Jump to Navigation

The Life of Wah-bahn-se: The Warrior Chief of the Pottawatamies

by J. N. Bourassa

Summer 1972 (Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2), pages 132 to 143
Transcription & HTML composition by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of The Kansas Historical Society.

Under the above heading the biography of the celebrated chief Wabaunsee, reprinted here, was published in the Kansas City (Mo.) Enterprise of March 14, and 21, 1857. The account was said to be an extract from the author's "Book of Indian Customs, habits &c." which would be "issued by the Harpers early in the summer." No evidence of book publication has been found.

Of the biographer, the Enterprise stated: "Mr. Joseph N[apoleon] Bourassa . . . is an educated Pottawatomie Indian. He began his education at the Carey Mission [in Michigan] under the general superintendence of Mr. Isaac McCoy and Dr. Johnston Lykins. From this mission school he was transferred to Hamilton College, N. Y., and from thence be was removed to a Kentucky Institute to study law; the expenses of his legal studies being defrayed by the government."

Joseph N. and his brother Jude W., the most prominent of the Bourassas, were comfortably settled in Kansas in the 1850's. Jude, also educated, had charge of the Pottawatomies' water-power mill. His home was near the mouth of Mill creek, in Wabaunsee county. Joseph lived nearer the Pottawatomies' trading post Union Town in Shawnee county. A tourist who visited the brothers in 1854 wrote that they were half-French; that Joseph, a single man, was "the more intellectual," and Jude "much the more wealthy." [1] For further information on Joseph N. Bourassa see article by Dorothy V. Jones in Kansas Quarterly, Lawrence, v. 3, No. 4 (Fall, 1971), pp. 47-53.

Chief Wabaunsee never lived in Kansas, but his name is perpetuated here in a county, township, village, and lake.

WAH-BAHN-SE was born in Terre Coupe, Indiana, in about 1747, and died in 1846. [2] The father of this great man was a brave by the name of Wabb-shkum, and his mother was called Mah-jues. These two persons by their connection had three children, viz: Black Pheasant, ___________, and Nall-k-ses, (or Wah-bahn-se,) being the youngest. Mka-da-puk-ke, alias Black Pheasant, the elder brother of the subject of our biography, became a very celebrated and distinguished leader of war parties, and Wah-bahn-se often accompanied him.

Wah-bahn-se was raised in the strictest pure Indian manners and customs by his parents, as his demeanor and appearance promised much to his anxious parents, and no pains were spared in watching the youth's life, examining him very closely in his dreams.

He was early trained to the use of the cold bath, that is, swimming or bathing, both in winter as well as in summer. This practice is severe but healthy and bracing to the constitution of man, and deemed by our nation of the same effect as that of fasting. He also practiced fasting while engaged in the chase, and was remarkable, while quite young, for his celebrity and hardihood, soon gaining the applause of being a famous hunter.

In person he was tall and straight, being six feet and an inch in height. He was rather given to silence, spoke but seldom, though not ill-natured, social than otherwise; rarely associated with young people in their games and plays, but he was one of the foremost in their sham fights of small bows and grass arrows, in which he manifested great coolness, daring perseverance, and dexterity. He was extremely sober; it would be only on extraordinary occasions that he would be seen enjoying the Bacchanalian pleasures.

It was soon known that he was brave to desperation, by his joining war parties when as yet quite young, though much was said to dissuade and deter him from his design of attending belligerent parties; but neither entreaties nor threatenings would turn him from his purpose. On urging the matter too closely he would only answer, "I am as much of a man as those who are going," and that was bringing everything to a close, and parents and friends could hope for no more satisfaction.

It was with the colleagued powers of the Chippewas, Ottawas, and Pattawatamies, Sacs and Foxes, Kickapoos, Delawares, Shawnees, Mennomenees, and several other tribes, he was first initiated into the ranks of the braves.

The above general march against the Peorias, Weas, and Piankashaws, who then were very numerous and powerful in arms, who had been guilty of national heinous and atrocious crimes and offences -- the above league, in which our hero is included, after long consultation and mature deliberations, decided to extinguish from off the face of the earth these sinning tribes; to put out their fire, which means to exterminate the whole tribe or tribes.

