Southern Illinois History Page

The Winnebago War and why Illinoisans are 'Suckers'

A History of Illinois

    CHICAGO (1854) — It was during Gov. Edwards' administration in the summer of 1827 that the first Indian disturbances occurred since the war of 1812. This was called the Winnebago war. The Winnebagoes, Sacs and Foxes, Sioux, Menominies, and other northern nations towards the headwaters of the Mississippi had been at war with each other most of the time for more than a century; and the United States had undertaken to act as mediators between them and restore peace. In fact it has been the policy of the United States government latterly to compel the Indian tribes to live in peace with one another; for experience has shown that war cannot exist amongst the Indians without its being inconvenient and dangerous to white people. But despite all the remonstrances of the United States government, hostilities were continued and murders frequently committed. In the summer of this year a part of twenty-four Chippeways were surprised by a war party of the Winnebagoes and eight of them were killed or wounded. The United States commander at Saint Peter's caused four of the offending Winnebagoes to be arrested and delivered to the Chippeways, by whom they were shot for the murder. The white people had also a little before begun to overrun the Winnebago lands in the lead mines above Galena; many of the miners having pushed their searches for mineral as far as the Wisconsin river. This was a further source of irritation to the Winnebagoes. Red Bird, a Winnebago chief, was determined to revenge the shooting of the four Winnebagoes, and for this purpose he led a war party against the Chippeways, by whom he was defeated; and now returning disgraced and disappointed of his vengeance, he resolved to repaid his disaster by an attack on the white people who had abetted his enemies, and, as he believed, invaded his country. On the 27th of June two white men were killed and another wounded near Prairie Du Chien; and on the 30th of July two keel-boats carrying supplies to Fort Snelling, situate at the mouth of the St. Peter's, were attacked by the Indians and two of the crew were killed and four wounded.
    The intelligence of these murders alarmed the frontier settlements at Galena and in the mining country around it. Galena, as a town had been settled about eighteen months before. Col. James Johnson of Kentucky had gone there with a party of miners in 1824 and had opened a lead mine about one miles above the present town. His great success drew others there in 1825, and in 1826 and 1827 hundreds and thousands of persons from Illinois and Missouri went to the Galena country to work the lead mines. It was estimated that the number of miners in the mining country in 1827 was six or seven thousand. The Illinois ran up the Mississippi river in steamboats in the spring season, worked the lead mines during warm weather, and then ran down the river again to their homes in the fall season; thus establishing, as was supposed, a similitude between their migratory habits and those of the fishy tribe called "Suckers." For which reason the Illinoisans were called Suckers," a name which has stuck to them ever since. There is another account of the origin of the nickname "Suckers," as applied to the people of Illinois. It is said that the south part of the State was originally settled by the poorer class of people from the slave States, where the tobacco plant was extensively cultivated. They were such as were not able to own slaves in a slave State, and came to Illinois to get away from the imperious domination of their wealthy neighbors. The tobacco plant has many sprouts from the roots and main stem, which if not stripped off suck up its nutriment and destroy the staple. These sprouts were called "suckers," and are as carefully stripped off from the plant and thrown away as is the tobacco worm itself. These poor emigrants from the slave States were jeeringly and derisively called "suckers," because there were asserted to be a burthen upon the people of wealth; and when they removed to Illinois they were supposed to have stripped themselves off from the parent stem and gone away to perish like the "sucker" of the tobacco plant. This name was given to the Illinoisans at the Galena mines by the Missourians. Analogies always abound with those who desire to be sarcastic; so the Illinois by way of retaliation called the Missourians "Pukes." It had been observed that the lower lead mines in Missouri had sent up to the Galena country whole hordes of uncouth ruffians, from which it was inferred that Missouri had taken a "Puke" and had vomited forth to the upper lead mines all her worst population. From thence forth the Missourians were regularly called "Pukes;" and by these names of "Suckers" and "Pukes" the Illinoisans and Missourians are likely to be called, amongst the vulgar, forever.
    The miners in all the surrounding country upon the alarm of Indian hostilities collected into Galena. By order of Gov. Edwards Gen. Thom Tom N. Neale marched there with a regiment of volunteers from Sangamon country; a considerable mounted forced was raised amongst the miners, which elected Gen. Dodge to be their commander. The inhabitants fortified the town of Galena and Gen. Atkinson of the U.S. army with a body of regulars and volunteers marched into the Winnebago country of the Wisconsin river in pursuit of the offending Indians. The chief called Red Bird, with six other Indians of the tribe, voluntarily surrendered themselves prisoners to save their nation from the miseries of war. They were kept in jail a long time awaiting their trials for murder. Some of them were acquitted and some were convicted and executed. It was the fate of Red Bird, who is described as having been a noble-looking specimen of the savage chieftain, to pine away and die in prison, not from the fear of death, but by the gradual wasting away, the victim of regret and sorrow for the loss of his liberty as he had been accustomed to enjoy it in the fresh green woods.

Gov. Thomas Ford. 1854. A History of Illinois. Chicago: S.C. Griggs and Co. 42-44.
Created April 15, 2000 by Jon Musgrave © 2000