Recollections of the Indian Days

Written by M.H. Mould for the Sauk County Historical Society. 


M.H. Mould

M.H. Mould

When a small boy, I took a great interest in Indians.  In New York State where I lived, the Indian reservation was near, and the Indians often went past our house on their way to the village.  They made all kinds of rush baskets and mats that they sold.  They were peaceable and good natured and the children were not afraid of them.  When we came west we found that most of the women and children were afraid of the Indians and there were all sorts of stories told of children being stolen and carried away.  The truth was, the Indians had more children of their own that they could well take care of.  

In the fall of the year they would come down the Baraboo River in canoes and dug-outs about October, when the fur on mink and rats was prime.  They were on their way to the big marsh between Baraboo and Portage to trap.  An old Indian told me that the big marsh was the best trapping ground for rats in the state.  In the late fall their houses would make the marsh look like a hay field  I have watched the Indians take the rats and mink out of their traps and skin them, turning the hides inside out and stretching them on willows or alder twigs.  They used to kill a great many rats in the winter time.  The musk rat in building his house always has a bench or sleeping porch inside on the south side and it is made thinner there so that they can get the warmth from the sun when it shines.  The Indians would take a sharp pointed piece of dry hickory or ash or an Indian spear and thrust it through the south side of the house and would very often get a rat.  

I have seen twenty or thirty canoes in a string pass through Baraboo down the river.  I never saw many going back up the river.  After trapping on the marsh they would go down into the Wisconsin, paddle up to Portage and go down the Fox River where large numbers camped for the winter and in the spring would hunt west to the Black and Mississippi Rivers and come back east in the fall.  Most of the canoes were birch barks, some of them were dug-outs.  The dug-outs were generally made from a basswood log 14 to 16 feet long.  It is a very long and careful job to make a good dug-out.  They cut out the center of the log first and shape it afterward, using hatchets, chisels and fire; the fire so that the wood will take the pitch, and to prevent checking.  The pitch was made by taking the sap from pine trees and boiling it with grease.  The buck Indians always made the dug-outs, but the squaws made most the birch barks.  Some of them showed wonderful dexterity in fashioning the canoes as they were made without the use of a piece of metal of any kind and with the crudest tools.  The canoes that I have seen made were fastened together with withes made form the small roots of a red cedar tree or with hickory bark.  

Required Skill to Make Canoes  

It requires a great amount of skill and patience to make a canoe that will stand the strain of a load, be carried or dragged over portages and not leak.  They must be perfectly dry for they put their robes and papooses in the bottom of the canoe and sleep in them when traveling; in these 20 or 30 boats that came down the river.  I don’t believe there was food enough to last over two days.  How different from some civilized people now who want to lay by enough so that their children and grandchildren will never suffer want.  They did not have to think of tomorrow for at that time the woods were full of game and the rivers and lakes were full of fish.   

As soon as a campground was found the squaws would put up the tents, build the fires and the bucks would hustle for food.  In those times they would make two kinds of tents or wigwams, one with long poles that they carried with them, and the other a low tent made of green poles that they cut on or near their campground.  The possessor of a long pole tent was considered “some Indian.”  In traveling they carried four poles to a tent, three of them fastened together near the small end or top and the fourth one would have the tent or sail cloth fastened to the pole about three feet below the top.  They would put up the three poles spread about ten feet at the bottom.  Then they would raise the tent pole, and taking hold of the bottom end of the cloth they would walk around the poles to make a complete covering, except at the top to let the smoke out.  They always built their fire a little to one side of the center of the tent, their beds would be on the wide side, and they always slept with their feet next to the fire. 

The low tent was made by sticking poles in the ground in a circle, and bending them to a common center, fastening them with withes.  After this frame was made the covering was made with anything that they had, buffalo skins, deer skins and rush mats, etc.  

