The Potawatomi Chief in the Front Yard: An Intersection with History

The USMA Library is a wonderful resource for the community of scholars located at West Point. In recent weeks, what was once a footnote in my family history has come alive for me like never before, just by “getting lost” in the stacks in Jefferson Hall. Once I found out this “footnote” tied in with a major watershed event in American history, I was able to flesh out the life of a Potawatomi chief known to my forebears, who, it turns out, played a significant role in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Perusing over a dozen books in our collection, and augmenting what the library has by using our excellent Interlibrary Loan service, I was able to get a handle on someone almost lost to history, who, in reality, changed the course of history. And with the help of the library’s collections and services, I have been enriched with a new appreciation of my own history and heritage.

Rock 1

Shabbona’s Rock in 1977 – note the patch of original Illinois prairie

My mother, Jeanne Westgate Arden, was very close to my great aunt, Waneta Westgate Beardsley, who donated a big rock in 1969 to the LaSalle County Historical Museum in the town of Utica in northern Illinois. The significance of the rock is that it was located on the site of a log cabin near the town of Mendota belonging to the patriarch of my mom’s side of the family, Abner Westgate. Abner used to palaver with a Potawatomi chief by the name of Shabbona (pronounced shah-buh-naw), who would come around to visit during the mid-1850s. Abner sat in a wooden chair and Shabbona would always sit on the big rock in the front yard. My brother, Tom, took a picture of me sitting on Shabbona’s Rock around 120 years later, and that’s about all I knew about Shabbona at the time.

Last summer, I revisited Shabbona’s rock with family members including Aunt Waneta’s son, Craig. My cousin is fascinated by his own Native American ancestry, which he has on both his father’s side (Montauk) and his mother’s side (Mohawk). Craig even danced at powwows with the Ojibwas at Lac du Flambeau while he served as a National Forest Ranger in northern Wisconsin. Since my grandfather, Walter Westgate, who died earlier the year I was born, was nicknamed “Indian” by clients whom he guided on hunting and fishing trips into the North Woods, I have always been attuned to the Westgate family’s Mohawk lineage. Looking at old family photos, I could easily see where the nickname came from, given my grandfather’s swarthy, Native American features. Recently, I asked Craig if Shabbona might have felt especially comfortable talking with Abner, given the Westgate family’s Native American connection. It turns out I was wrong. Abner’s son, David Westgate, married Martha Anne Gibbs, and it was one of Martha’s male forebears who had married a Mohawk woman back East. Unfortunately, that woman’s name has been lost to our family history.

As a result of last year’s visit to LaSalle County, I decided to do some library research on Shabbona to find out just who he was. Again, that research utilizing the excellent collections and services of the USMA Library was invaluable. First of all, I discovered that Shabbona was quite well-known in his day, although he has since been far eclipsed in fame by his nemesis, Black Hawk, a Sauk warrior who led Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox) forces dubbed the “British Band,” making a stand in the face of white encroachment on his lands. Badly in need of the support of the Potawatomis, Black Hawk had initially approached Shabbona, who had taken over the leadership of the tribe in northern Illinois. The Sauk warrior asked Shabbona, an old comrade-in-arms from the War of 1812 when both men fought on the side of the British, to throw in the support of the Potawatomis for what was to become a bloody conflict with white settlers and the U.S. Army. Shabbona refused outright, having no desire to go to war with the whites, with whom he had friendly relations. From that point on, he became a critically important ally of the forces opposing the British Band. Ironically, Black Hawk is commemorated today throughout the upper Midwest with statues in many locations, and Chicago’s National Hockey League franchise, an Army helicopter, and four Navy vessels were named after him, as well. It seems that history tends to commemorate great warriors more than venerable peacemakers.

Chief Shabbona

Chief Shabbona

The name Shabbona is loosely translated as “built like a bear” and is likely a corruption of Shabni, meaning “he has pawed through.” He was born around 1775 of the Odawa (Ottawa) tribe, either in Ohio, Ontario or northern Illinois, possibly a grandnephew of the great chief, Pontiac. After the Algonquin-speaking tribe was driven out of Ontario by the Iroquois, they moved west into Michigan and aligned with the Council of Three Fires (Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi) and then moved further south across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. At that time the Ottawas and Potawatomis were very closely intermixed. With his heavy frame, considerable fighting skill, great strength and courage, Shabbona was a formidable warrior, yet a firm believer in fair play, even in the heat of battle. The son of an Ottawa warrior who had fought next to Pontiac in Pontiac’s War, Shabbona bravely fought alongside his friend, Tecumseh, during the War of 1812, while allied with the British against the Americans. He was by the great chief’s side when Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of Thames in 1813. After that, Shabbona decided that it was useless and counterproductive to fight against the Americans, given their overwhelming numbers. Instead, he became a devoted and loyal friend of the whites, believing that peaceful coexistence would be most beneficial to his people. Although an Ottawa by birth, he eventually became a prominent Potawatomi chief.

When the Black Hawk War broke out in May of 1832, Shabbona and his fellow chief, Wabaunsee, had already refused the Sauk warrior’s overtures, instead allying the Potawatomis with the Americans. Other tribes allied with the Potawatomis and the Americans included the Menominee, Ojibwa (Chippewa), Ottawa, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), although a minority of the latter tribe supported the British Band. Had Shabbona tipped the alliance towards the British Band, the war to follow would indubitably been much longer and bloodier, given the considerable numbers and strength of the Potawatomis and their close allies.

