By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Last September, on a beautiful autumn day, Ruth and I kicked off our annual fall photography with some exploring in Adams County, Wisconsin. One of the things we had on our list was the gravestone of a Native American baby on the shore of Petenwell Lake.
Ruth had stumbled on this unique gravestone in her research, so we just had to go check it out, but we didn’t know anything about it at the time. The gravestone sits inside a wrought iron fence and says simply “Indian Baby 1854.” After some additional research, I was thrilled to find a bit of history in the book entitled, “Weird Wisconsin: Your Travel Guide to Wisconsin’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” by Linda S. Godfrey and Richard D. Hendricks. According to the book, the original marker was wooden, but it was replaced by a stone marker after the original one was destroyed by vandals.
To add some historical context to this story, I studied the chronology of Adams County, which added meaning to this sad tale. In 1837, seventeen years before the death of this baby, the first non-Indian child was born on Fourteen Mile Creek in what would become Adams County. In that same year, the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk tribe was coerced into signing a treaty by which they gave up all their remaining land in Wisconsin.
From 1840 to 1844, federal troops attempted to force the Ho Chunk people out of central Wisconsin and onto reservations in Iowa. And in 1848, the Menominee Indians relinquished their rights to land in east central Wisconsin, including Adams County, which had been created that year by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature.
Meanwhile, white settlers continued to arrive in Adams County. In 1850, the population (on both sides of the Wisconsin River) was 187 and the first post office was established at the Marsh House tavern, which had opened five years earlier. By 1852, all of Adams County had been surveyed and the land was ready for sale.
Now, back to the story of this little Indian baby which, according to the book “Weird Wisconsin,” comes from a pioneer woman named Emily Winters St. Clair. In 1854, she and her family traveled from Pennsylvania to settle in Wisconsin. As they made this difficult journey, their infant daughter died, so they buried her in Petenwell Lake as they crossed it to continue their journey to their new home.
Upon reaching the shore, Emily and her family heard the mournful cries of a grieving mother coming from a Native American campsite near the lakeshore. What they discovered was an Indian mother who had just lost an infant son. They decided to delay their travels to attend the burial of this little Indian baby.
Over the next six years, settlers continued to pour into Adams County. They built mills and schools, opened businesses, and created towns with post offices and courthouses. By 1860, the population of Adams County had increased to 6,492 (which is an increase of over 3,000% in just ten years). I have to assume that the Native American mother of this little baby boy was forced, along with her tribe, to leave central Wisconsin.
And what about the St. Clair family? Well, they settled in the area and Emily faithfully tended to the grave in honor of both the Native American boy and her little girl who both rest forever at Petenwell Lake.
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We white people really did the Native Americans dirt. How could we demand their land and send them to live on a reservation? And we really did the colored people dirt too. Have you ever read the book "Waking up White"? I have it and read it. Would you like to read it or aren't you a reader? It really is a good book for us white people to readReplyDelete
Sr. Jane, I feel the same way. It's similar to how I feel when people are forced off their land due to "eminent domain" which is often done out of greed, not necessity. I am a voracious reader, so I would appreciate borrowing your book.Delete
There's no denying the sad history of native people having their rights and integrity trampled upon as new settlers arrived.ReplyDelete
It really is a shame how much of our history is built on people being treated unfairly (to put it mildly).Delete
Thanks for this interesting, sad story. I agree with the other comments. And, I would like to read Sister Jane's book when you're finished with it, Joann.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Phyllis. I'm sure Sr. Jane will let both of us read her book. :-)Delete
Thanks for showing tenderness of one settler to a Native American's babies grave. I also agree with the others.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Stephanie, I like that word "tenderness" because Emily Winters St. Clair supposedly watched over that little baby's grave for the rest of her life. And after she was gone, area residents took over the care of the grave, adding the fence and some plants.Delete
Great story, thank you for investigating and posting about the heartbreak and compassion not all people had back then or today. I too would like to read Sister Janes book. Hugs.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Pam. This story truly is heartbreaking. As I did my research, I was thrilled to find the history of the settlement of this area to put it all in perspective. It's sad enough to have to bury your child, but to then be forced from your home, leaving your baby's grave behind, adds another layer of sorrow.Delete
My family bought land on the lake in the 50's. The locals said that a Indian lady and her fur trapper husband had baby that died. They buried him there. Then when they were putting up the dams and making the lake they found the grave. After that they put up the stone and black fence and a older lady took care of it until she passed away.Delete
Thank you for this information from the locals. It lines up with my research.Delete