Second in an occasional series.
Who is buried in Oshkosh’s grave?
That query, which goes back 90 years, might sound like an old vaudeville joke, but it’s a serious question with a surprising range of possible answers.
It could be a black man, or it could be a woman. But whoever it is, many people who are familiar with the story of the chief’s supposed burial here can’t bring themselves to believe that the body that lies at the foot of the Oshkosh monument in Menominee Park is that of the tribal chief for whom the city is named.
“I just can’t even think why would the tribe give up one of their tribal leaders,” said Mayor Steve Cummings, who recently traveled to Keshena to meet with Menominee officials. Cummings has been leading the efforts to upgrade the city’s Chief Oshkosh memorial and is hoping to get input from the tribe about how the Indian leader should be remembered at the site.
Cummings may have his doubts about Oshkosh’s final resting place, but that kind of skepticism was nowhere in evidence on May 25, 1926, when the then mayor, Henry F. Kitz, issued a proclamation for “Chief Oshkosh Day” and urged citizens to take the afternoon off so that they could participate in ceremonies marking the interment of the Indian’s remains near the shore of Lake Winnebago.
The day’s events included a parade through town with an imposing casket on the back of a flatbed truck. Historic photos depict a band of Indians in full headdress that was actually an Indian band, tribal members playing musical instruments as they marched along. There was even a rally song, perhaps to the tune of “On Wisconsin,” that included these lines:
Our Chief Oshkosh; Our Chief Oshkosh;
Was a Warrior Bold.
And his children pay him homage.
Wreaths his tomb enfold.
Smoked the Peace Pipe; Smoked the Peace Pipe;
With the Paleface true;
So, thus we praise his name
While singing to you
These festivities marked the culmination of a decades-long effort by white citizens of Oshkosh to have Oshkosh’s remains removed to the city. But what was actually in that casket is still a mystery today.
One tradition held by some African-Americans is that the body would have to be that of a black man because, they believe, Chief Oshkosh himself was black. In 1959 journalist J.A. Rogers published Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States, a book in which he argues that Oshkosh’s ancestry could be traced in part to a group of 500 Haitian slaves who traveled to Missouri in 1723 and later to Illinois and Wisconsin.
Jesuit missionaries used the Haitians as “farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, brewers and masons,” according to Rogers, a widely read columnist and the author of numerous books on African-American history who had been prominent enough in his day to be recognized with an obituary in The New York Times.
Rogers argued that the Haitian slaves intermarried with Native Americans and that the “great Indian chief, Oshkosh, who gave his name to a Wisconsin town, was of this Negroid stock.”
This claim was repeated in a 1974 volume called The Black Book, which was published by Random House under the direction of an editor there named Toni Morrison, who would later become a celebrated novelist and a Nobel laureate.
Rogers does not offer a lot of hard evidence to support his thesis. One point that he makes is that Oshkosh had a son-in-law who was described in a biography as a “black Ethiopian,” which demonstrates that African-Americans and Menominees did intermarry but hardly proves that Oshkosh himself was the result of such a union.
Still the role of African-Americans in settling the Upper Midwest is greater than is commonly acknowledged. For example, the founder of Chicago was Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, who is believed to have been born in Haiti of mixed French and African heritage. De Sable built a trading post close to where Michigan Avenue now crosses the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. According to Rogers, local Indians recalled that “the first white man who settled here was a Negro.”
Perhaps the strongest documentary evidence against Oshkosh being of mixed race is contained in the 1892-93 annual report of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology. This book contains a description of the sons of Oshkosh as likely “the only full-blood Menomini Indians alive today.” It goes on to note, “Oshkosh himself claimed this distinction for himself nearly fifty years ago.”
The parade that brought the casket of Chief Oshkosh to Menominee Park was unlike anything the city had seen before. The procession began at Sixth Street and Oregon Avenue and headed south for several blocks. At each intersection, according to a newspaper account, additional participants joined in until more than 200 decorated floats were rolling along.
The “pageant of progress,” as it was described, eventually found its way to Main Street and headed north. When it crossed the Fox River over the Main Street bridge, its arrival was marked by aerial explosives that were dropped by airplanes “which soared overhead in the blue sky,” The Daily Northwestern said.
As many as 10,000 people witnessed the ceremony, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. But it was only matter of weeks until a new story began circulating, one that led the Times to warn, “New Josh Feared in Oshkosh.”
It seems that a longtime resident of Shawano had gone trout fishing with some Menominee friends of his during that summer of 1926. Trying to make small talk, the Shawano man, S.F. Luckenbach, remarked, “Really too bad they moved the body of Chief Oshkosh away from the reservation.”
To his great surprise came the reply, “They didn’t.”
Eventually Luckenbach was put in touch with an old man, “more than 100 years old” according to numerous contemporary accounts, named John Wapoose, who claimed to have been present in 1858 when Oshkosh was buried in Keshena. He took Luckenbach to what he described as the true Oshkosh grave and convinced the white man that the body had not been moved.
The key evidence, Wapoose said, was that the body that was dug up had been found with buttons on its burial clothing, proof in his view that the corpse was that of a woman.
At the time the assertion of a hoax was taken seriously enough that the Northwestern called for a grand jury investigation in an editorial entitled “The Chief or Not the Chief?” But Reginald Oshkosh, grandson of the old chief and a key organizer of the corpse transfer, issued a spirited denial of chicanery, which city leaders apparently decided was in their best interest to accept.
As part of his argument, the younger Oshkosh asserted that there was no one by the name of John Wapoose living at such an advanced age on the Menominee reservation. “The Wapoose referred to died in 1858 and his son John Wapoose Jr. died in the state penitentiary at Waupun about ten years ago,” Oshkosh wrote in a statement that was published in local newspapers.
Because of federal laws designed to protect Native American burial grounds, archeological experts think it would be next-to-impossible to excavate the Menominee Park site and conduct DNA tests on the bones there, which might not be conclusive anyway.
As a result, the question will likely remain: Who is buried in Oshkosh’s grave?
While no one knows for sure, at least it is someone or something. That’s more than can be said about Grant’s Tomb, the New York City memorial about which Groucho Marx frequently joked.
“Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Marx would ask contestants on his quiz show, You Bet Your Life. The answer is no one, because Grant’s Tomb is actually a granite vault that sits on a marble floor. Since the general’s earthly remains were never covered with dirt, it would be incorrect to say he, or anyone else, is buried in his tomb.
This article is based to a large degree on newspaper reports that appeared in 1926 in The Daily Northwestern, The Sheboygan Press, the Green Bay Press-Gazette and the Los Angeles Times.
Photo of Chief Oshkosh memorial by Miles Maguire, copyright 2016.