At the time of the council, having appointed the place of rendezvous, all met at the day and place, and immediately marched against the said doomed tribes, and surrounded their towns and villages, and massacred without any regard to sex and age. The catastrophe of these guilty tribes was unaccountable and shocking, and in a short time the infuriated warrior could hardly find whereon to vent his unsatiated war club, for like all fallen braves, before a wind-carried fire, were this people disappearing before the unerring blow of the savage war axe. Seeing no alternative, they begged quarters, and prayed to be spewed or vomited barely for the purpose of handling down their once great name or ancient greatness to coming generations. The savage arm rested, and a voice echoed they were spared. As Page-go-shug, one of our chiefs, observed not long since saying, look at them (talking of the Peorias, etc.,) now they are but a handful, when once the earth appeared too small for them, but by their pride, folly, and crime, they have destroyed themselves-hence from that crisis they have called themselves our little brothers. [3]

In this massacre Nah-k-ses, showed himself a very active warrior and daring brave.

Our hero marched against the Osages three times, always bringing scalps and prisoners. On one expedition he captured forty Osage prisoners. Black Pheasant marched from Terre Coupe, Indiana, against the Osages, then residing on the west of Missouri, as leader of the war party, in which Nah-k-ses was one of the first enlisted, for now the Osages had become the common enemy, for like offense of the Peorias, etc., and they moved from the east side of the Mississippi to the western banks of the Missouri, eventually villaged themselves on the tributaries of the latter river, now called by Big and Little Osages, named after the tribes which were then divided into two great parties or bands, which is still the case to this day.

From this time Nah-k-ses out-dared his brother, Black Pheasant and in fact all that were in the party, in which were two great braves, Shaw-ba-na and Page-go-shug. Soon after this unparalleled transaction or feat of bravery, he began as leader of war parties himself.

It is at this time that he entered a fort by the port-hole in the dead of night. His brother was the leader, and after a war council, they were about to return home in despair, they having so agreed but one man, and Nab-k-ses was the man, and demurred against the decision. He told them they were braves and their decision was derogatory to the title, and added, "I am the only brave man here. To- night I will enter the fort," (for they said the Osages' retreat or biding place is inaccessible.)

This fort was kept by a trader named Pierre Chouteau, [4] in which the Osages had taken safe quarters. They were permitted entrance from the fact that it was rumored that some war parties were out from the North. The night came, the drum was heard and singing and dancing inside the fort. They feared no foe, for they knew the gate was closed and barred.

Each man of the party looked sad and disappointed, as they saw no hopes of returning home after such a long route with the laurels of honor, scalps and prisoners. About 10 o'clock the silence was broken by our warrior jumping upon his feet. He said "leeh," an exclamation meaning now, "I will get a scalp or an Osage!" His brother and others tried to dissuade him, but all in vain. At last his brother told him "I will go with you." So saying, they left their day retreat or hiding place, Nah-k-ses with only his carbine in hand and his tomahawk in his belt, away toward the fort which was near by, they made still or spirit like steps. But the night being very dark it was some time before he could find the port hole-having left his brother, Black Pheasant about twenty paces from the fort.

Our night hero, now at the fort, made up his mind to leave his carbine at the hole and enter only with his tomahawk on him. It was with some trouble he crawled through. He made for the first cabin, which he thought was a kitchen, for it was pretty well provided with cooking utensils. Here he found a great many Osages sleeping. He lit a torch and looked around. He found what he supposed to be the monster Osage who was represented as having horns. He made a pass at him, but missed his blow; the next pass was parried off by the horned monster with his Buffalo robe, and every time he struck him he bellowed like a Buffalo, from which animal he made his people believe be was derived or came.

At last he made such a noise that nearly all in the house were awake and crying aloud when they saw their chief and king his head covered with blood.

