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Oral history saved Battle of Smoky Hill story

4:56 PM, Jun. 11, 2013  |  Comments
Matthew Westlund
Matthew Westlund
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In this age of constant streams of information, cameras in the palm of your hand and on every street corner, and the ability to store truly massive amounts of information digitally, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the survivability of a historical event depended heavily on word of mouth. If the story was not passed along or written down, it could be lost to history.

One such event in Marathon County came precariously close to this fate.

The Battle of Smoky Hill is a story that is not instantly recognizable by the greater population. There is a reason for that: while the battle itself occurred sometime in the 1750s, it did not find its way into print media until 1906. That year, Marshfield High School teacher Herbert Fish wrote an article for the Marshfield News about the battle. Before that, the story rested with one man: Peter Chaurette. As Fish notes in his article, Chaurette "was a one-armed half-breed" whose "father was a French soldier." Chaurette told the story to many of the old settlers. It was by chance that Fish heard it from one of them.

So, what is the story? Well, Smoky Hill was a piece of land prized by Native Americans. It sits in what is today the northwestern section of the Mead Wildlife Area, just a few miles north of the border of Marathon and Wood counties. Rising about 25 feet above the surrounding landscape and covering roughly 60 acres, it sat on the shores of the Little Eau Pleine River and Rice Lake. (Incidentally, the hill gets its name from the frequent fog that forms over the marshland). Fishing and hunting were excellent and rice was plentiful. Just downstream there was an abundance of maple trees to collect sap from - and that is where the story begins.

The Chippewa tribe had been in camp there in the spring of the year. Most had gone a few miles down-river to collect sap. While they were away, the Winnebago tribe quickly moved in and took over the hill. What they did with the Chippewa who remained behind can only be speculated, but given the hostility between these two tribes, a reasonable conclusion can be reached swiftly. When the Chippewa returned to find their camp in the hands of the Winnebago and no way to mount a successful attack, they immediately sent runners to get help.

Help came in the form of French soldiers stationed in Green Bay to keep an eye on the fur trade. The French had an already combative relationship with the Winnebago but were on good terms with the Chippewa. The Chippewa runners returned with about a dozen or so French troops with muskets and two small cannons. The group split up: some went to attack the hill while others went down-river to cover the escape route.

Armed with only bows and arrows and tomahawks, the Winnebago stood little chance. Still, they put up a strong fight. The battle commenced at dawn and lasted most of the day. Half of the French force and most of the Chippewa warriors attacked the hill. As the day wore on and it became apparent to the Winnebago that they could not repel their foes any longer, they fled down the river. About seven miles downstream, they ran into the other half of the French force. Armed with the two cannons, muskets and the element of surprise, the French and Chippewa obliterated what was left of the Winnebago. It can be assumed that this was nothing short of a massacre. With the deed done, the French returned to Green Bay and the Chippewa moved back onto Smoky Hill.

The number of players in this battle is difficult to ascertain. It could be anywhere from several dozen to several hundred. Admittedly, some details of the story likely have been embellished over time.

Today, Smoky Hill is farmland and much of the surrounding marshland has been drained. There is a small plaque just off of Smoky Hill Road to mark the location of the battle, but nothing else suggests there was a struggle. Had Herbert Fish not written the story down, it might have faded into legend, becoming as obscure as the hill itself in the midst of a dense fog.

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