Chippewa Flowage Lake Association

Oral History Documentation:

The Battle of the Horsefly (circa 1795)
The Story Behind the Moose Lake Historical Marker

Sawyer County Historical Marker to the northwest of the Moose Lake Bridge over the West Fork of the Chippewa River


In the fall of 1790 according to Indian legend Chippewa warriors crouched in ambush here, ready to attack 700 invading Sioux paddling upstream in 200 canoes. When the enemy reached where the bridge spans the river, the Chippewa swarmed to attack. Less than half of the Sioux escaped the bloody ambush. They never again attempted to take control of the north country from the Chippewa. (Erected by the Sawyer County Historical Society 1965)

1915 Plat Book for Township T41N R6W

    NOTE: (In trying to research this bit of history I was unable to verify the date, or time of year, or number of Mdewakotan (Sioux) warriors and canoes - one stunning error was that the Sioux were coming up river, when just the opposite was true.  For this reason I place the Battle date at circa 1795 and tell the story as follows {Timm Severud}):

     There are stories that I keep coming back to, the Battle of the Horsefly is one such story and for me it is time to do it justice. I was actually aware of the Battle from the historical marker at the Moose Lake Bridge over the East Fork of the Chippewa off County Road S – near the resort community of Moose Lake (NE Sawyer County).

     It explained how the Chippewa and the Sioux fought the last battle in the area at this site. Then over the next 20 years I heard bits and pieces of the story.  The other day I was again asked about this piece of history and as I pulled out my notes and letters on the subject I realized I have never really told the story as I have come to understand it, nor have I explained how to look at the battle site from a warrior's point of view in mind to the relate the story.

    The Battle of the Horsefly is a name I have come to call it as the horsefly sounded the warning. I believe it is also the way it was referred to in the past. Eldon Marple called it the Battle of Teal River in one of his writings… As with many things, an object, a person, a piece of history can have many names, yet still be just what it is.

    In the time when Great Michel (Michael Cadotte) was the lead trader in the region and in the decade before Jean Baptiste Corbine had joined the company and came to the Lac Courte Oreilles area, there were hostilities on this land. The ebb and flows of societies were in full flow across the land. The great battles with the Fox Nation were over.  The Chippewa (Ojibwe/Anishinabe) in the form of numbers bands and their unique clan mixes moved further in the Rice District.  By the onset those disturbed times between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (Tecumseh’s Uprising), the Chippewa had already forced the Dakota Sioux (Mdewakotan) to the South and West.  By this time there was only one band of the Dakota left with in the boarders of Wisconsin (The Dead Lake Band) most had removed to the other side of the St. Croix/Mississippi.

    There was season to war it. It ran from after the sugar bush to the freeze over.  War during the rest of the year meant certain starvation.  Winters were survived while wars and battles were merely fought.  By this time the traders were moving among the bands of Chippewa, Dakota, Menominee, Winnebago and Potawatomi and they promoted peace (by having peace ceremonies so the men could trap and hunt, thereby insuring that there would be pelts to make money off of in the spring.). In the late autumn there were elaborate ceremonies burying hatchets and smoke the individual peace pipes.

    The battles were often revenge for past events, they also involved visions and elaborate ceremonies all within cultural and historic context. What the exact reasons that lead to the Mdewakotan attack on Old Post in about 1795 has been lost to time.  What remains are the warrior stories, passed down from generation to generation through the old Chief Dance or War Dance… This is how I have learned to tell the story.

   In a time of ‘Peaceful Watching,’ when there was a lull in the near continuous fighting between the Anishinabe and Mdewakotan. There was an old man, a leader, a medicine man if you will, who resided at Old Post {Pukwaywong} (numerous spellings). Old Post was on the West Fork of the Chippewa River, about 5 miles above the confluence of the East and West Fork and is today under the Chippewa Flowage.   The rivers where the ‘Roads Of War’ especially the Chippewa River.  Forty years later Henry Rowe Schoolcraft would write about the rivers of this area, ‘Every bend in the river is a battle site’.  Old Post had been attacked before and had been an area of considerable contention because of the extensive wild rice beds that were so treasure and so permanently lost when the area was flooded in the 1920s.

