The Chief of the Prairie, Shabbona

3/23/2010 12:01:00 PM

SHABONNA, OR Sha-be-ne (there are several “officials” ways to spell this name) was the leader of the Potawatomie tribe, one of the last Native American tribes to inhabit the area.

Sandy Vasko

Where Braidwood now stands was once a great prairie. Wildlife such as the prairie chicken, grouse, ducks, geese, and even buffalo roamed in abundance. It was home to Native Americans as well. The last of these was the Potawatomie tribe, and its revered leader Shabbona or Sha-be-ne as he was then called, knew this vicinity well.

A large village of Potawatomie was located where Wilmington is now, and is thought to be the birth place of Shabbona. His father was a war chief from the Ottawa tribe who had come west with Pontiac, after he had been defeated in Detroit. His mother was Potawatomi.

On his return to this area he married Cokanoke, daughter of Chief Spotka, chief of the local Potawatomies. Upon his father-in-law’s death, he became the chief.

Shabbona is known for his friendship with whites, but it wasn’t always the case. During the War of 1812 he fought the Americans with Chief Tecumseh at Detroit. It was there he decided that he would make war no more, and would never again intentionally hurt the white man.

He returned to the prairie and roamed this area peacefully until 1832 when Black Hawk, a Sauk warrior, tried to get him to rise up against the white man. Shabbona told him that war was useless. There were just too many white men. For every one killed, two would take his place.

Black Hawk would not believe him. He said that if they joined forces that they would be as many as the trees of the forest. And Shabbona replied that the white man would be as many as leaves on the trees of that forest.

Black Hawk was determined to make war, even without the Potawatomie’s help. Shabbona knew that all whites in the area were in danger and rode with his son and his cousin for 30 hours straight to warn every settler in every cabin to flee.

The danger was very real, but not everyone heeded his warning. A settlement of whites near what is now the town of Ottawa underestimated their native neighbors, and paid the price. Sixteen settlers were hacked to death by the rampaging Black Hawk warriors; decapitated, their hands cut off, and their hearts cut out. Only two lived, Misses Frances and Rachel Hall, and they were taken prisoner.


The sisters were eventually ransomed off by a band of Winnebagos, with Shabbona acting as scout.

Shabbona was given two sections of land in DeKalb County in gratitude. His quick actions saved the lives of hundreds of people.

He moved to Kansas along with the other tribes in 1832, when the treaty of Chicago removed all Indians from east of the Mississippi. But the Sauk never forgave him for the betrayal and the Sauk chief, Neopope made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him in 1837.

Shabbona was forced to return to Illinois until Neopope died in 1849. The Potawatomie chief returned to Kansas, living with relatives until 1851 when he again returned to Illinois. When he arrived, he found whites living on his land. It had been taken from him by trickery, and he was homeless.

He in his late 70s at the time, and cried when they told him.

But Lucian P. Stranger of Ottawa had not forgotten what the old man had done. He took up a collection, and bought Shabbona 20 acres near Morris, and built a log cabin made of native oak and walnut on the property.

On July 26, 1859 the Joliet Signal announced the “Death of Sha-be-ne.” It read “The Grundy County Herald announces the death of this renowned Indian Chief. He died at his wigwam near Morris, on the evening of the 18th. He had been indisposed for several days but on the day before his death had gone fishing, and got a wetting from which he took a severe cold, causing his death in 24 hours. He was about 90 years old. Upon his death being announced in Morris, the bells were tolled, and the citizens generally attended his funeral.

“In 1812 his tribe took the field against his counsels. Instances are related, even when he was fighting against us, of acts of kindness to our people. Since the war of 1812, he has been the fast friend of the whites and has rendered them great service on various occasions.

“The mark of respect, on the part of the citizens of Morris, on the occasion of his death, was an evidence of the respect in which he was held. He preferred to remain here and die by the graves of his braves to following his tribe to their new hunting grounds at the base of the Rocky Mountains; and though none of his people were here to bury him at his death, his remains were interred with due honors by his pale faced friends.”

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