Where Indians Camped  

There were several places along the Baraboo River where the Indians liked to camp, at the mouth of Skillet Creek, on the land by the river in Baraboo now owned by Valloo Moore, near the big boiling springs by Maxwell’s Dam, just below Butterfield’s Bridge near the old horseshoe, and winter and summer they camped on the Baraboo River in Caledonia.  I have been to all of these camps when I was a boy.  Several times I have seen them shoot fish with a bow and arrow, but they did this more for fun than for food.  One Indian that I knew had some arrows with a thin spearhead on them that he shot fish with.  He also had an iron spear with two tines on it that he speared with, but this way of getting fish was too slow for them.  They caught their fish in a trap made of poles.  They would get poles and sharpen the small end, place the butt end of the poles against the bank in a creek or narrow passage and have the sharp ends come together making an opening about six inches in diameter.  It was really a cone with the sharp and small end up stream, then a few feet above the mouth of the trap they would put stakes across the stream so close together that the fish could not get through.  They would then get into the creek 20 or 30 rods below and commence the drive; pounding the water and walking toward the trap.  When they got to the trap, an Indian would stick a pole or two in front of the small opening.  I have seen a drive where the trap was covered with fish.  They would take them out as they wanted them with spears or nets, and when there was fish or game, no one went hungry.  In an Indian community there was no such thing as one family having more than they could use and another family starving.  Civilization brought this condition.  One summer some Indians were camped on Badger Hill below Maxwell’s dam and a young Indian called Sam, used to play with us boys.  I got acquainted with Indian Sam at the old swimming hole below Moore’s tavern where Ringling’s quarters are, just below the foot bridge.  Sam said he was not an Indian but a “Breed.”  Sam would rather play with white boys and could talk good English.  He was a scrapper and always ready to fight.  I think he had a fight with every boy that came to the swimming hole.  Any one calling him Indian would have to fight or run.  He and I had a scrap the first day I met him, and after some men had pulled us apart we made up and became friendly and I went with him to the camp and we had some great times together.  

Catching Ducks  

Along in the fall they moved their camp just below Butterfield’s bridge and I stayed several days with him.  While with him, I learned several Indian methods of catching fish and _____.  I saw Sam capture two wild ducks in the Baraboo River.  Quite a flock of them were in the river near the mouth of Leech Creek.  Sam took a bundle of long grass and got into the river, the grass covering him completely.  He very slowly waded and floated down among the ducks.  He got very close to them.  I was hid behind a bush on the bank watching the bundle of grass.  The ducks kept moving away from the bundle.  An old drake got suspicious, gave the alarm and they all flew away.  I saw that Sam was working towards the shore.  I saw another flock coming across the marsh, flying low as though they were going to light.  I called to Sam that there were more ducks coming, so he stayed about a rod from shore.  He must have stood on the bottom of the river for he was perfectly still.  The whole flock lit with in a rod or two of him and began diving and flopping in the water.  Soon another small flock came and some of them _____________________________________ of grass.  I saw one disappear.  The rest of them held their heads up and moved away and soon arose and went down the river and Sam came ashore with a duck in each hand.  We had those ducks for supper, cooked by Sam’s mother, who was a big, fine looking squaw, nearly white.  She was a natural mechanic and could make all kinds of leggings, moccasins, baskets, mats and bead work.  She had made the only pigeon trap I ever saw among the Indians.  It was made of willow, filled with rushes and heavy grass.  It was about 12 feet long and 7 feet wide and 7 or 8 inches deep.  On the ground it looked like a big pan.  They had it set on what we used to call “The Island” at the north side of the marsh.  It was set on an angle of about 30 degrees and was dropped by pulling a string.  They baited with corn, wheat, wild rice, or acorns.  When I saw the trap it had about 50 pigeons in it.  I did not see the trap sprung.  They had caught them several days before.  I saw Sam and his mother get some of them out, which was done by putting a blanket over one end and along one side.  Sam crawled under the blanket at the corner, got under the trap and handed the pigeons to his mother one at a time.  She pinched their heads off and put them in her basket.  We took them to the tent, cleaned, and cooked them.  It was then from Sam’s mother I learned how to cook birds in clay.  They were covered entirely with clay and with a sharp stick she made several holes in the clay so it would not crack and to let the fire get into the meat.  They were dry, but good eating.  

