The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
(ca. 1756–1765–ca. 1848 or 1849)

–Potawatomi chief–is an obscure but significant figure in Iowa history. His original name, place and date of birth, and parents are unknown. Estimates of his birth range from 1756 to 1765, and his death was about 1848 or 1849. There are many variations in the spelling of both his name and the name of his tribe.

    He was probably born into an influential family; an older brother named Mucadapuckee was also a Potawatomi chief. According to one story, Waubonsie took his name (which means "Break of Day") because of his exploit in killing and scalping one or more Osage warriors inside an American stockade in revenge for Osage atrocities. Waubonsie successfully escaped the stockade at daybreak and took his name as a result.

    At the time of his birth, the Potawatomi, one of the many Algonquin tribes of eastern North America, were living in the general region of northern Ohio and northern Indiana, around the southern end of Lake Michigan on both the eastern and western shore areas, and in Illinois as far west as present-day Peoria. They were in increasing conflict with other tribes due to the expansion of British and American colonial influence across eastern North America and the ongoing British conflict with France, notably in the French and Indian War of 1756-1763. Waubonsie's entire life was spent dealing militarily and diplomatically with the consequences of the British victory over France, America's successful revolution, and the unending flow of American settlers westward into tribal domains.

    As a young man, Waubonsie was a fierce warrior, but over the years he gradually developed more peaceful means of dealing with his tribe's problems. He led at least three war parties against the Osage. By 1811 he was fighting alongside Tecumseh against the United States. He was also allied with the British during the War of 1812. However, he helped protect an American family during the massacre at Fort Dearborn on August 15, 1812. He had advised against the attack, and when other Potawatomi chiefs overruled him and attacked the fort, he and several other chiefs stood on John Kinzie's front porch and protected his family.

    At the close of the war, he ended his alliance with Britain in favor of the United States, signing two treaties, one at Greenville, Ohio, in July 1814, and the other at Spring Wells, Michigan, in September 1815. He was quoted as saying that he "took the seventeen fires [17 states] by the hand and buried the tomahawk."He remained loyal to the United States for the rest of his life, although his troubles were by no means over.

    When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Waubonsie maintained his allegiance to the United States, believing that Potawatomi interests were best served by peaceful negotiation. In September 1833 the Potawatomi signed a treaty ceding lands in Indiana and western Illinois in exchange for permanent settlement sites along the Missouri River. In 1835-1836 Waubonsie and some of the Potawatomi settled in present-day Mills and Fremont counties, Iowa. The federal government built a two-story log house for Waubonsie in an area several miles northwest of Tabor, Iowa, at the confluence of Waubonsee and Shabonee creeks. Waubonsie lived there until his death in 1848 or 1849. The village that was built there housed up to 300 Potawatomi, and about 3,000 more lived in the general area of southwest Iowa. After Waubonsie's death, the Potawatomi were transferred to a permanent reservation in Kansas.

    Waubonsie traveled to Washington, D.C., twice. In 1835 he had an interview with President Andrew Jackson. In 1845 he returned to finish negotiations on a treaty for final removal of the Potawatomi to the permanent reservation in Kansas.

    When he died, his body was wrapped in a blanket and, according to Potawatomi tradition, placed in a box that was suspended in the fork of an oak tree near his cabin. Later the body was buried in a nearby field. Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, Waubonsie Creek in Mills County, and Waubonsie Trail across southern Iowa arenamed for him.
Sources Well-established facts on Waubonsie's life are rare. Almost all of the information given here is from secondary sources, and a preponderance of that is, in one way or another, probably traceable back to American Indian oral traditions. A valuable contemporary source is Thomas L. McKenney, History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1838). See also Seth Dean, "Wabaunsee, the Indian Chief (A Fragment)," Annals of Iowa 16 (1927), 2–23; William C. Rathke, "Chief Waubonsie and the Pottawattamie Indians," Annals of Iowa 35 (1959), 80–100; J. A. Swisher, "Chief Waubonsie," Palimpsest 29 (1948), 352–61; and Jim Dowd, "Potawatomi Warrior Wabansi, or 'First Light,' Was the Last Light Many of His Enemies Saw," Wild West 5 (October 1992), 8, 24, 62–64.
Contributor: David Holmgren