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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 6, 2003 - Issue 95


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Reminiscences of a Pioneer Missionary -- By Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst (Part 2)

Reminiscences of a Pioneer Missionary By Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst
Wisconsin Historical Society Founded 1849
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Separate No. 173 - From the Proceedings of the Society for 1916

credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

A neighbor of ours, a distant relative, Martin School by name, lived some three miles away in a deep valley, or rather ravine through which a creek ran. One night he heard some noise near the creek and thinking it was a deer coming to drink he tried to shoot it. His gun, which was one of the old, fashioned kind, failed to go off, and so he went back in the dark to his house to fix it. In a moment in rushed an Indian in a terrible rage, exclaiming: "You want to shoot Indian! Shoot Indian!" The Poor man tried to make the Indian understand that he was very nearsighted and that he had thought it was a deer drinking at the creek. Gradually the Indian comprehended his explanation, which was given more by signs and motions than by words. The red man's anger gradually died away but he insisted on having a dance then and there. Probably he had imbibed too much firewater somewhere. So School had to do the singing and clapping with his hands to keep time, while the Indian danced around on the floor until finally he became tired and departed.

On one occasion in the wintertime my oldest brother, Martin, who used to work every winter in the pineries near Green Bay to help support the family, was walking along when he came upon a drunken Indian. The latter insisted on dancing with him immediately. Martin had never danced in all his life and, in fact, knew no more about dancing than the man in the moon, but dance he must, for the Indian demanded it and to refuse might cost him his life. So the two jumped around it the snow on the road, yelling as loudly as they could to keep time and moving about like two inmates of a lunatic asylum My brother began to get tired of this strenuous exercise, but he dared not stop for fear of the Indian's gun. At length the Indian suddenly started off and Martin gladly took the opposite route.

The roads in those primitive days were generally poor, often in miserable condition. The only good one I knew of was the military Road from Fond du Lac to Green Bay. It was a plank road from the county line between Calumet and Brown counties to Green Bay, a distance of about twenty-four miles. The south end of the road -- not planked through Calumet County to Fond du Lac -- was fairly good, considering the general condition of Wisconsin roads in those days, but it was very poor when compared with the public roads of the present time. Two or three times in my boyhood days I went to Green Bay on this plank road; the first time with my father about the year 1857. My brother had earned a little over $200 in the pinery north of Green Bay, but instead of the cash had received only a note, or check, for his pay. He had left the check with Timothy Howe [Note: Timothy Otis Howe, who was born in Maine in 1816, came to Wisconsin in 1845 and opened a law office at Green Bay. He was circuit judge from 1850 to 1855, when he resigned and retired to private practice until his election in 1861 to the United States Senate. He was twice reelected and was tendered the positions of chief justice of the United States and of minister to England, both of which he declined. In 1881 he was appointed postmaster-general and while an incumbent of that office died, Mar. 25, 1883.]  in Green Bay for collection. I went along with father to act as interpreter on this occasion; but we made a long journey of some fifty miles going and returning for nothing. Ever since then I have felt rather unkindly toward lawyers. The second occasion was about a year later when I went to call Martin Van den Broek, then working in Green Bay, to the funeral of his father. The latter had died from the effects of partaking too freely of ice-cold water while assisting in haymaking at Ballard's farm. On this occasion I walked continuously for twenty-four hours, going to Green Bay in the daytime and returning to Hollandtown the ensuing night, a total distance of about fifty miles.

The most wretched road I remember was the one from Hollandtown to Kaukauna, or Kaukaulo, as it was then called. This road followed no particular town or section line but zigzagged through the woods. There were innumerable mud holes; each one apparently worse than the rest, and no attempt had been made to improve the road. It struck the river bottom not far from Beaulieu's Mill and then continued up the river to the dam, above which people would cross the river to the village of Kaukaulo. This consisted of some half a dozen houses in addition to a stroke kept by Hunt. On the south side of the river there were in 1855 only two settlers; one was Beaulieu, an Indian, or half-breed, who had a small farm and a gristmill [Note:  Paul H. Beaulieu settled on the south side of Fox River in 1835 and purchased the mill that had been erected by the government for the Stockbridge Indians. He died at Kaukauna in 1850. His son Bazil was a partner in the mill, and in 1842 first clerk of the town of Kaukauna. In 1871 the Beaulieu property was sold for a paper-mill site, and in 1878 Bazil removed to White Earth, Minn., where he died in 1894.]; the other was Sanders, a Dutchman, who had a large farm across the river from Hunt's store.

