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White Boy Grew Up Among Chippewas
White Boy Grew up Among Chippewas
Son of Pioneer Missionary
Among Northern Tribesmen
Received Same Training as Indian Youths
Danced With Them About Scalp Bedecked Poles
Milwaukee Journal January 25, 1931
Contributed by Timm Severud

William W. Wheeler of Beloit

This is the first of a series of three stories about William H. Wheeler, he knew Wisconsin Indians as few white men have been permitted to know them, and whose father gave his life to improve the condition of their lives.

"Bastian," the Indians and Voyageurs called him. He is William H. Wheeler, today a retired businessman of Beloit and veteran of the Civil War.

He was born 84 years ago where today in the Indian village of Odanah in Ashland County. His father was Leonard Hemenway Wheeler, for 25 years a missionary to the Indians, and an inventor as well. He has been called the "best friend the Chippewa have ever had." He saw that the Indian had to be civilized or exterminated, and established a civil government among them, developed improved educational work and founded Odanah, besides giving religious instruction.

The Chippewas called him kekenoahnagmahgayweninnie - the teacher. When the teacher no longer possessed the physical strength necessary to make long journeys through the woods, from one Indian village to another, he resigned his post, removed to Beloit and with his son engaged in the manufacture of a windmill of an entirely new and successful type. A year before, at Odanah, he had constructed the first windmill of this type for the purpose of giving the Indians cheap power to crack the wheat which he was always urging them to grow. He believed that dependence on a harvest of wild rice caused wondering habits. He was determined that the Indians should become an agriculturist, and, to further work that, he put his Yankee ingenuity to work and originated the windmill along lines now known as the world over as the Eclipse Windmill. The same windmill is today manufactured by a company, which, years after the death of the missionary, bought the business.

William Wheeler attended the school that his father had established for the Indian children. He learned to read in a spelling book printed with parallel columns of English and Ojibway words. This is said to have been the first book writing wholly or in part in Wisconsin.

The young Bastian went into the forest hunting with the Indian boys. Many a time he has taken part in an Ojibway dance that circled about a pole decorated with a Sioux scalp. He learned the songs of the Canadian voyageurs rolled out as they swept their bateaux down the rivers or alone the shore of the lake. He can sing those songs today. One of them begins, 'La fille du rois, sauvages.'

He remembers Michael Bousquet and Louis Generi and dozens of other light-hearted voyageurs.

Ramsey Crooks

He cannot remember when he did not know about various fur companies, which one was on the ground first and what happen when old John Jacob Astor gave up the fur trade and Ramsay Crooks became president of the American Fur Company. Such things were historical incidents, and familiar to everyone in the Lake Superior Basin.

William Wheeler has spent little time on Indian reservations since the Civil War. He has been engaged in important enterprises that have carried him to many different parts of the country. He has put in water tanks for railroads and water systems for numerous cities. But he has never lost his feeling of kinship with the Chippewas.

Sometimes, yet, in a railroad station he surprises a family of waiting Indians by speaking to them in their own language. He reads what is ever written about Indian claims. All of his life he has listened to accounts of unscrupulous individuals cheating the Indians.

Reverend Leonard Hemenway Wheeler

The illness that finally took his father's life was induced by a journey of terrific hardship made to circumvent an 'Indian Ring' which, through legislation at Washington, plotted to steal the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation from the Chippewas.

If this was to be prevented, Mr. Wheeler must be in Washington as soon as possible. This was in February 1859, when the railroad ran only as far as Sparta, Wisconsin. Mr. Wheeler was in Odanah.

In spite of the fact that it was bitterly cold, the missionary friend of the Chippewas fastened on his snowshoes and started. With a blizzard behind his back all the way, he made the entire 250 miles and boarded the train at Sparta with feet cut and bleeding from the thongs of the snowshoes.