Here our hero was pushed and shoved by his half-awake enemies, until at last he took a scalp and retreated to his port hole, where he narrowly escaped while in the act of creeping out -- some brushed his feet. Our hero was troubled with two or three ideas when he first entered the house. At first he thought he would steal a boy about twelve years old, but he was afraid he would make a noise and thus prevent his escaping from the fort. It being so dark it was as much as he could do to find his way out, and so hotly was he pursued that he left his carbine standing on the outside of the port hole.

He afterwards went against the Osages as they were then the main enemy, and in this expedition he was successful, bringing as trophies many scalps and several prisoners, and some females and boys, which he and his party distributed among their friends and relatives. He gave these female captives unto marriage to his fellow braves, for he also had one presented to him by the famous warrior and leader Main Pox.

He adopted an Osage boy presented him as a son, who I have seen myself, by the name of Wa-zah, who was married to a Pottawatomie woman and had several children by her. Wah-bahn-see treated this adopted son as tenderly as though he had been his own proper son.

He proved successful in every war expedition, but he said he regretted the time he wounded the horned Osage as much as he would to have proved unsuccessful in some of his war excursions.

This Osage was much spoken of on account of certain bumps or protuberances that grew on his bead resembling those seen on the head of a calf before its horns appear. So he passed himself off for a monster, renascent from that family of the animal kingdom. This uncommon man after this nocturnal affray with our brave, sent him word to come and see him: he would like to make friends with him; to which our hero replied he did not wish to make friendship with the Devil. About this time, the warrior of this piece began to be highly conspicuous in war. His renown and fame as it were, spread to the South, West, and North, -- for at the South he had marched against the Peorias, etc.; at the West, the Pawnees, Ottawas, Osages, Kaws, and the Sioux. So he stood respected and feared by the surrounding tribes as will be seen hereafter.

He headed a party of warriors on White-River, Indiana, and in the act of capturing a provision boat very nearly lost his life. There were braves of several tribes which formed his party, viz: Sacs, Kickapoos, Mennomenees, Winnebagos, Ottawas, and some Pottawatomies. After having shot down nearly the whole crew, our hero proposed to jump into the river and make prisoners of the balance and draw the boat to shore.

Wabaunsee, Warrior Chief

POTTAWATOMIE NATION (1760's? - 1845?)

"The people will know me and always call me Wah-bahn-se," signifying the dawn of day or causer of paleness. "When I kill an enemy he turns pale, resembling the first light of the day." [p. 138.] "He was the strongest man in our national councils," according to his biographer, "and was as a serpent in Indian diplomacy and national affairs in general, and a master judge of human nature." [p. 142.] A painting of Chief Wabaunsee, by Charles Bird King, was reproduced in color on the cover of the Summer, 1964, issue of The Kansas Historical Quarterly.

Dr. Joseph Napoleon Bourassa


Of French-Pottawatomie descent, Doctor Bourassa was educatedin mission and Eastern schools, and practiced for years amongthe Pottawatomie and Kansa Indians. His account of events inthe life of Wabaunsee, published in a Kansas City newspaperin 1857, includes the comment, "I have tried to write them in theorder they were told to me by the celebrated individual himself ...."

So saying, in our chieftain went into the river with five or six other warriors, but being shot at by the balance of the boatmen they all got out of the water. Alone was our subject seen advancing towards the boat and dodging the arrows like a water duck, until at last he got to swimming. Some of his party, hollooed to him to come back, but no heed was paid to their warning, until at last he got almost in reach of the boat, when a man jumped up and having a musket in his hands with a bayonet, stuck our brave through the upper part of his shoulder blade, and jerking backwards unfastened the blade of the arrow of steel, and while the same man was making another pass to finish our courageous chieftain he was shot dead by some brave from the bank, who saw the danger of our hero. He therefore made for the shore and the water and blood spouted from out his wound. His swimming represented the sight and noise of the travel of a distant whale. By hard work he made out to reach the edge of the water, and there laid as though lifeless, unable to help himself, quite exhausted by the loss of blood. One of his party by the name of Me- gue-un, or Quill, and his adopted Osage son, Wa-zab pulled him out, and Quill being a good war doctor applied medicines, and in three days our hero was going about. Nah-k-ses was heard to say, "I'll pay the pale faces for making me sore and lame." In ten days from the time he was wounded in the shoulder, and still having his shoulder bandaged, he started to revenge himself on the pale faces, as he used to call the whites. He enlisted seven young warriors. After traveling some few days he got to a stage stand. He broke the stable door open, and seeing a large watch dog in the stable he said he made friends with him, and would not nor did not bark at him once. He got out four horses very handily, as he led them out by two; but the last three gave him much trouble and uneasiness, as they snorted and stamped the floor, making a great noise, for it appears they smelled the medicine about the person of our chieftain, or as be said he thought they knew the Indian by the scent.

