Thursday, March 4, 2021

The First Residents at Geneva Lake Wisconsin Were Not Displaced Fire Refugees From Chicago


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. 

Chief Shabbona
Picture Courtesy of
WHS 23929

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.


  1. A wonderful post! I've enjoyed these virtual visits to Lake Geneva. As a history geek, I'm very familiar with the history of my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland as well as the various places I've lived. Part of what I like doing when I move to a new area is delve into its history. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the post. I wonder if there was ever an attempt to share the land with Big Foot and his clan. Too bad if it wasn't even tried. I don't know much about the history of my little home town, I never cared before when I lived there. But now there's a man in town who has bought most of the property that has become empty due to occupants dying or whatever, and he razes the former homes of my old neighbors. THAT feels so wrong, when we go home to visit the family we have left there. I'm glad when I hear of towns that save their old buildings.

    1. Connie, there were some white people living among them peacefully and not trying to displace them. What I didn't include was there was a gathering in Fort Dearborn (Chicago) with several of the native tribes in the area and U.S. government officials and the native tribe representatives agreed they would vacate the territory and included what is now Wisconsin, IL etc and relocate in what is now western Iowa and Kansas. Many of the tribes had already done this while Big Foot stayed in place at Geneva Lake for a few years. He finally had no choice but to move because it was agreed upon with the U.S. Government. Maybe I should have written about that before I wrote this article. Too much backstory for one article. Thanks for commenting!

    2. I should have proofed my answer. The territory included what is now Wisconsin, Illinois, etc.

    3. Pamela, thanks for the additional information!

  3. I'm so very glad you took me to see Lake Geneva a few years ago. It's become a favorite place, and I love reading about its history.

    1. Ane, I have wonderful memories of our day in Lake Geneva. I loved showing off my hometown and Geneva Lake to you by taking the mailboat around the lake. I bet your having been there helped you to visualize the events described here!

  4. I love this post...except it made me sad for Big Foot and his people. =( My hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico has a fascinating history, with Spaniards, Mexicans, Native Americans, and white folks all claiming it as their own at some point.

  5. Chief Big Foot Mongozet was the Father of Chief Nayatoshingh the village of Mishicot is named after him. He had a son by same name and also took the biblical name Abraham or Abraham Meshicott/Meshigand and Meshigaud. Abraham had three wives and three sons, Richard, William and Frank Elie. William married Agnes Kahquados daughter of Chief Simon Kahquados. They are all my family.