He arrived in Washington ill, but in time to checkmate the machinations of the Indian Ring and saved the reservation of his Ojibway brothers. But the illness induced by the extreme hardships of the trip left him a broken man and finally caused his death. This 'Indian' trend to the lives of the Wheelers dates back to the translation of a certain book. Mr. Wheeler takes it from the shelf in his Beloit home - a New Testament in the Ojibway language, published in 1845. The translation was the work of the Reverend Sherman Hall, a missionary at La Pointe, on Madeline Island, at the mouth of the Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior. The translation of the New Testament was responsible for bringing the Wheelers to Wisconsin.

Now we will let William Wheeler tell the story. He reasons directly like a businessman but his speech has taken something both from the Indian and the missionary.

His story begins when his father was a serious minded young theological student at Andover who has already received a degree in letters from Middlebury College in Vermont. This was in the late 1830s when a wave of missionary spirit was sweeping the country. Young Leonard Wheeler had decided to become a missionary. India was to be his field - India with its child marriages, baby girls drowned in the Ganges� India, waiting to be Christianized.

Instead, he became a missionary to the Indians.

"While father was studying at Andover," says William Wheeler, "The Reverend William Thurston Boutwell came on a visit from Mackinac where he had been a missionary since early in the 1830s, working under the American Board, composed of Congregationalists and Presbyterians."

"Mr. Boutwell was looking for some young man who would agree to go to the mission at La Pointe and relieve the Reverend Sherman Hall of some of his duties so that he might be able to complete a translation of the New Testament into the Ojibway language. 'If you will go to La Pointe,' Mr. Boutwell said to father, 'Mr. Hall will be able to devote his entire time to the translation. Think of the far-reaching effects upon the Chippewa when they are able to read the Scriptures in their own language.'"

"Father considered the problem. Indians won out over India and he decided to go to the west and teach the red man."

Mrs. Leonard (Harriet Wood) Wheeler

"He hurried his studies, went to Pittsfield, Mass., to take a couple of courses in medicine, and then, at Lowell, Mass., he married his sweetheart, Harriet Wood, who had been a pupil of the famous Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College. He took his bride on a short visit to his father in Vermont and then the newly wedded pair started out for the frontier."

"The Lake Superior region was frontier in 1841. In spite of the fact that fur traders had been on the ground for many years and a mission had been established on Chequamegon Bay by Allouez in 1665 (176 years earlier.) Father Marquette, you remember, joined Allouez, but the Sioux forced them and their faithful Hurons to move eastward, 'like leaves before an autumn blast' and old account says."

" There was a gap of more than 160 years between this first mission and the next one to be established on Lake Superior. In 1830 it was opened by the American Board at La Pointe, the new base of the American Fur Company, and the next year the Reverend Sherman Hall arrived to preach, teach and begin his translation of the New Testament. Now father and mother were to take over the missionary work so that Mr. Hall might complete his literary labors." "My parents went by steamboat to Mackinac. There they met the wife of Reverend Boutwell - he was the one that you will remember persuaded my father to go to La Pointe."

"Mrs. Boutwell was Hester Crooks, a daughter of Ramsay Crooks and her mother was a French and Indian girl from Mackinac, where Mr. Crooks had been John Jacob Astor's headman. It was quite the fashion to marry half-breeds in those days."

"When Astor withdrew from the fur trade Ramsay Crooks became president of the American Fur Company. He operated all over the west, at St. Louis, at various northern bases and even on the Pacific slope."

"Washington Irving, in 'Astoria' gives a very good account of some of the adventures of Ramsay Crooks. He was one of the Astor party that forced their way across the Rockies, through the Indian Country and to Oregon in spite of terrific hardships."

"The life of Crooks is a story ready for some writer of scenarios. After he left the west Crooks lived in New York City. He was one of the pallbearers at old John Jacob Astor's funeral."

"Hester Crooks had been educated in the mission school at Mackinac. Before her marriage to Mr. Boutwell she had taught in the school."

