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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 3, 2003 - Issue 86


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The Phantom of Phantom Lake
(SW Milwaukee County)

From The Mukwonago Chief - January 11, 1906 By Rolland L. Porter
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

editor's note: Neil Smedema, who grew up in Mukwonago, tells us that Phantom Lake is in Waukesha County. Perhaps the county's boundaries were redrawn. (see below)


(Read before the State Archeological Society, Milwaukee on December 18, 1905. This Society, in addition to its labors of securing the preservation of our antiquities is also interesting itself in collecting the legend and information in regard to Indian life and customs during historic times. It will feel indebted to any persons who may communicate to it such facts as may be worth of publication. The society has recently published a bulletin written by George A. West of Milwaukee, on Wisconsin Pipes, which is acknowledged the finest ever published in the United States. It is of great importance and value.)

This story was told to me by an old trapper who use to trap along the Fox River near where I lived. I was a boy then and he was an old man so you can see it dates back early in the last century.

This is his story; perhaps a description of him and his surroundings would not be out of place.

Imagine yourself plodding along in timberland so thickly covered with trees and brush that you can scarcely see 10 rods, and suddenly coming out onto a little shack, so well protected by its color, and the surrounding timber, that you could scarcely find it again if you wondered off a short distance. The south side of this hut is nearly covered with skins; the north side has a small window and door, both of which are wide open. The old trapper sits outside, skinning a muskrat, and pleased to see a visitor, as few ever come his way. He is the wreck of a once well-built and good-looking man: you can scarcely call him a wreck either; he is still powerful looking, although his long gray hair and grizzly beard detract from the effect. Enough of the trapper and his home. Under such circumstances I visited him one day about the year 1855. He was glad to see me, and being in a reminiscent mood, said, "I will tell you a story, which is not a story. It is the history of a lake you are familiar with." He then proceeded to relate the story, which I read you tonight. I will give it in his words, without attempting however, to give you the dialect, and may it lose none of it weirdness.

"About fifty years ago, when this country was the unmolested home of my truest friends, the Indians, I was living with a tribe of Winnebagos. We had come down one fall from the north to Mukwonago or Spirit Lake. We had not been there long when a stray band of Sac came and camped near us. They also had been starved out of their territory. As they were stronger than we, we raised no objections. In about two weeks, however, another tribe of Winnebago pitched their wigwams on the other side of the Sacs. The two camps greatly outnumbered the Sacs and there would certainly have been trouble if the Sacs had not realized this and carefully avoided us. The Winnebagos would have nothing to do with the Sacs, with the exception of Zicahota 'The Squirrel' of the former and Homaba 'The Wild Man' of the latter tribe. These two had fallen in love with Iwoso 'Pouting Lips' the daughter of the Sac chief Mattocincala. Zicahota was the favorite of his tribe, and was richer in skins than any excepting his father, the chief. He was ordinarily a very quiet fellow, but his infatuation for Iwoso made him reckless to his rival, Homaba, who declared publicly that he would win the Sac maiden, but Mattocincala, her father, favored Zicahota.  Zicahota wooed Mattocincala, but avoided the maiden. He told of his wealth, and his aspirations for the seat of his father, the chief, and this won the sachem. Homaba, meanwhile, avoided the chief and wooed the maiden. He told of his prowess in war, his cunning in hunt and gained her love.

It is needless to say that Iwoso told nobody of her preference, and Homaba was seldom seen at the wigwam of Iwoso. Zicahota was warmly welcomed at the lodge of Mattocincala, and was well treated by Iwoso. Homaba mysteriously disappeared, nobody had seen him, and no one knew where he was. Some thought he had been killed by Zicahota, but those that knew Zicahota ridiculed the idea. The belief spread however when Homaba had been gone a week the chief told Zicahota that unless he produced Homaba in four days he would be punished for his crime. Of course this was wrong, but it was the mandate of the chief, and had to be complied with. Hopeless as the case seemed, Zicahota started out to find Homaba, and worked as zealously as though it had been his own brother. He had been gone three days and did not succeed in getting any trace of him. On the night of the fourth day the people were sitting around the fire. They were all anxious about the mystery of Homaba's disappearance that the small talk of the young braves interested them very little, but they gave full attention when the old warrior started to tell them the legend of Miniwakan Lake, where they were camped.