  Early one evening the ‘Old Man’ was watching the end of the day and smoking his pipe, when two horseflies came to him.  They landed on his pipe and told him that the Mdewakotan were in the area. The Anishinabe were not horse people, the Mdewakotan, like the other Dakota, Nakota and Lakota were.

  The Old Man called the warriors together and sent some down river to check the lower Chippewa and the East Fork, some up the Chief Rivers and others up the West Fork.  Those that had checked the East Fork, the lower Chippewa and the Chief Rivers came back without finding a sign of the enemy.  However a runner returned from the group that went up the West Fork to inform the community that the Mdewakotan were bivouacked on the Teal River about a mile above the confluence of the Moose and West Fork Rivers, and were building canoes and preparing to attack.  The rest of the scouting party had stayed and prepared an ambush below the confluence of the Teal and West Fork..

   The political structure of the Anishinabe was different back then.  There were Peace Chiefs and War Chiefs.  At this point the War Chiefs took over. They planned and executed both the defensive and offensive aspects of the battle. They went from a reactive outlook to a proactive outlook.

   First they gathered all the women, children and old folks and had them hide in a gully, which was covered with brush, and all signs of their movement to that gully were erased away.  They then sent out a war party to counter the approaching Mdewakotan. Older men stayed and protected the women and children, as was the custom.

   In the area around where the historical marker is up by Moose Lake Road and County S, the Anishinabe warriors dug foxholes and waited for the Mdewakotan to come down river by canoe. If you know the area there are a number of good spot to be able to shoot directly down at the river. The Anishinabe had a few muskets, but a majority of the weapons were the bow and arrows, and of course the war clubs.

   The warriors then prepared themselves to die and put their hair up in a scalp lock to show they were ready to die.  They wore their hair as long as it would grow.  They first took up three small wisps of hair at the crown of the head and braid them, firmly braid about midway the length of the hair, after which they then wrapped this braid with moosewood, basswood or other strong bark so that the braid would stand erect on the head from about six to eight inches (if they had red flannel they would use that instead of the bark because it was showier). Then the hair above the braid was allowed to fall over, giving the lock a parasol appearance.  A genuine warrior thought as much of his scalp lock as he did of his war club and desired to make it look as conspicuous as possible.

   The ambush was set and after a time, the Mdewakotan canoed down river.  It opened with a volley from the few muskets that the Anishinabe had and was immediately followed with bow and arrows, and finally was reduced to war club and scalping knife, as the battle moved from the river bank into the river.  Eventually the battle ended in hand-to-hand combat.  With many stories like this one, they say the river ran red with blood.

Many Anishinabe warriors were killed in this battle and according to oral legend all but one of the Mdewakotan warriors were killed. The number of dead is now only a guess, but their were many more dead on the Mdewakotan side.  They buried the dead near the Battle Site to the west of the river in two close but separate burial areas, one for the Mdewakotan and one for the Anishinabe. Years later a settler, planted trees over the site so no one would ever farm the warrior's graves.

   What became of the sole Mdewakotan survivor?  The people of Pukwaywong, put the best of clothing on him, they filled a canoe with rice, meat and the best of what they had.  They put the last Mdewakotan warrior in this canoe and told him to go home, with this gift and to never attack this area again. The Dakota never sent another war party into the Valley of the Chiefs or into the LCO area again.   And the legend of the Battle of the Horsefly lives on with this telling.

SOURCES:  (text) William W. Warren's 'History of the Ojibways, based upon Traditions and Oral Statements,' Benjamin G. Armstrong's 'Early Life Among the Indians,' and Walker D. Wyman's "The Chippewa - A History of the Great Lakes Indian Tribe Over Three Centuries." (oral) Jerry Smith (who's grandfather Henry Smith heard it from his own grandfather at Old Post) recorded March 9, 2001 at his home in the tribal community of '6 Mile', (the remainder were told me prior to this date in social settings by:) George O'shogay, Charles Quagon, Donald W. Corbine, Ray Wolf and Ernest 'Peasoup' Guibord. Such oral histories are the generational telling of a story that is now more than 200 years old. This is recorded to honor both the story and the cultural nature of its telling.

 (NOTE: The Chippewa Flowage Lake Association does not endorse this management plan and we note that the water level comments in the plan do not concur with  Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions requirements.)
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