"As a boy I knew the Boutwells and listened to many a story told by others of their sacrifices and heroism. Mrs. Boutwell had the brain of her brilliant Scottish father and her Indian mother's soft eyes." "It was her husband who name Lake Itasca. He had gone on an expedition with Henry R. Schoolcraft to discover the source of the Mississippi. When it was determined, Mr. Boutwell, being a Latin scholar, was asked by Schoolcraft to form a name for the lake. He formed Itasca from the Latin words veritas (truth) and caput (head) - true head."

"Mr. & Mrs. Boutwell spent their later years with the Minnesota Indians near Stillwater, Minnesota. By a curious chain of circumstances I happened to visit Mr. Boutwell during his last sickness. That was in 1897."

"I was a businessman of 50 then and Madeline Island was far back in my past. I learned that Edwin Hall, son of the translator of the New Testament, was a Minnesota legislator. Now Edwin, who was a little older than I, had deviled me a good deal as a boy and at one time when we were men I had sent word to him that some day I would perpetrate to sell of his life on him. You know the half-breeds and French Canadians were chucked full of fun and were always playing jokes on each other. Naturally we followed their example."

"In St. Paul I called upon Edwin, whom I had not seen for many years, and set forth that I was studying the various Indian dialects and that I had been recommended to go to him as one who was well posted."

"I think I can call myself posted," replied Edwin, not recognizing me."

"I want to ask a few questions," I said, 'So that you may determine whether or not I grasp the Ojibway language."

"That's all right," said Edwin"

"'How are your sisters and other female relations?' I asked in Ojibway. Then changing to English asked if the sentence was correctly spoken."

"Edwin said that it was."

"Do I seem to have grasped the language?"

"Remarkably well."

"I use to know you long ago," was my next sentence in Ojibway. "Our fathers were both preachers."

"Hold on, which one of the Wheelers are you? You sold me completely� Lets make it a supper and a show."

"Edwin and I went to see James O'Neil in Hamlet. During the evening he told me that the Boutwells were living near Stillwater. I resolved to hunt them up."

"Through a government blacksmith who had once worked at Odanah, I located the farm. I found the aged missionary on the bed from which he would never rise. He greeted me and then with a trembling finger pointed to a white stone out the window. 'There lays Harriet,' he said, while tears welled up in his eyes. I was glad that I had gone to see him. He died not long after."

"But I have gotten a long way from my story of the trip of my parents to Madeline Island in 1841."

FROM: The Milwaukee Journal - February 1, 1931
A White Boy in an Indian Scalp Dance
Wisconsin Businessman Continues Story of
His Youth Among the Chippewa of Northern Wisconsin

Last week William H. Wheeler, a retired businessman of Beloit, told of the arrival in Wisconsin of his parents, who came out as missionaries to the Chippewa Indians.

"Father and Mother left Mackinac in an open boat, transferring to the little schooner Algonquin, at the time the only boat on Lake Superior," William H. Wheeler of Beloit resumed the story of the arrival in Wisconsin of his parents, who had come as missionaries to the Chippewa Indians. "This took them into the old harbor on Madeline Island." "While my parents were both deeply religious, they soon decided that the Indians needed instruction in agriculture quite as much as they did to be indoctrinated with Christian teachings. Father foresaw that the Indians would soon be put on reservations and he began to make preparations to teach them the things they would have to know in order to farm. He thought, too, that they ought to take their place in community life. Civil government was one of the subjects he expected them to learn."

"The family home at La Pointe was in the mission house which had been built earlier by Mr. Hall. It is standing today. People usually alluded to it as the 'middle fort.' The dock was the 'new fort' and the old trading post dating back to the French regime, was the 'old fort.' My older brother and sister and two younger children were born in the old mission house."

"Father took charge of the mission and Mr. Hall spent his time with the translation. He worked directly from the Greek to the Ojibway."

"Father selected some land in the primeval forest, on the Bad River, east of where Ashland is today, as the field for his agricultural experiment. He gave the name Odanah, which means village to the settlement. He moved there May 1, 1845, and there I was born, January 1, 1847. A treaty locating the Bad River Reservation was signed in 1854-5. We usually spent the winters at Odanah and summers on Madeline Island."