Black Hawk Ptg

Black Hawk

Black Hawk’s grievance with the whites began on a long hunting expedition west of the Mississippi River in what is today Iowa and Minnesota. In his band’s absence, white settlers moved into their houses located on prime farmland in northern Illinois, consuming their crops and spending considerable time drunk on corn whiskey. While on a subsequent trip, the bad news reached Black Hawk that the federal government forbade him to return to his ancestral lands east of the Mississippi. Highly angered, he was determined to make a stand. Although the Black Hawk War is remembered today as the conflict that gave young Abraham Lincoln his brief military service, and also involved the participation of other soon to be famous Americans including Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis, its greater significance is that it gave impetus to the federal government’s policy of Indian removal, in which Native American tribes were pressured to give up their lands and move west of the Mississippi.

At the onset of hostilities, Shabbona saved the lives of numerous settlers by playing the role of a Native American Paul Revere, fearlessly riding a hundred mile swath of bog, prairie and clearings in northern Illinois with his son and his nephew, to warn settlers of Sauk, Mesquakie and Kickapoo warriors on the war path. There were a minority of renegade Potawatomis as well, who had grievances against the whites. Shabbona feared their hostility would create major problems for the whole tribe, the majority of whom desired peaceful relations with the whites. While most isolated settlers heeded the warning and moved to larger settlements like the town of Ottawa for protection, a group of families at Big Indian Creek led by William Davis, a settler known to be an “Indian hater,” considered they had sufficient safety in numbers to stay put. Unfortunately, this decision resulted in a massacre by renegade Potawatomis, joined by three Sauk British Band warriors. They were outraged that a dam on the creek at the settlement disrupted their fishing upstream, leading to an earlier ugly incident when the settler took a hickory stick and beat a brave severely who tried to tear an outlet in the dam. Some boys and adult men slipped away during the attack, but out of twenty-three settlers, fifteen men, women and children were killed and their bodies badly mutilated. Additionally, two teenage sisters were taken captive by the renegades, led by the enraged Potawatomi brave who had been flogged (both survived).

Gustavus Loomis

Gustavus Loomis

Leafing through the books I checked out of the library, I came across the exploits of an 1811 USMA graduate, Captain Gustavus Loomis, an exemplary military officer in all respects. A devout Christian, Loomis was the commander at Fort Crawford, located in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where he ministered to the starving and half-naked women and children of the defeated British Band who surrendered to his garrison. Giving them food, covering their nakedness, and trying to restore their strength and health, Loomis stated, “We war not with women and children.”1 Loomis’ military career spanned from the War of 1812 to the Civil War, at which time he retired as a brevet brigadier general, after 52 years of faithful service to his country.

Shabbona, who dodged several assassination attempts by his enemies after hostilities ended, had been ceded some land in DeKalb County, Illinois, for him and his band to settle on some years beforehand. This was in response to his help quelling an earlier conflict, the Red Bird Winnebago uprising of 1827. Sadly, like so many Native Americans, he was ultimately disenfranchised of the land ceded to him, although it was finally restored to the Potawatomis by the Department of the Interior in 2001. Happily, influential white friends and neighbors generously contributed money so a fine piece of land, high over the Illinois River, could be purchased for the chief in his old age.

Never fluent in English, Shabbona enjoyed visiting white settlers nevertheless, always preferring to stay outdoors whenever possible, as he did when visiting Abner’s cabin. Although there is no record of my forebear’s conversations with the renowned chief, author James Dowd offers the following tidbit. Referring to Abner and the rock in his front yard he states, “Shabbona would, under no circumstances, enter this man’s cabin, but would sit on this stone to eat his victuals. Whatever the reason for Shabbona’s action is unexplained, but it can easily be conjectured that the spot was either some burial place, or else was believed to have been the abode of some spirit.”2 One anecdote has it that a family had invited the old chief to have Saturday breakfast at table with them, only to discover that there was not a crumb of bread left from what had been baked that morning. Seeing that Shabbona was somewhat out of sorts, the lady of the house quickly cooked him pancakes, which he found to be delicious!3

Shabbona died in 1859, a beloved figure to the many settlers whom he had befriended, leaving many descendants from his two marriages. Numerous markers around northern Illinois commemorate him, including his grave site in Morris. The Chief Shabbona Historical Trail was established by a Joliet Boy Scout troop in the 1950s. The popular walking trail winds through 20 miles of picturesque woodlands and prairie in northern Illinois, and is perhaps the most fitting legacy of this stalwart yet gentle-spirited and nature-loving man.

For further reading, the following books were very helpful:

Bowes, John P. Black Hawk and the War of 1832: Removal in the North. New York: Chelsea    House, 2007.

Dowd, James. Built Like a Bear: Which is a descriptive name for one of the last great Chiefs of  the “Three Fires” in Illinois… Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1979.

Eby, Cecil. “That Disgraceful Affair”: The Black Hawk War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973.

Edmunds, R. David. The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Hall, John W. Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Jung, Patrick J. The Black Hawk War of 1832. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Lawson, Kenneth E. For Christ and Country: A Biography of Brigadier General Gustavus Loomis. Greenville, SC: Ambassador International, 2011.

McLaughlin, Benjamin. In Black Hawk’s Footsteps: A Trail Guide to Monuments, Museums, and Battlefields of the Black Hawk War of 1832. 3rd ed. Santa Fe: B. McLaughlin, 2005.

Trask, Kerry A. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

Except for the Dowd and McLaughlin books, all are located in the USMA Library. Many thanks to the Department of History, for contacting John W. Hall, who provided me a PDF copy of his master’s thesis submitted to the University of North Carolina in 2002, “Everything to Lose: Potawatomi Auxiliaries to the U.S. Army in the Black Hawk War, 1832.”

1Kerry A. Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), 292.

2James Dowd, Built Like a Bear: Which is a descriptive name for one of the last great Chiefs of the “Three Fires” in Illinois… (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1979), 102.

3Ibid., 101-102.

Content contributed by Michael G. Arden, Audiovisual Librarian