One time a Dutchman named Jan den Dickken (John the Thick, John the Fat) wanted to buy some pork at Hunt's store. Someone had told him he should ask for pig's pork. When he told Hunt what he wanted, the latter did not understand him. Finally, thinking that John wanted to buy a pitchfork, he brought some samples of the latter article for him to choose from. "No, No! Pick pork!" replied John the Fat. Luckily a pig chanced to run by the door, whereupon John pointed at it, at the same time making a motion with his knife as if he wanted to cut off a piece. Thus assisted Hunt at length comprehended the fat Dutchman's request.

In those days it was sometimes difficult to obtain provisions. For some time our nearest store was Hunt's at Kaukauna, eight or nine miles away. After some years Bertus Van den Berg opened a store at Hollandtown, and then we were no longer compelled to travel through mud and slush to Kaukauna to procure the necessaries and conveniences of life. Before our arrival at Hollandtown things had been still worse. Some of the settlers actually had to carry sacks of flour on their backs all the way from Green Bay to Hollandtown, a distance of about twenty-four miles. I remember vividly an incident of my own boyhood days. Father and I carried a sack of grain, either wheat or rye, I have forgotten which, on our backs to Beaulieu's gristmill about a mile or so below the dam opposite Hunt's store. It was a trip of some sixteen miles going and coming, over horrible roads. We were compelled to make this trip three times before we got our grains ground.

After a time things grew more convenient. In the wintertime farmers near Fond du Lac used to take loads of flour to Green Bay, a distance of about sixty-five miles. Of course they would gladly sell their whole load somewhere on the way if they could fine a buyer. John Kobussen, our rich neighbor, occasionally bought one or more loads of flour and then disposed of it to his neighbors.

There was a stopping place at Dundas, about one mile from our place, kept by an enterprising American named Beach, the father of a large family of boys. He kept the post office and had a large, well-cultivated farm. At his place most of the travelers and flour sellers were in the habit of stopping. He was about twenty-five years ahead of his surrounding neighbors with respect to his buildings and other improvements. On one occasion a Hollander asked Beach to give him the post-office address in full, in order that he might send it to his Boston relatives. Beach wrote: "Send your letters to Dundas Post Office, Calumet County, Wis." Thereafter the Boston correspondent would always address his letters to his Wisconsin relative thus: "Mr. Henry Fink, send your letters to Dundas Post Office, Calumet County, Wis." Naturally the queer address caused much merriment among the postmasters.

Another enterprising Yankee, a regular New Englander, was Ballard, a good-hearted industrious bachelor. I often worked for him, for he lived only half a mile from our place. In spring and fall especially, he would hire "the general," as he delighted to call me, to help him plant or dig potatoes and do other light work. He kept his house scrupulously clean and tidy and had periodicals and newspapers and quite a library. With "the general" he would discuss all kinds of questions, occasionally urging me to hurry up when I paid more attention to my employer's talk than to my work. He doubtless conceived a liking for me because I was fond of reading and he had a large number of well-chosen books, which I delighted to read.

Road making was carried on in those days in rather primitive fashion. The citizens would vote a certain amount of road tax at the regular town meeting, or Election Day. The farmers elected a "path master" who had charge of the road in a certain district. When the time came to work on them, he would send notice to all the taxpayers within his district to come on a certain day to the place appointed to work on the road. The farmers would meet, perhaps at nine o'clock in the morning, with axes, shovels, and grub hoes and begin to build a corduroy bridge over some creek, throwing over the logs a few shovels full of dirt; or, if there was a mud hole to be filled up, they would cut some green brush, throw it into the hole, and scatter over it a few shovels of earth and lo! The road was fixed. More than once I have worked on the road and though but a boy of fifteen to seventeen years I believe I did more work than the average farmer when working out his road tax.