"I can remember as a small boy seeing a big house built. Those northern pioneer buildings were real works of art and extremely accurate jobs. The French-Canadian experts with their broad axes would hew up the logs until they looked as though they had been planed. Uprights were all grooved and fitted to a heavy sill, including corner posts. Every opening was framed and each finished with a cap timber."

"For clapboards they whipsawed timbers. A platform was constructed on which one of the men took his place with the pitman working below. One pulling and then the other, they manipulated the saw."

"A house was lathed by splitting cedar logs into thin two-inch strips, and fastened to the wall diagonally with one course laid on top of the other, lattice fashion, properly spaced to hold the plaster of red clay. When this was dry the wall was whitewashed and you had an inviting interior."

"My first teacher was Miss Abbie Spooner, who had come from the east with mother and father. The little Indian boys and girls learned exactly as fast as the children of the missionaries. At that time there was no effort on the part of the missionary teachers to obliterate the Indian culture."

"We white children learned Indian, the young Chippewas learned English. There were some missionaries who preferred that their children did not associate with the Indian boys and girls, but my father was not one of these."

"He was a great believer in the gospel of work and in the duty of himself and his family to set good examples in diligence. At Odanah he took great pride in having a model garden. He also believed that work kept a boy out of mischief. So, in the morning, he would give each of us a stint - set the amount of work that my brothers and I had to get through with that day."

"We would set to work weeding the garden, or hoeing it. Pretty soon along would come a group of our Indian companions to lean over the fence and tease us to join them. 'Get your bows and arrows," they would say, "and we will go hunting.'"

"'We can't. We go to work.'"

"The Indian boys would get their heads together for a moment. Then they would climb over the fence. 'If you will get some tools we will all help� and when we are through we will all go hunting.'"

"You may be sure that father had plenty of tools handy for just such emergencies and soon there would be a whole row of boys just eating up the work."

"When it was done, we would take our bows and arrows and start for the woods to hunt partridge and squirrels."

"Our partridge hunting was lots of fun. You know a male partridge has a way of sitting on a log and drumming. Iuequeenqwaah, the Chippewa call the partridge."

"As soon as we caught the sound we would stop and then in single file slowly move in its direction, halting every few feet to listen intently, and peering through the leaves until finally some pair of bright eyes caught sight of the partridge. Usually he was sitting on the trunk of a tree that had been blown down."

"Moving quietly like the young Indians that we were, we would stretch out making a wide circle around the drummer on the log and then gradually contract this ring until at last the bird caught sight of one of us."

"I can see a partridge now, turning his head nervously in one direction and then the other, as thought it were on a swivel, looking vainly for an opening in the ring that encircled him. As he watched us, we moved closer to him until finally one of us was close enough to let an arrow fly."

Hold firm, strong, brown hands,
Look straight eagle eye,
Pull on the good cord,
And the arrow let fly.

"The rest of us would then rush in sending arrows towards him and about one time in three we would get the bird."

"In a pasture on father's place in Odanah was a tall totem post. Father was careful to preserve this post, and the land about it just as it was, for it was the place where the Indians were accustomed to set up their conjuror's lodge. The spruce trees were not cut and even the underbrush was preserved. Every once in a while the Indians would put up the lodge."

"They used a cabinet, just as the spiritualistic medium does. I have seen the poles on one of these lodges, frozen into the ground, shake and ring bells as a medicine man worked his incantations. The band of Indians camped nearby would come, one by one, to hold communications with their dead."

"Sometimes there would be a Sioux scalp with its long braids placed on top of the totem pole, and there would be dances that circled about it. At such times we boys would be certain to go down to the pasture and join the band. I can hear the rhythmic pounding of drums today. Suddenly it would cease and into the circle would leap the man who had taken the scalp."

"'I am about to relate an adventure,' he would begin, speaking slowly and acting out every sentence. 'This adventure happened up the current of the Minnesota River, where it makes the great bend.'"

"We understood by this that he was speaking of Granite Falls."

