The city has started working on a $35,000 project to upgrade the Chief Oshkosh memorial in Menominee Park by installing a walkway that will allow easier access, especially for disabled people.
But officials are still struggling with the question of how to describe what visitors will see when they arrive at the memorial, which includes a marked grave that was once believed to contain the remains of Chief Oshkosh.
The Oshkosh burial site on Pratt Trail in Menominee Park (usually referred to as the Oshkosh “burial site” in city documents to acknowledge that it probably isn’t) consists of a 10-foot bronze statue of a strapping, bare-chested young man atop a 9½-foot rose granite pedestal. At its foot is a black granite slab, roped off with black metal chain, that serves as a tombstone and carries this inscription:
A man of peace,
beloved by all.
A bronze plaque on the pedestal reads:
A chief of the
Menominee Tribe of Indians
whose greatest achievement
in this life was in giving
to this city the name which
will make it famous while
one stone remains upon another.
For anyone who cares about history or facts, just about everything about the memorial is wrong.
To begin with, many people who have studied the matter have come to the conclusion that Chief Oshkosh’s remains are still on the Menominee reservation near Keshena.
The city held an elaborate ceremony in 1926 to mark the transfer of the chief’s body from a family cemetery on the banks of the Wolf River to the foot of the statute overlooking Lake Winnebago, but doubts began to emerge soon thereafter about whether the Menominee would really have allowed the bones of a revered chief to be moved off the reservation.
“I don’t know who is there—it could be a bunch of rocks,” said Mayor Steve Cummings, who is spearheading the effort to raise awareness about the burial site and to try to set the historical record a little straighter.
Another problem with the memorial is the bronze statue, which was designed by the ltalian sculptor Gaetano Trentanove and cost $12,500 in 1911, or roughly $300,000 in contemporary currency.
“The statue doesn’t look anything like him,” said Jeffrey Behm, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who studies the archeology of historic Native Americans. “I mean he was a short muscular man; he wasn’t this tall Nordic-looking Indian.”
Then there is the problem of describing Oshkosh as peaceful and universally admired. Although he was instrumental in settling disputes between whites and natives that avoided bloodshed, he was also a veteran of the War of 1812 (on the side of the British), the Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War; stood trial for murder; and died in a drunken brawl at the hands of his two sons.
Even among the Menominee, Oshkosh was not “beloved by all.” Some in the tribe believed that he had been too accommodating to white settlers and even disputed his status as chief.
In fact Oshkosh did not become head chief by birth or through acclamation of the Menominee people. Instead he was picked to serve in that role at a treaty signing in 1827 after federal officials determined that it was too hard to negotiate with the tribe because it did not have someone who was clearly in charge.
“You appear like a flock of geese, without a leader, some fly one way and some another,” said Lewis Cass, the Michigan territorial governor. “Tomorrow, at the opening of the council, we shall appoint a principal chief of the Menominee.” After talking among the Indians, the government officials decided on Oshkosh to be chief and gave him this warning: “You will take care and act like a man and not like a dog.”
Despite the controversies about his fitness to be chief and his actions as chief, it is a gross underestimation to say that Oshkosh’s biggest achievement in life was leaving his name behind.