By Pamela S. Meyers
|Sculpture of Chief Big Foot that sits at the|
shore of Geneva Lake in Fontana WI
by Jay Brost, Walworth WI
For several years now, my posts here have spotlighted my hometown area of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Geneva Lake, the glacier-formed lake the town sits next to. Many of my posts have centered on the beautiful estates that began populating the shoreline soon after the Great Chicago Fire in 1873. But before Chicago’s movers and shakers built those magnificent homes, the Potawatomi called the area home. And, over the next several months, I plan to highlight Lake Geneva's rich history that occurred in the 19th Century before the Great Fire. Growing up, I often heard about the Potawatomi that lived on the shores of Geneva Lake, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that for the United States to expand westward, the Potawatomi and other Native American Tribes had to agree to move farther west. The realization gave me a jolt in the same way as when I first learned my southern ancestors once owned slaves.
I’m not going to delve into whether it was right or wrong to force the Potawatomi to leave the only home they had known, but I am going to share about Chief Big Foot (also known as Maun-Suk), the last Indian Chief to live on the lake before his tribe moved west. I’ve read how he stared out at the lake for several minutes as if trying to memorize the view before, with tears in his eyes, he turned and started his trip. I can certainly feel his pain to some degree. Most of us who have been blessed by living near beautiful Geneva Lake have come to love it as much as Big Foot did. It may be many centuries since Big Foot walked the lakeshore path that he and his tribe helped to create, but his legacy remains.
|Source: Friendly Fontana, a Pictorial History of the West End of |
Geneva Lake, Edition 2.0, Arthur B. Jensens, publisher; 2005
The Potawatomi occupied the wooded shoreline at the west end of the lake and traveled between their two encampments on the shore path. One was near what is now called Fontana, a small village at the west end of the lake, and another was where the town of Williams Bay sits today. Some of Big Foot’s family is buried in Williams Bay, some having died during a pandemic. They lived in homes similar to tepees, but with rounded roofs, where they raised their families. When the men went out to hunt, they took the footpath mentioned earlier to the east end of the lake (where the town of Lake Geneva is now) to fish and hunt. Chief Big Foot’s people were mostly peaceful and they wanted to live out their lives next to the beautiful spring-fed lake they called Kishwauketoe, which means “clear water.”
When they came upon the lake while migrating south and west from the area now called Michigan, they knew they’d found where they wanted to settle. Not only because of its natural beauty but also for the game and fish the lake supplied and the rich soil that produced berries, nuts and fruit. The Potawatomi grew corn, tobacco, and vegetables during summer, and in winter, they kept warm in their rounded roof wigwams on floor mats made from the grass that grew nearby.
Picture Courtesy of
When white men first appeared at the lake in the early 1800s, Big Foot and his band had probably already heard about the new settlement of white people living at Fort Dearborn (now called Chicago) to the south. Other Native American tribes such as the Sioux, Sauks, Foxes, and Winnebago, were much more combative and in 1827, the Winnebago encouraged Big Foot to join the fight to keep the interlopers away. At the request of a U.S. Indian Agent, Chief Shabbona, one of the chiefs of the Illinois Potawatomi bands, was instrumental in helping convince Big Foot to not fight, and he agreed. I have often wondered how the area would have been if Chief Big Foot had warred with the white invaders.
Today, the area honors Chief Big Foot, mostly through his name which is connected to various landmarks. As you travel south out of the town of Lake Geneva on South Shore Drive, you’ll come to Big Foot Beach, which is across the road from Big Foot Beach State Park. Or if you prefer golfing to swimming, you might want to golf at Big Foot Country Club. And if you live on the southeast side of the lake, your children might attend Big Foot High School. I wonder what Big Foot would think about all these things named after him. I kind of wish he did know that his name is connected to where people enjoy the lake and its natural resources and their children are educated in a building that bears his name.
|Big Foot High School with a copy of|
Big Foot's statue in its "front yard."
Source Lake Geneva Regional News
Next time, I’ll introduce you to the Kinzies, a pioneer couple who were among the first white people to see Geneva Lake.
How much do you know about the history of where you grew up or live now?
The information for this article can be found in Shawneeawkee—Friendly Fontana, a Pictorial History of the West End of Geneva Lake, Edition 2.0, Arthur B. Jensens, publisher; 2005, unless otherwise noted.
Pam Meyers grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and is blessed to only live about an hour away, just over the state line in northern IL. She makes her home with her two rescue cats, Jack and Meggie, who are named after her characters in the book Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva.
She loves writing stories set in her home area that depict the rich history of the area. Rose Harbor, the fourth and final book in her Newport of the West Series releases on May 18, 2021.