By: Lloyd Clark
(Author’s Preface: Newspaper articles are a treasure trove of information about our past, our present, and possibly our future. I am indebted to the following early Wisconsin newspapers, the Horicon Gazette, the Beaver Dam Argus and the West Bend Post, as well as The Wisconsin Magazine of History, January 1917, in providing not only excellent and provocative information about the war, but a “unique” perspective from which to view it. I have drawn extensively from what was written, and to give the reader a keen sense of exactly what happened, will include it verbatim.)
Every one of us I am sure has, at one time or another, played the game “telephone” where one person whispers a message to another, who whispers it to another, who whispers it to yet another until the message has passed down an entire line of people. Except for rare occasions, the message that the last person in the row receives is entirely different from the initial message. It is a fun party game, and the change in the message is almost always hilarious. Unfortunately, on a hot August day in 1861, a real life version of the game played out that was anything but funny.
Early in the morning of Monday, August 26, 1861, a “breathless messenger” came to the village (Horicon) with the information 14 houses had been burned by the Indians at Kekoskee and some of the inhabitants had been murdered. Not only that, the messenger told the shocked inhabitants “that 800 warriors were on their way to Horicon to burn and pillage the town.” As you might expect, this news spread rapidly through the village, as bad news is want to do, and the streets soon were thronged by panicked townsfolk.
It is not hard to imagine the scene: On one corner of the village, crowds of women huddled together crying, while the men congregated on another corner to discuss what actions needed to be taken, immediately. To make the scene even more chaotic, children, dismissed from school, ran screaming and wailing through the streets adding to the cacophony of noise and no doubt increasing the tension exponentially.
It did not take long for wagonloads of farmers to arrive from the surrounding countryside, and an effort was made to arm all the men to defend the town. Only a motley array of firearms “with here and there a bludgeon and pitchfork” could be produced. It seemed certain that the town was doomed unless extraordinary measures, and perhaps some state and federal troops, managed to occur. A telegram went out to Milwaukee calling for state troops to come to the rescue of the beleaguered village.
Several wagonloads of brave men headed out to Kekoskee to reconnoiter the damage and determine exactly where the native warriors were and how long until they reached Horicon. Others, reacting to the dire news, gathered their families, made hasty preparations, and flee to safety, and some of these families actually piled into wagons and headed down the dirt road that would one day be Highway 33 to Milwaukee. Remember, Wisconsin was very much the “Western Frontier” of the United States in 1861 and even though there had been relative peace between the native tribes and the settlers, disputes often arose, sometimes leading to violence, and suspicion was ripe in both camps.
Meanwhile, messengers dispatched to the surrounding villages for men to help repel the impending attack made great progress, and soon a large company of men from Hustisford marched to Horicon to bear a share in the defense of that place. In Beaver Dam, “dispatches were received by the mayor that 1500 Indians were at Horicon. A man rode through the countryside at full speed warning the farmers to flee for their lives, and many set out with their families for town, some with beds and blankets on which to pass the night.” According to the Beaver Dam Argus, “”Determined men” set out for Horicon, armed with a motley array of weapons, — guns, pistols, corncutters, and pitchforks.”
Worse, the reports were spreading panic throughout the region. According to the Wisconsin Magazine of History, “At West Bend, in Washington County, the news from Horicon produced a night of terror. The excitement began in the afternoon on receipt of the first report of an impending Indian descent upon Horicon. It became more general when at about seven o’clock the evening Milwaukee paper arrived confirming the news of the outbreak.
“Nothing of importance transpired, however, until ten o’clock, when a messenger came in from the Dekorra Road, some ten miles west, with the information that a large body of Indians was descending upon West Bend. This news, according to the contemporary scribe, “capt the climax.” To the wild firing of guns and the roll of drums in the streets people sprang from their beds.”
The West Bend Post reported, “Children were crying and men and women were seen running in all directions. Speeches were made advising the men to stand by their homes and their families till the last. Picket guards were immediately formed and sent out in every direction, armed with rifles, shotguns, pistols, pitchforks, or whatever could be got hold of.” The gunsmith was kept at work all night repairing ancient muskets and pistols. Some of the women packed their silverware, while others, still more prudent, advised their husbands to make their wills.
One woman who had been bedridden for over a year and who lived half a mile out from town was hastily dumped into a wheelbarrow and trundled into the village for safety. “Mounted men went out at half-hourly intervals to visit the pickets and returned reporting all well until two o’clock A. M. Then a man was reported shot, but it was finally ascertained that he was shot in the neck with sidearms which he carried.”
