Chief Mexico and the Native Americans of Manitowoc Rapids
Manitowoc is an area rich in history of Native American peoples. Writing in 1912 for the Wisconsin Historical Society, James Anderson describes the area as “a veritable Indian paradise” before occupation by white settlers. Several communities lived in pockets between the shores of Lake Michigan and the various nearby rivers.
Native American influence can be observed today in place names throughout Manitowoc County: “Manitowoc” itself translates to “home of the good spirit” or “home of the Great Spirit.” Other place names adopted from Native American designations include Mishicot (named for Chief Mishicot, “hairy leg”), the Neshota River (“twin”), and the town of Memee (“pigeon”).
One of the most well-known Native American groups in the county lived at Manitowoc Rapids. According to Louis Falge in his 1911 History of Manitowoc County, this village was a mixture of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Pottawottomie families. The village began when a group of Chippewas, numbering just a few hundred, broke off from their kin in northern Wisconsin and migrated further south than any other band of their tribe. It is not known for certain why they chose to separate, but the community that they began at Manitowoc soon attracted more participants.
Like most bands situated near large waterways, the people of Manitowoc Rapids traded extensively with the French. In 1763, at the close of the French and Indian War, the region was ceded to the British, who traded with the Manitowoc Rapids group until 1783, when the Northwest became a part of the United States. Settlement of the area began in earnest between 1836 and 1846, according to James Anderson, who moved to Manitowoc himself in 1852 and recorded in his 1912 essay “Indians of Manitowoc County” a number of stories of peaceful cohabitation between white settlers and the Manitowoc Rapids village.
The last chief of this group was Waumegesako, also known as Chief Mexico or the Wampum. According to Falge, he was “a man of fine physique, erect, over six feet in height, very dignified and courteous in his demeanor, possessing considerable strength of character, and more than ordinary intelligence.” Waumegesako was noted to be “upright in all his dealings with his white neighbors as well as his own people, highly respected and trusted by both,” and as such, played a prominent role in the signings of several treaties, including Butte des Mortes in 1827, Green Bay in 1828, Prarie du Chien in 1829, and Chicago in 1833. He is well-recognized for his efforts to preserve peace between his own people and white settlers. Waumegesako lived until 1844, and upon his passing, there was a large ceremony attended by 500 or more mourners, Native Americans and whites alike.