There were quite a number of Indians in this camp and I asked Sam which was his father.  He said none of them, that his father was a Frenchy and lived up on Yellow River and had another squaw now.  

Most of the Indians had corn with them when they were traveling.  They raised but little themselves.  I think they got most of it from the whites, though there were several corn grounds in Caledonia and other parts of Columbia County, near Portage.  The last corn ground around Baraboo was on Badger Hill east of town.  It was about four acres and was surrounded by a thicket of plum trees, and the best wild plums to be found.  

Yellow Thunder  

I used to see Yellow Thunder a great many times.  He stopped with ___Charles Cowles when he came to Baraboo.  The last time I remember seeing him he was sitting on a stone on the corner of Third and East Street talking to Judge Camp and Missionary Hall.  I heard Judge Camp tell him he should not be allowed on the street dressed as he was, that he did not have clothes enough on to cover his nakedness.  The talk seemed to please the old fellow and he took hold of the Judge’s black broad cloth pants and said, “You give me.”  He was a bright old man and his face was the color of a baked sweet apple and about as wrinkled, but his eyes were sharp and bright.  He was about 100 years old and had walked from near Kilbourn that day.  

The Indians in those times were very fond of tobacco and whisky.  They would trade anything they had for whisky, and whisky was plentiful.  There were several home distilleries around Baraboo, where they made and sold whisky by the jug or small keg, and one of considerable capacity at Parfrey’s Glen run by a man named Roper.  I was foolish enough on several occasions to get a jug of whisky for Sam’s mother.  She was the most happy Indian I ever saw after she had a drink or two, and Sam’s step-father would sell his soul for a drink if he could get it in no other way.  He was a fine looking man when he was sober, a good hunter and trapper.  He made lots of money but it all went for booze and tobacco.  The Winnebago name for whisky is Paganine.  Most of the squaws use tobacco.  A man with a bottle of whisky was welcome in any Indian camp and they would almost cry for Pagnine.  

The wild life of the Indian seemed to appeal to most boys; I suppose we inherit it from the man back yonder.  I know it used to pull strong on me.  These were great times for boys and no doubt the boys these days would enjoy the life we led during the Civil War.  We lived on the South Side, near where Herfort’s Canning Factory is now, as every family had a cow or two as they had to go into the woods and open fields for food.  The boys would have to go after them and bring them home at night.  The cows in our neighborhood went into the woods on an old trail where Ed. Alexander lives, through to Skillet Creek bottoms which were good feeding grounds.  Say from the Charlie Spencer place to a small farm then owned by Dr. Blachly, now owned by Mr. Bittrick.  I was the only small boy that had a gun and I had quite a following; my brother Sim, two Valliket boys, Hank Niles, Jim Seaborn, Chas. Bunker, two Brown boys, Ed. Bellows, and Ed. Alexander and others.  There were all kinds of game in the woods.  All of the young, able-bodied men had gone to war, and we had things our own way and had to find our own amusements.  We needed no billiard tables, bowling alleys nor lawn tennis, to keep our muscles in trim, nor did we sit on the benches in the park and smoke cigarettes and let our fathers support us.  We chopped wood, hoed corn and milked cows.  Lots of boys 12 or 14 years old took a man’s place in the field.  

