Before the settlers, American Indians roamed Henry County
(This week’s history column is an excerpt from my book, THE STORY OF WETHERSFIELD 2.0, available on Amazon.com. The narrator of the book is a deceased friend of Wethersfield settler Henry Gilman Little, one of the giants. of our local history. The only addition is an 1875 annotated map of the townships of Kewanee and Wethersfield, which has appeared elsewhere in my book.)
I should tell you briefly about the Indians who lived in Henry County before the founding of the colony. Neither Henry nor I really have much to say because for the most part they were pretty much gone before we arrived.
We knew that Indigenous people were to roam in and around Henry County for millennia. But by the time the settlement of Wethersfield was founded, few Indians remained. Almost all had crossed the Mississippi River a few years after the Black Hawk War of 1832. A few small bands of Potawatomi, Winnebago and others from related tribes moved through the county with the seasons – from places where they were could become small. crops, where they could hunt deer and other game, where they could fish, and then again.
Henry and other settlers found mounds north of Big Barren Grove, indicating that ancient Indian bands once lived there, south of the Great Willow Swamp. (Henry’s uncle, the Reverend Caleb Jewett Tenney, called it in 1836 the “Winnepesseoga Swamp” when he instructed Henry and John Willard to establish the colony.)
The settlers also followed trails throughout the county, trails first made by buffaloes and other game, trails then followed by the Indians, and then also by the white man. In fact, it was a weak trail that the settlers followed in 1836 and 1837, from near my home in French Grove north to Wethersfield. This trail entered the colony between sections 31 and 32, continued north through Big Barren Woods east of Red Oak Hollow, crossed the Great Sauk Trail, found its way through the swamp, then north to Prophetstown, aptly named after an Indian prophet who had lived there during the Black Hawk War. Legend has it that it was along this trail that in 1827, Chief Potawatomi Shick-Shack led his band of over 40 families to Prophetstown and then to the Wisconsin Hills.
Henry said that in the mid-1840s some of the remaining bands occasionally camped for several weeks each winter at Red Oak Hollow. The Indians also camped along Indian Creek in Section 28, where the fishing was good and wild plums, crabapples and grapes grew in profusion along the banks of the creek. Henry noted that the slope just south of North Street to Mill Street, between Tenney and Hollis streets, was also a well-used campground. Barren Grove to the north protected the wigwams from storms coming from the northwest. The springs along the swamp provided water and the meadows provided game. Henry also said that many artifacts were regularly discovered as settlers turned the grasslands into farmland and their children explored the land.
Another name Henry mentioned to me was Shabonee, a Potawatomi chief. His name is somewhat revered in the colony, based on the story of his Paul Revere-style ride across the region in 1832, to warn white settlers of a planned Indian raid during the Black Hawk War. Its name is attached to a wooded grove in the lowlands south of the Green River.
Just as the lives of Indians changed forever with the arrival of white men, the lives of the white settlers who followed them changed in a short time. The reverie of a new life was soon replaced by an almost daily struggle against the economic realities of the country, county and village. They have faced almost an entire decade of continued hardship and slow growth. Unlike the Indians, however, these settlers could stay on their land, and they chose to do so.
(Note: I used the term “Indian” in this chapter of my book because it was probably the term my characters would have used when they were respectful – when they were disrespectful they were injuns or savages. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, today the terms “American Indian,” “Indian,” “Native American,” and “Native” are considered respectful. “The consensus, however, is that in Whenever possible, native peoples prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native Americans have been widely used but are falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms Native Americans or Native Americans are preferred by many Native Americans. ”)