After he got them out and was leading them as fast as he possibly could, he thought he heard a footstep behind, and looking around he could see a person approaching and following him in the shadow of the horses as the moon was not very high. He let the horses go and seized him by an arm and drew his butcher knife from his belt. The white man seeing this screamed out; no sooner than the cry was made the savage plunged his cold steel into his bosom. The victim sank at his feet. In an instant the scalp was taken, the chief saying loud enough to be heard by his warriors, "I did not holloo when you stuck me with your gun-knife," (meaning the bayonet.) He caught his horses and delivering them to his men told them to mount and ride with speed, for there might be danger where they were by morning. So each mounting a horse, off they galloped into the dark forest, and having lit his pipe he took the Indian lope, having named and appointed the place he should meet his young men.

Our hero now appears with his new name, which is according to the custom of his nation, and is a law among all the tribes of North America, saying, "The people will know me and always call me Wah- bahn-se," signifying the dawn of day or causer of paleness. "When I kill an enemy he turns pale, resembling the first light of the day."

His tutelary spirit was a spirit whose steps no mortal ear could bear. He said he would always take his enemy by surprise.

In 1832 the old warrior and a band of Pottawatamies and some half breeds accompanied Gen. [Henry] Dodge in the affairs with the celebrated Sac, Black Hawk. Old Wah-bahn-se was quite indignant at the low and unchristian conduct of some of the soldiery for shooting at some famished Sac prisoners who were bathing themselves in a creek, after Gen. Dodge had promised to the chiefs that they would be treated as prisoners of war. But the chief of our narrative observed to the company that the whites were more savage and inhuman than his people, and he said that those soldiers who shot the poor Sacs were cowards and like squaws, for our women only can kill prisoners.

Some years before he moved to the west one of his Osage wives ran away and be pursued her by tracking her until he came near a Sac village and lost her track. This was in Illinois; the old man thought the best way would be for him to go into town and make inquiries. So he made his way to the most respectable looking lodge, which we about one hundred feet long. Entering he asked in a stern manner and rather abruptly if they had seen an Osage. Pausing a second or two and receiving no answer, he added, by way of explanation, "It is my wife," which caused laughter in some young men who were lying down opposite to where he stood. He stepped across the lodge, and having drawn his tomahawk from out his belt, he tapped the heads of these indecorous young men, and resuming his former position looked round for an answer. One of the chiefs of the lodge told him they had seen no such person, and the same chief addressed the young men as follows:

"Do you not know that this man who spoke to you is a great man, a brave, and chief of the Pottawatamies?"

As soon as the above reprimand was administered our hero went out and resumed his pursuit without any molestation or even the thoughts of it. Had it been any other man he would have had trouble with these corrected young Sacs. And I hesitate not in saying that no other man in any tribe could have acted thus without incurring the displeasure of the whole Sac tribe; but they too well knew the fame of old Wah-bahn-se to cross his path.

Another daring circumstance was a case of some Miami's having stolen a horse from the old brave. The old man waited for an opportunity to get pay for his horse. Hearing the agent was about to pay the Miami's their annuities, he went to attend their payment. Taking with him for this enterprise Louison, of the Wabash party, and also his nephew, Che-jah-kose.

Before the enrolling of the Miami tribe he told them his errand -he told the chiefs and head men that some young men had stolen from him a horse and they must pay for it.