I traveled very little during my boyhood. I went a few times to Green Bay, Appleton, and Little Chute. As to Depere I have no distinct recollection, although of course I must have passed through it on my way to Green Bay. In those days we called the place "Rapides des Peres," which was afterwards abbreviate to Depere. The ancient name, a French appellation, was derived from the fact that from 1672 to about the year 1720 the Jesuit Fathers had a house of their order and a church there.

In a letter dated at Green Bay, June 11, 1831, Right Reverend Bishop Fenwick of Cincinnati speaks of Reverend Mazzuchelli as having traveled with him from Mackinac to Green Bay; also of Mrs. Dousman [Note: For a sketch of Mrs. Dousman see Wis, Hist. Colls., XIX, 105, note 42.], a pious Catholic widow. I met the latter later on in Keshena in 1866 where she was then a teacher, perhaps also a government interpreter to some extent. She acted as interpreter for me also, and I never saw a woman so lively, energetic, and expressive in gesture and tone in her conversation. The Bishop also states in the letter to which I have referred that he had chosen the site for a new church halfway between Averino (Navarino) and Shantytown, for which two acres of land had been promised. I remember passing through Shantytown on my trips to Green Bay and hearing the people speak a language of which I could not understand a word. I learned afterwards that they were Belgian Walloons.

I made several trips to Appleton. On one of them, I remember, I went with a neighbor of ours to get a load of grain ground. Both Green Bay and Appleton seem to me to have been then about the size of Bayfield at the present time. Little Chute was a rural hamlet with from twelve to fifteen houses, a store belonging to John Verstegen, and a long, low, and framed church on the bluff facing Fox River. The majority of the farmers in that vicinity were Hollanders who had come to America in 1848 and the following years.

Farming in those days on land full of stumps and roots was conducted in very primitive fashion. When a man had succeeded in cutting down the trees and chopping them into logs of fourteen to sixteen feet in length, he had to pile them up. This was a laborious task, especially if he had no oxen or horses. I remember how, when I was a lad of about thirteen, we had to work with might and main to roll up the heavy logs into piles to burn. Father was a small man, below medium size, but Mother was a large and strong woman and we boys had to work like little men. When the difficult task of burning the logs and brush had been accomplished, we cultivated the land thus wrested from the primitive forest.

For the first two years we had no oxen and so were compelled to plow with heavy grub hoes. Oftentimes our wrists would ache from digging and working in the hard, rooty ground. We would hoe a great number of hills in which to plant potatoes and corn. When the plants appeared above ground it was necessary to hoe them again to kill the weeds and get the crop to grow. Of course we had dig the potatoes with our heavy grub hoes and stow them away in some kind of root house or cellar. It was hard, slavish work throughout the entire year. There were no mowing machines, and I remember seeing Father cut our grain with a sickle, such as was used 4,000 years ago. The first improvement on the sickle was the cradle, with which a good cradler might cut five acres in a day, provided he had strong arms and an iron will. Haymaking was carried on much as it had been in Old Testament times. Heat, fatigues, and sweat were expended lavishly in procuring food for the stock.

In spite of the want of modern machinery, however, the farms grew in size and value year by year. First, five to ten acres of stumpy and rooty land, a small log house with wooden chimney and floor made of hewn logs or rough boards, a small stable for the cattle, a pigpen, and a henhouse -- such were the rude beginnings of farm life in those days. However, things began gradually to change for the better. Frame house and barn took the place of the old log buildings; horses replaced the slow, patient oxen; the roads became more fit for travel; board fences replaced those made of rails; thus primitive Wisconsin developed into one of the most prosperous states of the Union. This transformation was largely wrought by the strong arm and tireless industry of the now-sometimes-despised foreigner. The German, Dutch, and Irish immigrants dug our canals, built our railroads, cleared our forests, and made a paradise of what was but a few years before a dreary wilderness, the habitation of uncivilized Indians and of wild animals.

