Like many stories of American Indian tribes from before their displacement by European settlers, tales of Chief Kewaskum are shrouded in rumor, hearsay and the well-meaning but uninformed generalizations inherent when two people groups of such different cultural backgrounds converge. By the mid-1800s, most of the indigenous people of south-eastern Wisconsin had been driven off of their ancestral land by treaties and the 1830 Removal Act. The Potawatomi, who had been in the Lake Michigan region (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) for generations, were forced to move west of the Mississippi. Kewaskum, as far as the scant historical records can tell us, was the leader of a band of Potawatomi who did not leave Wisconsin. Instead, they stayed on as a group of what one historian dubbed “homeless wanderers and squatters.”
Most of the information regarding Kewaskum came from settlers and surveyors in Pike Lake, Lake Koshkonog, and Cedar Creek–all of which lie at least 20 miles south of the village which bears his name. As a people with no legal right to remain on their land, Kewaskum’s group evidently traveled and camped throughout the areas which would later be known as Washington, Dodge and Jefferson counties. In 1842, they were camped near Lake Ripley in Jefferson County. In 1845, on the bank of Cedar Creek. In the late 1840s, Kewaskum and his band were found near Pike Lake and the Rock River. There is some evidence that Chief Kewaskum befriended Swedish pioneer Gustaf Unonius at Pine Lake in the 1840s.
In 1850 a map placed Kewaskum’s people near Lake Koshkonog, although by that time, their leader was dead. Unfortunately, accurate reports of Kewaskum’s death were as elusive as details about his life. Various stories place Kewaskum’s death in different years from 1847-1850. One report gives his death as 1905, an obvious error (he would have been over 110 years old!). One story is that Kewaskum died “in his cabin on Mud Lake in Southern Dodge county.” Several sources agree that Kewaskum was buried near the village of Hustisford, on an island variously called “Indian Island” and “Harper’s Island.” A heartbreaking tale has Kewaskum’s grave being dug up by relic hunters in 1876, his “bones left to bleach upon the surface or to be scattered by the four winds.”
The village and township of Kewaskum were named after the Potawatomi chief in 1849. No one knows why Jesse Myers and William Barnes decided to name the village they founded after Kewaskum. Among the many camp grounds of Kewaskum’s band, there are local stories of a “wigwam on a hill of considerable height, which is ever since called ‘Indian Hill.'” This was said to be home to Chief Kewaskum, although when and for how long, history does not tell. There are also two reports from the early 1900s of a burial place for Chief Kewaskum just south of the village and of an “Indian cemetery” in North Side Park in Kewaskum. These local legends have been around for over 100 years, but if Chief Kewaskum was buried here, no one has ever found out where.
In the early 1900s, the fugitive Potawatomi bands who had been wandering Wisconsin for over half a century were finally paid the money due to them according to the treaties signed by their fore bearers. They used much of this money to buy plots of land in Forest County. Other bands of Potawatomi now live in Kansas and Oklahoma, far from their ancestral home in the Great Lakes region. For further information on the Potawatomi, please click on the links embedded in this article.
The name “Kewaskum” comes from a Potawatomi word which meant alternately “turning back on his tracks” or “retracing his steps.” Before the adoption of that name, the town of Kewaskum was known as “North Bend”. The Village of Kewaskum was known as “Myer’s Mill”.
Director, Kewaskum Public Library