Gathering of Indians  

In closing I want to tell you of a gathering of Indians I had the good fortune to see a few years ago.  It was at Billings, Montana, during fair week.  I went there with A.P. Johnson to visit George Lamport, a Sauk County boy and a soldier in 3rd. Wisc. Cavalry.  The chief attraction of the fair was Indians and Indian racing.  They were mostly Crow Indians from the reservation, just south of Billings.  It was announced the first day of the fair that the Crow tribe would be there the first thing in the morning.  Johnson and I were up by daylight to see them come into town.  They made their camp just east of town, and they began to arrive as soon as we got to the ground, by wagons, carriages, horseback, pole drags, and about by 10 o’clock there were 1200 in camp.  The squaws did most of the work, unhitched the horses, put up the tents, carried the water from the Yellowstone River and hustled the wood.  The bucks sat around in circles playing cards and other games and shouted at the squaws and dogs.  One of the lesser chiefs of the Crows was a Negro called “Smokey.”  It was said that he came up the Missouri River to Fort Buford when a boy and was captured by the Crows.  He had quite a string of racehorses and it was the big prizes offered by the Fair Association, for the horse and foot races that brought the Indians and horsemen.  Marcus Daly of Helena had his horses and several professional foot races.  They had several races for Indians only.  The big race had 30 starters.  The rules of this race was a rope and bridle and whip, no saddle.  It was an exciting race.  The riders wore a single garment, a breach clout; they were lined up in two rows, fifteen in each row, and were started with a shot from a revolver.  It was a mile race on a half mile track.  At the crack of the gun they started to yell and whip their ponies.  Smokey’s horses won.  In the half mile race Marcus Daly’s fast Kentucky thoroughbreds won and he also won the dashes.  When the two mile race was called, the Indians began to get busy.  Smokey led out a dun colored horse on which sat a boy about fourteen years old.  He had kinky hair and I learned he was Smokey’s son.  When they were lined up for the race the Indians went through the crowd offering to be on Smokey’s horse, called Little Blue against the field.  They bet a log of money for it looked a good bet to outsiders, twenty horses against one.  Several of Daly’s thoroughbreds were in the race.  They started at the shot and got away in a bunch.  At the quarter mile post ten or twelve horses were ahead of Little Blue, at the half, they were in about the same position, at the mile five horses were bunched at least thirty rods ahead of Blue.  At one and a half mile Little was close behind the bunch and when they reached the stretch; Little Blue was close behind the leading horse, a big gray thoroughbred.  Little Blue was slowly gaining on him and the Indians were yelling and trying to bet more money.  As they came down the stretch neck to neck, Smokey’s boy used his whip for the first time and Little Blue slowly left the big horse behind, beating by two lengths.  Yell?  You should have heard those Indians yell.  I can hear them yet.  

The foot races were very interesting; some of them for Indians only and some mixed.  The Indians were no match for the professional runners in the one hundred yard race.  When they called the quarter mile race the Indians again became excited and formed a circle around a tall athletic young Indian.  They seem to be trying to get him to run.  He kept shaking his head.  A wagon drove through the crowd in which was seated Plentyques, the old chief of the Crows.  We were told that he was over ninety years old and that in his prime he stood seven feet, six inches tall.  He was the only Indian I ever saw with white hair, which was long and reached down on his shoulders.  He had a perfect Indian face as long as a cow’s.  The crowd opened a way for him; he made a motion of his hand to the tall young Indian who came to the side of the wagon.  He grunted out one word.  I was told he said “run.”  At any rate the crowd set up a yell and the young man started up the track toward the runners.  When some distance form the grandstand he took off his clothes, and as he did this, the Indians began to bet their money – two dollars on Indian – five dollars on Indian.  Every one of them that had money, had it in their hands, with hands up in the air challenging bets.  It was a very exciting race.  There were eleven starters, five white men and six Indians.  Among the white men were the professional runners.  When the shot was fired the white men took the lead.  They ran in their order about half the way when two Indians caught up with them, the tall Indian behind the bunch.  When within about forty yards of the line the tall Indian began to close up and the Indians to yell.  It was a pretty race to about ten yards of the line with one white man and the Indian, and then the Indian put his hands up in the air and ran away from them easily.  You can imagine the rest.  I cannot describe it.  I stood close by the wagon in which sat the old chief, watching for an expression from him but his face never changed.  The young Indian came at once from the track to the wagon, put his hand on the front wheel and the Chief grunted something.  I do not think he looked at the young man, simply grunted.  I knew by the look on the young Indian’s face that he was satisfied.  

