The Mysteries Surrounding Potawatomi Chief Waubonsie
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
Who was the enigmatic war chief of the Potawatomi, who had a voice like a lion and stood approximately six feet four inches tall? Meet Waubonsie, who survived a musket ball passing through his body during the War of 1812 as well as "a severe gash in the face from a saber stroke, which left a long, large scar," according to historical chronicler Perry Armstrong. Variations in the spelling of his name include Waubonsee, Waponce, Wah-bahn-se, or Wauponsee; however, in his contemporary Potawatomi language, he is known as Wabanzi, which means "he causes paleness." (Other interpretations are "break of day," or "a little light in the sky.")
The exact date of Waubonsie's birth is not known, as written records were not typically kept for the Potawatomi and most other Native Americans of his era. It is estimated that he was born between 1756-1765, but the place of his birth is also obscure; his summer village was near the current city of Aurora, Il., however. Oral tradition states that Waubonsie proved his bravery after sneaking into a fortified location where enemy Osage warriors were sleeping, avenging the death of his friend by killing and scalping one of the warriors, then escaping without incident in the hours before dawn.
Historical accounts exist of Waubonsie's actions during the War of 1812, when the Potawatomi chief fought with the British, as did many indigenous warriors. Waubonsie led a surprise attack on a supply boat on the Wabash River in Indiana in 1811, killing the solitary American on board and leaping off the boat before any response occurred. There are conflicting reports of his involvement during the Battle of Ft. Dearborn in Chicago in August of 1812, when numerous white settlers and soldiers were killed by Native Americans. Historian Ann Durkin Keating, author of Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago, writes, "Waubonsee was not at Chicago in August of 1812, only because he was part of Tecumseh's forces outside Detroit." In contrast, R. David Edmunds, author of The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire, writes that during the attack on the fort, both Waubonsee and his brother (Black Partridge) "protected Mrs. Helm and the Kinzie family from unfriendly warriors." Historians generally agree, however, that Waubonsie pledged peace with the Americans after the war.
Historical opinions vary somewhat about the degree of Waubonsie's loyalty during the Black Hawk War of 1832, when Sauk warrior Black Hawk attempted to unite several tribes in an attempt to drive the white settlers out of Illinois. Black Hawk also fought for the British in the War of 1812, as had Shabbona (or Shaubena, chief of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa). N. Matson, author of Memories of Shaubena, writes that during a large council at Indiantown led by Black Hawk in February of 1832, "all the Pottawatomie chiefs except Waubonsie took part with Shaubena, against the union of the different tribes, when the convention broke up without effecting the object for which it was called." At a similar council three months later between Shabbona and Black Hawk, Waubonsie "sat near by, smoking his pipe, taking no part in the conversation, but on finding Shaubena so decided in the matter, he too refused to take part in the contemplated war." Other local accounts state that Waubonsie took an active part in saving the white settlers in the area by delaying Black Hawk at his camp in late May of 1832 so that the settlers had sufficient time to heed Shabbona's warning and take refuge at Fort Dearborn in Chicago.
Waubansie seems to have been influenced by Shabbona during the short Black Hawk War, as both chiefs assisted the U.S. Army under General Atkinson in the pursuit of Black Hawk. They endured taunting by Black Hawk's braves in an area known as Four Lakes in present-day southern Wisconsin. The Potawatomi were not enthusiastic allies, managing to avoid battle while showing support for the Americans. U.S. General Scott wrote in his memoir that he was skeptical of the tribe's "neutrality"; he also advised Lt. Sherman King to keep an eye on the Potawatomi in Fullersburg, which demonstrates his skepticism.
The Potawatomi chiefs' refusal to help the Sauk resulted in very hostile feelings between the parties, which continued after Black Hawk surrendered. The terms of the subsequent 1833 Treaty of Chicago forced the relocation of the Native American west of the Mississippi River; Edmunds writes that in October of 1836, Waubonsie and Shabbona led a large party of Potawatomi attempting to cross the river in a blizzard while many people faced illness. A second relocation of the tribe from Missouri to Iowa and Kansas was not strategically planned to ensure the safety of the Potawatomi, as they ended up in close proximity to the hostile Sauks.
The date and circumstances of Waubonsie's death are ambiguous, listing his death year as either 1848 or 1849. One historian states that Waubonsie died at the hands of the Sauk after resettlement. Another source states that he died from injuries that he suffered in a stage coach accident in Ohio while returning from a trip to Washington; another reports that he succumbed to old age. Chief Waubonsie's gravesite is in Mills County in Iowa, and the inscription simply states:
BURIED EAST OF MARKER
HERE IN FIELD.
MARKED BY SHENANDOAH DAR.
Sue Devick, M.A.