"'So high hung the sun,' He continued, raising his arm expressively, 'when I started on the particular adventure I am about to relate. At the end of ten days did I reach the great bend, and�' the speaker was becoming excited as he enacted his story."

"'On the following morning as I ran through the grass, crouching low on the other side of the river, suddenly up sprung a strange Indian. He was a Sioux.' The speaker now acted not only his own movements but those of his adversary."

"'As we drew near to each other and while he tried to brain me with his tomahawk, did I drop the hammer of my trusty flintlock upon him. And even in his death struggle did I shear him! Sound the drum!'"

"If this was the first scalp the Indian had taken he would say. 'This is why I am worthy to wear the eagle feather.'"

"I remember hearing one Indian tell about meeting a Sioux, 'floating in his canoe, unsuspicious, and of how he blew his enemies head off.'"

"'But' he went on to say, 'in the water he looked a me and laughed, brave even in his death struggle.' The recital usually tended to prove the bravery of the one whose scalp had been taken, because this enhanced the quality of the deed."

"Father sent one of these Sioux scalps to the headquarters of the American board in Boston so that they might understand the type of people he was trying to help. And years later I went up to the rooms of the missionary society and saw there, among the idols of India, the Sioux scalp with its long black braids."

"I never saw Indians dancing around a white man's scalp. The Chippewa's were allies of the white man from the first."

Mary Warren - daughter of Lyman Warren

"The year I was born, Mary Warren, a girl of 11, came to live with us. She was a daughter of Lyman Warren, who was instrumental in persuading the American Board to send the fist missionary to Madeline Island and was the first manager of the Astor Company at La Pointe. Before his death Mr. Warren asked father to take Mary."

"The Warren, Lyman and Truman, were Berkshire Hills boys who came to Madeline Island in 1810. They married daughters of Michel Cadotte, the last of the old French fur traders. The grandfather of the Cadotte girls was White Crane, a famous Ojibway chieftain." "Thus Mary Warren, by inheritance, was connected with every phase of Madeline Island history and life. She was sent to an Ohio college, and became a missionary to the Indians at Odanah, Red Cliff, Wisconsin and at Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth, Minnesota, where she died only three years ago."

"Father carried on an unremitting warfare against those who were perpetually trying to take the Indian's land from him. Very soon after the Bad River Reservation was established, a group of politicians tried to get hold of this pine on the 'school sections' - sections 16 and 36 of every township."

"This land was specifically reserved for the support of schools. It was said that these sections did not belong to the Indians at all. The case was carried to the Supreme Court for the Indians. That court decided that on reservations there was no such thing as 'school lands.' That every inch of the reservation belonged to the Indians."

"In 1859 came father's trip to Washington to save the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation from the Indian Ring, when he traveled 250 miles on shoe shoes through a blizzard to catch a train at Sparta. He was none too early either, for when he arrived in Washington the bill had been advanced to the third reading."

"Father asked for and obtained an interview with President Buchanan, with the result that the bill was wiped off the map. His trip saved the reservation for the Indians but lost him his life. In two months he had lost the use of the right lung. He was never well again."

FROM: The Milwaukee Journal - February 8, 1931
Back to Wisconsin from the Civil War
Beloit Businessman Who Grew up Among the Chippewa Indians
in the Northern Part of the State Tells of His Brief Enlistment
With Other Wisconsin Boys and of the Tedious Journey Back Home

This is the final installment of his boyhood told by William H. Wheeler, retired businessman of Beloit, whose youth was spent among the Chippewa Indians of Northern Wisconsin, where his parents were missionaries. Mr. Wheeler in previous installments has told of the arrival of his parents at La Pointe, and of his boyhood, which differed but little from that of the Indian youths with whom he played.

"While we lived at Madeline Island and Odanah a good many prominent Americans came to visit especially at the time of the Indian payments. The first payment at Odanah was in 1855."

"Once a young professor who was a Yale graduate came to take some part in the payment. He was Professor Joseph Emerson, who taught Greek at Beloit. He urged father to send us there to enter the Beloit academy."