“At Barton, a short distance north of West Bend, one man stood picket all night armed with an ax and clad only in a shirt, not daring to leave his post long enough to dress. At Fox Lake, a similar state of excitement prevailed on receipt of the news from Horicon. The townsmen hastily armed, and about 200 were leaving for the scene of battle.
Even at distant Galesville, almost across the state from Horicon, when the report of trouble at Horicon reached town the citizens suddenly recalled that Indians had been there buying powder and lead, and the story gained credence that Galesville was to be burned and its population massacred. Panic ensued and guns were collected and cleaned; pitchforks, corn knives, and fish spears were brought out and placed in the hands of an extempore Home Guard. For bullets, old type from the printing office, tea lead, and masons’ plummets were melted. In response to the story that 200 Indians were to attack Galesville in the night, patrols kept watch until daylight.
Shortly after noon, the men who had gone to Kekoskee to reconnoiter returned with the report that all was quiet at that place. They had found only 25 or 30 Indians around the encampments there, thoroughly frightened at the appearance of so many armed men among them. Much like the news reports of terrorism today, the report did nothing to allay the fears of the townsfolk. In fact, the report achieved the opposite, striking further panic among the citizenry. They regarded the small number of natives to be highly suspicious, and before long, the theory that their enemies were lying concealed in the woods, just waiting for night to fall to attack and destroy the town. Nothing of consequence happened that night in Horicon.
The next day, cooler heads prevailed and according to the Horicon Gazette, “At a public gathering in the afternoon a committee of 15 was appointed to make a second investigation of the situation and discover, if possible, the cause of the alarm. This committee journeyed to the Indian camp the same afternoon and the next morning proceeded with their investigation. They found that the camp contained 23 men, with three times as many women and children. With the aid of an interpreter, a long talk was had with the chiefs of the band, who expressed their “utter astonishment” at the visitation from so large a body of armed men the day before, saying that if attacked they “should fold their hands and unresistingly be shot down.” They ridiculed the idea of so small a band of warriors rising in insurrection in the midst of thousands of white men; they had no other home than this small piece of land and here they wished to live in peace until gathered to their fathers.”
The story continued, “Such sentiments were highly encouraging to the committee, which now proceeded to inquire into the origin of the report of hostilities.
“It found the whole matter had grown out of a quarrel between a German settler named Dagen and a drunken Indian. The German had threatened to shoot one of the red men’s ponies, and about two weeks before the panic one of them had been shot, by Dagen as the Indians believed. On Sunday, August 25, one of the Indians, in a partially intoxicated condition, accused Dagen of the shooting and “chased him around a stump, but did not draw his knife from his girdle.” Dagen appealed to his neighbors to watch his house and stacks for fear they would be burned, and thus the rumor spread “and grew as it traveled until it became truly alarming.”
When reporting their findings to the town’s citizens, the committee presented all of the information that they had gathered. They allayed the town’s fears, no doubt blamed the messengers, and concluded, “The fear inspired in a “Dutchman’s” breast by one intoxicated Indian sufficed to produce a full-blown panic.” They further took the occasion to condemn, in strongest terms, the conduct of those who were in the habit of selling liquor to the Indians, “and especially those who, visiting their camps, take the opportunity of insulting their females.” It concluded by gravely expressing the belief “that the lives and property of whites in the vicinity are safe.”
The “troops” from Beaver Dam, Fox Lake and the surrounding areas, informed of the mistake, returned to their homes before they even reached Horicon. The men from Hustisford returned to their homes and their fields. In West Bend, one man must have been very red-faced over shooting himself in the neck, especially when there had never been any actual enemies at all, and in Galesville, more than a few people must have laughed at their overreaction and embellishment of the initial story.
As the editor of the Horicon Gazette commenting on the “Great Horicon War” described the event, it was “…the most exciting day ever known to the inhabitants of Horicon,” no doubt an understatement of incredible proportion.
This was definitely one game of “telephone” that quickly got out of hand. Starting with a single one intoxicated Native, enraged that one of his horses had been shot but who had not even drawn a knife on the suspected shooter, the story grew to first 800 and then 1500 Native warriors ravaging the countryside. It was not a prairie fire that spread over Wisconsin that day, it was fear; fear of the “other” that makes any statement, no matter how outlandish and ridiculous, believable. We still have these fears today, and it behooves us as a community to put these irrational fears and prejudices aside in order to continue the success of this “Great Melting Pot” we call America.