The Big Scare  

A word about the big Indian scare.  I think it was in the early fall of 1863 the Kilbourn stage driver brought word that large numbers of Indians in canoes had passed through Kilbourn on the Wisconsin River and that he had seen quite a band on foot going east through Delton and thought they should be looked after.  I heard him telling Bill Wallace at the Western Hotel that some of them looked like Western Indians.  The next morning I was up town and I heard that Woodmansee and old man Steel came into town about daylight and reported that a large band of Indians were camped on the Wisconsin near Jim La Mar’s and that there were some strange Indians among them.  They were getting ready for a corn dance and they advised the people to get ready for trouble.  It was not long before the streets were full of men and women all anxious to hear the news and find out what we were going to do.  There was great excitement all the morning and along about noon some Indians came to town from camp and said all the Winnebagoes were friendly but some Crees from Canada and Sioux from Minnesota were at the camp, and had their war paint on.  An old man named Wiggins, father of John Wiggins, late postmaster of North Freedom, got on a box in front of Peck & Orvis’ store and made a speech to the crowd.  The old man was not a graduate of a grammar school or University but he could talk plain United States to perfection and he told the people what he would do if the Indians came to Baraboo.  He had a big navy revolver which he would shoot once in a while to show how he would fix them.  After shooting a few holes through Grotta’s store windows, they got him off the box and Prof. Hutchins took his place and made a give me liberty, or give me death speech, which dispersed the crowd.  Captain Jenkins, who was home on a furlough, advised that the able bodied men get what arms and ammunition they could and surround the Indian camp and keep them away from Baraboo.  Phil Cheek, who was home doing duty as provost marshal, said he would lead the company.  About three o’clock in the afternoon the gang started from Jo Scott’s and Fred Tobler’s livery stable, at the corner of Fourth and East Streets, on horseback, lumber wagons, hay racks, two Concord coaches that belonged to the Madison Stage Route, some afoot.  Two or three boys and I got on a hay rack and when we got to the cemetery road the men made us get off.  We got on a mill wagon and were whipped off from that and finally Don Lameraux and I got on top of the Concord coach and stayed there.  I can’t recall now just what road we went on, but we must have gone through Russell’s corners, past the Felt place, for I remember a man who they said was Felt stopped our team which was near the lead and said, “You damn fools, go back home.  Those Indians won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.  I have been over to the camp and they are all right, just going to have a Corn Dance.”  We soon came in sight of the camp which was along the bank of the river near the Lars Lewis farm.  Three of the men on horses rode up to the camp, the rest of the wagons stopped for a signal.  The men on horses rode the length of the camp.  They were gone about thirty minutes when they came walking back leading their horses.  Two Indians were with them which the men seem to know.  It was almost dark and the Indians had started to build some fires getting ready for the Corn Dance.  When the men got out of the wagons, I believe nine out of ten men had a bottle or jug of whiskey, and it was not long before the fun started.  The music was by a sort of drums stretched over some buffalo horns, a reed flute, and a hollow elm root, that they pounded on with a dry stick, at the same time singing a humming song, and once in a while letting out a yell.  Around this band they danced, the squaws around the outside moving very slowly and the bucks inside the circle dancing fast and furious.  The boy Indians had a Bear Dance in another part of the camp.  They had a stump the size of a bear and had covered it with an old bear skin.  They formed a circle around the bear, and one Indian at a time would go up to the bear with a club in one hand, and a knife in the other, and talked at the bear at first quiet and then kept getting louder and more excited and finally flourished the knife and club all yelling as loud as they could.  After three or four had gone through this performance they all danced in a circle around the bear and shook their clubs and knives at him.

Some of the white men got into the ring with the Indians at the Corn Dance and danced and yelled as loud as or louder than the Indians.  The whiskey began to get in its work and the sober men tried to get the teams started for home.  Two loads were all they could get to leave, and the wagons were so full that we boys and several men had to walk.  We got back to town at one o’clock and found many people on the street waiting to hear from us.  I remember one woman was very excited, because her husband was not with us.  “Where is Bill?  Where is my darling husband?”  

One of the men said, “Oh, Bill is all right.  The last I saw of him he was sitting on a log with a young squaw on his lap.”  

“He was, was he?  That’s just like the mean skunk.  He’ll get all the fighting he wants when I get hold of him.”   

That Indian raid was a joke for a long time.