Some said he should go to the man that had stolen his horse and get pay from him. He said that would not do: if they did not pay him out of their annuity money be would go home and get a few young men and return immediately and take six of their horses to pay himself. He said he would not steal as they did, but would take them before their eyes. He said, "I tell you again I will take just one hundred dollars for my horse, and less will not do."

Gen. [John] Tipton, who was the agent, knowing the determined mind of the brave, advised them to pay him for his horse; for he told them that it would not do to get the old brave angry, as he might put them to more trouble than they were aware of. They therefore reluctantly agreed to pay him.

The agent counted out the money, just one hundred dollars, and put it on the table. The Miami chief told him to take it. He replied "I will not take it," at the same time shaking his bead, saying, "I want you to put it in my hand," which be held on his knee. So they requested the agent to place the money into his hand from the table. As be received the money he said, "That's right; now I am well pleased. If you had not paid me you would have seen bard times." No other man in our tribe would have dared to say that.

He held a high rank and character in our nation; was much esteemed for his wisdom as a counsellor, and was highly respected and much feared. To show the high regard the tribe manifested for his bravery and character I will adduce one instance, which in my tribe is remarkable' and another circumstance of a similar nature could not probably be witnessed in several ages; and I am certain could not be found in any other tribe.

In a drinking frolic, the old veteran being by repeated insults, made angry, took a club and killed a man with whom he had been drinking, and who had abused him in an uncommon manner. After the deed was done the old brave continued his spree for several days more, after which he sobered off and demeaned himself as usual, as though nothing more than ordinary had happened.

The relatives of the murdered man buried their dead in perfect silence, and they never opened their mouths about the murder to the old warrior, nor did he ever make any atonement or restitution whatever.

He said he never was questioned for his deed until the time he was relating the circumstances, nor ever expected to be troubled about it while he lived.

This biography is rather desultory, but my aim. is to have embraced in it all his principal adventures and the most remarkable actions of our hero's life. They are not given in due order of time for this is counteracted by the fact that I have tried to write them in the order they were told to me by the celebrated individual himself, for to the natives dates are of little consequence so long as they get the circumstances, actions and facts.

He was assiduous and persevering in all his undertakings. His motto was never to turn back from any point of the compass after he had set his face.

Tecumseh having heard and learned the decisive character of our brave, induced the great British Indian to make a league with Wah-bahn-se, which was this, that our hero should do his best to raise an army, or rather parties, to the amount of one thousand by way of reinforcement to the war party of Tecumseh in the year 1813.

While Wah-bahn-se was raising forces from the several allied tribes, before the day of their march, he heard of the death of the Shawnee general. He said he was not very sorry to hear of it, for he did not like the politics of Tecumseh: he was too much for fighting, adding that he never looked at the causes of war, whether they were good or bad, it made no difference; he would always fight.

In council our chieftain was cunning: he was shrewd, reserved, and extremely cautious in conclusions and decisions. These qualities made him a first rate diplomatist in treaty making. There never were sufficient barriers in his way to thwart him from executing any projects he might have in view.

In 1836 he visited the Federal City, accompanied by a half Chippewa and Ottawa chief, and the writer of this as interpreter.

It was late in the fall when he proposed to make his eastern tour, money was not easy to procure, and endeavors were made by the agents and friends to dissuade him from his intention; still he said he would go if he had to go on foot. While we were thinking it was a hopeless case to raise any money for our expenses, I got a small loan from Mr. Peter Long Lois, Senior. He appeared to me all perseverance. When we had proposed to our agent to let us have money be told us he had no funds out of which he could let us have any money for that purpose, and advised the old warrior to wait until the summer following, and in the mean time he would write and ask for orders to take him there. The old chief answered, "I do not belong to our great father. I have made up my mind: I want to see him this winter."

We started from Logansport and passed Indianapolis, it being bad weather and bad roads: stages breaking down. We frequently had to travel on foot. The old brave stood it as well as any in the company. After many days of tedious traveling we reached Washington City. I must say here that the old warrior was treated very kindly by the citizens of the States we passed through.