"In April 1864, when I was just turned 17, President Lincoln sent out a call for 100-day troops to take over the military duties in southern cities so that the seasoned troops might be released to take part in Grant's campaign."

"I enlisted in the 40th Wisconsin, a regiment composed of college boys, and Bishop Samuel D. Fallows was our Lieutenant Colonel. Senator John C. Spooner was a private. We were sent to Memphis where we took over one half of the picket line, the other half being held by the 39th Wisconsin a similar regiment. I came out of the army in October 1864."

"Our Beloit contingent of 60 travelers from Madison to Beloit, crowded the caboose of an accommodation train. I was happy at the thought of getting back home. Not many days now and I would be in the pine-scented woods of Odanah. Mother and father and the children would be there."

"It was stuffy in the caboose, so some of us went out on the platform. We were laughing and joking, a bunch of boys glad to be through with war."

"There is a heavy downgrade between Clinton and Beloit and as we came through a rock gorge, a cinder from a shower of wood sparks hit me squarely in my good eye. The other had not been of much use since it had been straightened as a child. This one bad eye had something to do with getting me the name 'Bastian.' It appeared that some Frenchman called Bastian who was quite a character around Lake Superior, owned a bad eye."

"The pain in the eye which the wood spark struck was intense. I found myself blind." "In Beloit I had medical attention and waited around until I could manage to make my way home to Odanah."

"Such a trip that was! I first went to Green Bay over the Northern Railroad. There I boarded a boat to Escanaba. Then came a trip by rail 65 miles across the Upper Peninsula to a point 13 miles this side of Marquette, Michigan, as far as the railroad had been completed. A stage took me to Marquette."

"There I boarded one of Mark Hanna's boats that landed me at Ontonagon. Then came a voyage on a sailing vessel, brining me to Bayfield, where I climbed into a bateau with Baptiste DeNumone, one of my old French Canadian friends. Now, I was getting home." "We camped that night at the mouth of the Bad River. I slept in my army blankets. The next morning we hat to break our way through the ice. When we came to a familiar trail leading off through the woods, I told Baptiste to put me off."

"With my pack on my back I arrived at the Indian school to be greeted as one from the dead. I had been gone from home more than a year."

"In 1866 father moved to Beloit and the windmill that had contrived for the Indians back at Odanah, now named the Eclipse, supported us. Father died in 1872. In 1893 the Fairbanks-Morse people bought our rights and business."

"I have done a good many things since. After the sale of the Eclipse, we organized 'W.H. Wheeler & Company, a firm of consulting and construction engineers, which built many water systems and promoted municipal ownership of many public utilities. Through our efforts a number of industries were located in Beloit and elsewhere. An illustration of the effects of our efforts is the manufacturing suburb of South Beloit, Illinois. A cornfield in 1902, it is now a city of 2,300 with 16 active industries, all up to date civic improvements and advantages."

"But the years devoted to business do not stand out as do the early ones spent on the reservation. Each season brings up special memories of the woods."

"Soon now I am sure that the young Chippewas will be making the flutes - it is the young man in love who fashions a flute."

"He takes a number of small cedar staves and fastens them together with sturgeon glue. He cuts openings and makes a small reed� the flute is finished. Its voice shall tell the girl of his dreams, the story of his love. He steals close to her lodge, puts the flute to his lips and its voice tells of love and spring, of mating birds, and of the soft winds that will come soon bringing little flowers under the pine trees."

"From the forest comes her answer in a minor key."

Naytahwunokeed, Nondonaywug

How could I find the skillful hunter
Were I to seek him.

"It is three quarters of a century since I have heard the Ojibway love song on an Indian flute in earliest spring."

"White musicians try to play it, but they miss the poignant transportation from major to minor that has in it the bittersweet of life, the tenderness and the cruelty."

"I married a Beloit girl, the daughter of Professor S. Lathrop, first head of the Chemistry Department of Beloit College. We have always made our home in Beloit."