In the summer of 1859 I determined to train for the priesthood and began to study Latin, Greek, and French under the instruction of our first pastor in Hollandtown, Reverend Father Spierings. He was a countryman of mine and was also dear friend whom I shall never forget. After the death of my father Reverend Spierings sent me to the Seminary of St. Francis near Milwaukee to continue my studies. A neighbor took me as far as Brothertown and from there I walked all the way to Fond du Lac, arriving late in the evening or rather in the night. If ever there was a tired boy, I was the one, for I had walked twenty-five or thirty miles carrying a heavy grip. Next day I took the train to Milwaukee and walked out to the Seminary, a distance of about five or six miles. A Jew, a countryman, accosted me on the sidewalk and, overflowing with suavity, smiles, and friendliness, invited me to enter his store and urged me to buy a watch, but his officiousness and excessive suavity made me distrust him.
I began to surmise that he must be a Jew, a race of which I had heard so much at home, and I told him I did not need a watch just then, nor anything else. He then pressed me to buy at least a pair of suspenders, but without avail, and I finally got away from my importunate Jewish countryman.

My seminary days were passed during the stormy period of our Civil War, 1861-65. I was drafted for service but I attempted to be released on the plea of being a subject of the king of Holland. To establish this fact I obtained from our Dutch consul in Milwaukee a document about two feet square, the cost of which was $3. Armed with it and with $300 in my pocket, partly procured at home and partly through the efforts of kind friends, especially Father Gernbauer, I presented myself at the provost marshal's office in Milwaukee. That officer questioned me as to my parents and I told him that Father had taken out his first citizenship papers in Boston; and that subsequently he had voted in Wisconsin, as other aliens had done. I was thereupon most solemnly declared to be a citizen of the United States, having been a minor when I came into the country in 1848 and my Father having voted; accordingly I was told to step into a side room to be examined. I was as sound as a dollar and knew that I would not have any chance to escape military duty on the score of physical ailments or defects. So I told the marshal I would pay the commutation fee of $300, in order to be absolved from military duty. I was then taken by a soldier to an adjoining building where I paid my money and received a receipt exempting me from military duty for three years. This document is still preserved in the courthouse in Superior.

I walked back to the Seminary in a very pensive mood. About three or four months later came the spring election, and as I had paid $300 for my American citizenship I thought I would go to the polls to vote. The voting lords recognized that I was a stranger and some one challenged my right to vote, requiring me to swear to my citizenship. I told them how I had been drafted and been declared a citizen liable to military duty, and that I had paid $300 commutation money to exempt me from military service. Notwithstanding this the election board declared I was no citizen and, therefore, had no right to vote. I was so deeply disgusted at this manifest humbug and conceived so great a dislike for Uncle Same that I did not take out my citizenship papers until about fifteen years later.

During my vacation time in the summer of 1862 I was working at a neighbor's place helping to thresh grain. I believe it was the first time I ever saw grain threshed with a machine instead of with the flail as had always been done in my boyhood. While thus engaged there suddenly came to us the startling report: "The Indians are coming! They are killing the whites!" The threshing ceased instantly and every man hastened home to get his gun to go to fight the Indians. I, too, hurried home. Father was dead, and Mother and Brother Cornelius were the only remaining members of the family. The latter was confined to the house on account of a sore foot. Not having bullets or lead, I pounded some pewter spoons into bullets and started for Hollandtown with loaded gun. There all was in an uproar. People had abandoned their farms in terror and dismay, some to hide in the woods, others to seek refuge in the village. Reverend Van Luytelaar was then the pastor of the Hollandtown congregation. His house was full of women with crying babies, many of who were laid crosswise on his bed. All kinds of wild reports were in circulation; some said that the Indians had been driven into a swamp and surrounded; others had still wilder tales to relate.

I think it was in the afternoon when we first heard of the Indians coming and killing the white people. It was decided that after dark some men should be posted on the outskirts of the town as sentinels to watch and report any Indians that might be coming; others, myself amongst the rest, were to go to the intersection of the Military and Kaukaulo roads and watch there. It was a bright, moonlight night when my worthy neighbor, Ballard, carrying two guns, and I wended our way homeward, for we were hungry, not having eaten anything since noon. "Look out general," the fat Yankee would say to me, what I would walk carelessly along, "look out, general, walk as much as possible in the shade, not in the moonlight. The Indians may see and shoot you." At length we posted ourselves behind a fence near the road. Woe to the poor Indian, if he had come along that way! He would have been shot down without mercy or inquiry. Luckily no redskins showed themselves, and we finally got up and went home.

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