He had an interview with the great and celebrated Indian fighter, [Andrew] Jackson, who was then President of the United States. Wah-bahn-se addressed the Executive of the Union as brother brave and warrior, as the President kindly shook hands with him and treated him very friendly. The old Indian warrior was also much pleased to meet Gen. [Lewis] Cass, the then Secretary of War, whom he well knew.

He visited the city on business for his nation, but could not effect anything of much importance.

On our return through the State of Ohio the stage upset, but fortunately injured no one seriously. Our old hero got out last and asked if his grand child (meaning his interpreter) was hurt bad. I had my face pretty badly bruised, and said I would have got mad and killed and scalped that driver, for we were turned over almost in a level road, had it not been that the stage had a penchant to one side and we had objected to ride therein.

He visited the Federal City the second time on national business with a delegation from the Council Bluffs [in November, 1845], though he was now upwards of ninety [eighty?] years of age. He and the delegation laid the basis of the treaty made in June, 1846.

He being old and quite infirm from wounds he had received which proved unpleasant and annoyed him greatly and the stage turning over with him brought on a fever which being augmented caused his death before he could reach home. [5] He bore his sufferings like a stoic philosopher.

His death was a shock to the whole nation -- it had seemed as though he never was to die, by his calculations and the sayings of the people.

He was the strongest man in our national councils, and was as a serpent in Indian diplomacy and national affairs in general, and a master judge of human nature. He always manifested a desire to say to me frequently that he thought he could run as light and as actively as any young man in an attack on the enemy.

He related a story concerning his wives one day as unconcerned as though it had been an every day transaction of his wigwam. He had two wives and both were Osage women. One, the oldest, got mule contrary and he ordered his youngest wife to take a hatchet and kill her the first blow. He said, "if you do not kill her the first blow I will kill you." The ordered wife did as she was bid and knocked her brains out, fairly besmearing them and their bed. Wah-bahn-se said "I was very foolish for having her killed, for I gave ten horses for her." This wife who was killed had been presented to him by some brave, I believe it was Main Pox, and when that is the case they have to make a return as they call it, by making a large present to the donor, in horses, etc.

This old chief was a grand medicine, or a sort of Mason or M.D. The members of this society have considerable respect paid them on account of the art, and it is hard to tell what it really is; but we do know that they have many ceremonies in their lodge, and we cannot induce the meanest member to betray the first secret though he be inebriated to excess.

Wah-bahn-se was a good liver. He had several wagons, cattle, and about forty head of horses, and a large amount of moveable chattels.

At his death he had a son by his Osage wife. The young man resembled his distinguished old father in stature and physiognomy, and was, like him, rather given to silence. But being of Osage origin he had a curb upon him which marred and depressed his corporal and mental parts. He could not like the Roman boast "I am one of you" or "I am a Pottawatamie." He died a few years after his father, having never acted as a public man, nor did he ever attend any war party.

Wah-bahn-se went to war against nearly all the tribes of the north and made three expeditions against the Osages, always returning with scalps and at one time forty prisoners.


1. Kansas Historical Quarterly, v. 35 (1969), pp. 333-335.
2. Wah-bahn-se (Wabaunsee), who probably died in December, 1845 -- see Footnote 5 -- was said, in 1845, to have "the snows of eighty winters on his head." Accordingly he was born in the 1760's rather than in the 1740's -- Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (1972), p. 441.
3. In 1834 the Weas numbered 220, the Piankeshaws 185, and the Peorias & Kaskaskias 128. -- Ibid., p. 268.
4. Auguste and Pierre Chouteau established Fort Carondelet in 1794/1795 in the Osages' country, having been granted the exclusive trade of that nation for six years. Evidently Wabaunsee's adventure related to the short-lived post (in Blue Mound? township, Vernon county, Missouri), which the Chouteaus abandoned after losing the Osages' trade to Manuel Lisa in 1802. -- Ibid., p. 40.
5. This second overturning of a stage also occurred in Ohio. The treaty councils in Washington, D.C., had ended on November 24. The accident probably happened in December, 1845.