The old man told them that the Manawaukan, or Water-Spirit dwelt in this lake, and claims for his brides the fairest maiden among the tribes. In vain did the people try to keep the young maidens from the lake; some irresistible influence drew her there, and she was seen no more. Sometimes she went for water, sometimes she went out in a canoe, and sometime she was sitting on the bank. It made no difference the Manawaukan had never been deprived of his bride. Some belied this story of the old man, others did not - not that they thought it impossible, for they simply thought it improbable, since they had never heard it before. They were discussing the subject when Zicahota came into camp. He had not found Homaba, but he would show him to them before the moon was an hour high. Zicahota went into his wigwam and staid until moonrise, when he went quietly down to the lake. He had told the people to go to the shore without making any noise, and his wish was complied with, as they were all eagerness to see the outcome of his foolish idea.

Zicahota stepped quietly into his canoe, pushed it gently from the shore and kneeled with his paddle-uplifted waiting. There he remained for nearly an hour. The people were getting uneasy but followed his instructions and kept quiet. He had but moments left of his time allotted, when suddenly a canoe darted out from under the bank near the Sac camp and started down the lake. Zicahota waited until it was nearly opposite, then paddled out swiftly to intercept it. There were two figures in the canoe, but in the dim and uncertain light, they could not be recognized from the shore. The people believed however that it contained Homaba and Iwoso.

Zicahota, with a wild cry of exultation, leaped from his canoe to that of his rival, with his 'mila' or hunting knife, in his hand and grappled with the foremost figure. A quick thrust with the keen mila, a death cry, and the two figures together but the fatal clutch of death fell over the side and disappeared. The figure in the stern never moved throughout this terrible scene, but sat as motionless as if carved out of stone. The people on the bank had barely caught their breath after this first great tragedy, when a form rose out of the water behind the canoe, took the young girl in its arms and dragged her shrieking beneath the surface. The ripples died away, and nothing was seen but the two empty canoes. The spellbound watchers gazed for a while stupefied, and then went back to camp muttering, 'the Miniwakan has received his bride.' Those who had been skeptics became believers.

The next morning the Indians struck camp, and there has never been an Indian encampment on this lake since that fatal night. I alone stayed, but soon moved from there to this quiet spot on the Fox River."

Thus ended the trapper's story.

At half-past eleven on the night of September 2, of every year, a faint ghostly light comes over the lake, and the same tragedy is reenacted. If any of you ever happen to be in the vicinity on this date, go to the lake and see for yourselves the fatal dual. Hear the splash and witness the disappearance of the rival lovers. See the Miniwakan, the Water Spirit claim the bride, and hear the shriek of the Princess Iwoso and judge for yourselves whether or not the little lake is rightly called Nagi, or Phantom Lake.

I have seen all this and know whereof I speak.  Rolland L. Porter



Neil Smedema writes ...

Since you have put me on the front page as questioning the boundaries I decided to find out. And here is the info I was told by the state of Wisconsin:

Apr. 28, 1846 Waukesha County was created in the Wisconsin territory from Milwaukee County.

May 29, 1848 State of Wisconsin was created from the Wisconsin territory.

So if the story takes place before 1846 indeed it was Milwaukee County if not then it was Waukesha County.

I was hoping from my email you guys would investigate to see if it was Waukesha or Milwaukee. Also to note that Phantom Lake is in Waukesha county now if anyone would like to visit Mukwonago or Phantom Lake. This way they would not be looking in Milwaukee County for either.



thanks, Neil ... ed.

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