As March is Women's History Month, I thought it fitting to research the very first woman ever written about in Wisconsin's recorded history.
Her name was Hopokoekau, or, "Glory of the Morning."
She is, to this day, the only known female chief of the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk Indian Tribe, and quite possibly the subject of Wisconsin's very first documented love story.
In an island village located near the northern base of Lake Winnebago, Glory of the Morning was born around the year 1711. Her father was the Ho-Chunk chief at the time. The island, formed by two branches of the Fox River flowing out from Lake Winnebago, today includes sections of the cities of Neenah and Menasha.
In her early years, Glory of the Morning made quite an impression on the tribe. Her wisdom, unusually superior, set her apart from others, including her brothers and the elders of the tribe. At age 18, her father became ill and passed away, leaving the Nation without a leader. In a stunning milestone event, Glory of the Morning was named to succeed her father as chief, causing a brief uproar by many in the tribe.
The French Come to WI
During Glory of the Morning's reign as chief, the French became involved in the Fox Wars throughout present day Michigan and Wisconsin. For the French to continue building it's empire in North America, the Fox River was vital to it's access to the Mississippi River and the western lands. The Fox River, however, was controlled by the Fox Indians, who resisted France's domination.
The Fox Indians were a deadly menace to the French. Surprise attacks and all-out slaughters were carried out by both sides, leaving a bloody, haunted history flowing through these waters.
Throughout the years of the Fox Wars, as well as the years of the fur trade, many French-Canadians passed through the region while serving their country's interests. One of these men was a French military officer named Joseph Sabrevoir Descaris. Descaris and his men established friendly relations with the Ho-Chunk on the island, ultimately culminating in Descaris' marriage to Glory of the Morning.
The officer was so enamored by the chieftess and the island village that he resigned his commission in the French military and became a fur trader, remaining on the island with Glory of the Morning and her people.
Breaking with much of the Greater Winnebago Nation at the time, Glory of the Morning aligned with the French against the Fox Indians in warfare throughout the 1730's and 1740's, though It was also largely through her efforts which led to peace finally being established between the two and ending the wars.
In time, Descaris grew restless. His home country was facing an ever growing threat to it's empire in North America from Great Britain. He could not simply stand by. He was still a Frenchman, and with his country on the verge of war with it's greatest European rival on another continent, he was again ready to be an officer.
After seven years of marriage to Glory of the Morning, and with her, fathering three children, Joseph Descaris left the island and returned to his French-Canadian roots to re-enlist in the military and fight for his country. Glory of the Morning was torn. She understood the obligations of duty he felt for his people, as she felt the same for hers. Because of this, she decided to let Desacris go on without her, citing her refusal to leave her people without a leader. She did, however, offer for him to take their youngest child, their daughter, Nqno'abewiga. One can only imagine the scene of their final goodbye.
She would never see either of them again.
Years later, when the British invasion of North America was in full force and the French and Indian War was raging, Glory of the Morning remained loyal to her French-Canadian husband, and ordered her braves on the warpath against his country's enemy tribes. Their eldest son joined his father at the Battle of Ste. Foy, a French victory reclaiming the city of Quebec from the British.
It would be the last French victory of the French and Indian War.
Among the 833 French casualties of that day, was one Joseph Sabrevoir Descaris. Wounded in the battle, he died several days later. His son survived and returned to his mother on the island. Their daughter remained in Canada, living out her days married to a French-Canadian trader in Montreal.
Today, the Descaris name is still prevalent in the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago tribe, the pronunciation evolving over time, and is now known as the famed "Decorah" family. The chieftess and the officer's offspring thrived in a very celebrated line of Ho-Chunk Chiefs, including Spoon Decorah, Old Decorah, One-Eyed Decorah, and Waukon Decorah. Their influence was instrumental in many of the treaties signed between various Native American tribes and the United States.
As for Glory of the Morning?
After 1766, she disappears from written history - and astonishingly re-appears in an account by famed 19th century author Juliette Kinzie, who visited the tribe on the island while her husband was an Indian Agent stationed at Ft. Winnebago, WI. Mrs. Kinzie describes the following encounter:
There was among their number, this year, one whom I had never before seen—the mother of the elder Day-kau-ray. No one could tell her age, but all agreed that she must have seen upwards of a hundred winters. Her eyes dimmed, and almost white with age—her face dark and withered, like a baked apple—her voice tremulous and feeble, except when raised in fury to reprove her graceless grandsons, who were fond of playing her all sorts of mischievous tricks, indicated the very great age she must have attained.
The astonishing aspect is that this account illustrates a visit Mrs Kinzie made to the island in 1832, when Glory of the Morning would have been approximately 121 years old! As there is no recorded date of her death, history can only believe what seems to be the unbelievable.
The Treaty of the Cedars
After the Treaty of the Cedars was concluded in 1836, the Ho-Chunk, along with thousands more Native Americans from over 4 million acres of land, were relocated west. This land included what is now the cities of Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Oshkosh, and Stevens Point, among many others. The U.S. government took control of the land, and subsequently sold the island to James Duane Doty, who proceeded to name it after himself.
Today, when walking along the rows of giant oaks and willows abundant throughout Doty Island, it's easy for one's imagination to overflow among the serenity of the sound of water and light wind, among the modern streets, lined with mansions built by 19th century paper barons, and among the island's many parks which hold their scenic beauty throughout any season. It's easy to imagine why the Ho-Chunk chose this place as their home centuries ago. And it's easy to imagine the spirits of two long lost lovers, a Forest Queen and a military man, choosing to remain here together in death, which war deprived them of in life.