written next on the stone after the date of June 1827. This wording is taken straight from the Crawford and Vernon County history books of 1884, which contain many identical passages. Note that a second “battle” took place in the same area at the end of the Black Hawk War of 1832, although it’s now better described as a “massacre”. Most of Porter’s other stone markers commemorate the Black Hawk War.

This marker goes on to say that the battle “was fought opposite [of this spot] between 37 Winnebagos on Minnesota and Wisconsin islands and crew of keel boat O.H. Perry grounded on sandbar. Fatalities: 4 whites, 7 Indians.” At last we have something that all sources agree on, more or less. In late June of 1827, there was a skirmish at the mouth of the Bad Axe River between Ho Chunk warriors on land and the crew of a boat travelling south from Fort Snelling to Fort Crawford, and several people on both sides died.

William Snelling, who lived in the region at that time and was intimately familiar with these events, wrote that the boat crew was actually multi-racial. His account states that one of the “white” fatalities was a black man named Peter, and another was a bi-racial French/Indian man named Beauchamp.

The marker concludes with the words, “The same day [June 28, 1827], Red Bird killed Lip Cap and Gagnier at Prairie du Chien. He died in prison there.” Again sources basically agree on this statement, that Red Bird and a couple of Ho Chunk companions killed two men named Registre Gagnier and Solomon Lip Cap near Prairie du Chien in late June of 1827, although most likely not on the same day as the boat incident. These murders were probably in retribution for the rumored murders of two Ho Chunk men. The killing of Gagnier and Lip Cap is sometimes called the “Red Bird Incident”.

Various sources also agree that Red Bird died in prison at Prairie du Chien. He surrendered to federal authorities at the place now called Portage, and was taken to Fort Crawford. There he died, probably of disease, before his case came to trial. The Wisconsin Historical Society gives his death date as February 17, 1828, when he was about age 40.

The First Battle of the Bad Ax and the Red Bird Incident were both events in the “Winnebago War” of 1827, which wasn’t really a war but a short series of deadly skirmishes between the native Ho Chunk and the rapidly increasing population of settlers backed up by the U.S. army.

It would have been simpler for me to just accept the wording on the Red Bird stone marker, rather than wade through and compare multiple sources of historic information. (And there are no doubt more sources we could look at – I used only what is readily available here at the museum.) But we always have to think critically, even when something is literally written in stone. And we have to accept the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what happened long ago.


Red Bird Village Marker
The “Red Bird” historic stone marker erected by Dr. C.V. Porter along Hwy. 35 in 1930.


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For the week of 1/6/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

This past November, which was Native American Heritage Month, we briefly looked at the stone marker entitled “Site of Red Bird’s Village”. The marker is located along the Mississippi River on Highway 35 in Vernon County, between the present-day villages of Genoa and Victory. It is situated just south of the point where the Bad Axe River enters the Mississippi River.

This marker was erected in 1930 by local historian Dr. C.V. Porter as one of a series of stone markers he created to commemorate the early 19th-century history of this area. I’d like to look more closely now at the inscription on this marker, which describes a couple of incidents from 1827, to learn more about the stories and to try to determine how accurate the information is.

The museum has a few sources that mention Red Bird: two Crawford County history books, the 1884 Vernon County history book, and several articles published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The history books include accounts written by people who were there at that time, living in this region at the same time as Red Bird. All of the sources are written in rather romantic or sensational styles, but I’ve tried to pare that away to find just plain statements.

Let’s start with the marker’s first words, “Site of Red Bird’s Village”. There was a Ho Chunk man named Red Bird who was alive in 1827, all sources agree on that. But did he live here, in what is now Vernon County? The Wisconsin Historical Society describes Red Bird as living along the lower Wisconsin River, near Prairie du Chien. William Snelling, a contemporary of Red Bird, describes Red Bird’s village as being on the Black River, not far from present-day Winona.

The 1884 Vernon County history book, which appears to have been Dr. Porter’s main source of information for this marker, says that Red Bird and his band camped at the mouth of the Bad Axe for three days in June of 1827. Other sources do not place Red Bird there even for a few days, but say that several others from his tribe were there. Confusing! I think we can conclude that what Porter called a “village” is perhaps better described as a camp site, and that it might not have been associated with Red Bird at all.

Next on the stone is the date of June 28, 1827. This is the approximate date of the events described on the marker, events sometimes called the “Red Bird Incident”, or skirmishes in the “Winnebago War”. While sources disagree on the exact date, they all agree that the events took place in late June of 1827.

Well, so far we’ve only covered the first three lines of the marker, but it’s a good start. Next week we’ll study the rest of the inscription. “Historical thinking” is critical thinking, which means not taking anything for granted but instead examining each idea critically – and it’s slow work!


Red Bird Village Marker
The “Red Bird” historic stone marker erected by Dr. C.V. Porter along Hwy. 35 in 1930.


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The previous two articles:

December 30, 2018

December 23, 2018