When the Brothertown Indians traveled from upstate New York to their new home in what would eventually become the state of Wisconsin, another chapter in their history began. This new chapter, like their genesis in western New York, also necessitated the naming of their new town. This name, as well as other writings, provide a clue into the self-envisioning of the Brothertown people during this period and offer insight as to what the name “Brothertown” meant to this Wisconsin Tribe in the mid-1800’s.
Thomas Dean, a Quaker agent paid to help the New York Indians, arranged a treaty in the 1820’s which resulted in the Brotherton purchasing 153,000 acres in Kaukauna in Wisconsin Territory . Later, treaties were re-negotiated and the land reduced to 23,040 acres and moved to the east side of Lake Winnebago. The first Brothertown families arrived here in 1831 with more following throughout the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. The name first given to this settlement was “Deansburg”, in honor of Thomas Dean, and the 10+ years he spent helping them to obtain new lands. According to the book, Thirty Years in the Itinerancy, it was in 1841 that “the town was changed to Brothertown, this name having taken the place of Deansburg in honor of the Brothertown Nation (page 16).“ It is interesting to note, as Craig Cipolla does in his book, Becoming Brothertown, that while the name “Brotherton” may have officially been the name of their town in New York, before the move to Wisconsin, it had also become synonymous with the name of the Tribe.
Thomas Commuck, one of the first to arrive in the Lake Winnebago area, and very active in Tribal affairs, wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1855. In his letter, he spoke of the naming of “Brotherton” New York saying, “in consequence of the good wishes, and kind and brotherly feelings that actuated and bound them together, they unanimously concluded to call the new settlement by the name of Brothertown.” One would suppose, this same sentiment is what guided the 1841 Tribe to once more name their town “Brothertown”. To better understand the meaning of this name and the closeness amongst Tribal members which it represented, one need only check the local papers.
On December 13, 1894, a newspaper called The Oshkosh Northwestern, printed some remembrances of the Brotherton people in Wisconsin as written by a Mr. Wright who had stayed there in 1836. Wright noted the Brotherton’s “nearly” daily practice of spending evenings together as a community. “They were very socially inclined. Neighborhood gatherings would take place nearly every evening in the week, at which they would engage innocent games or dancing, of which they were very fond (p1).” Wright goes on to describe their communal “logging bees” and the foods and entertainment they enjoyed there. He reminisced that they had 2 fiddle players and did some clogging and singing. Wright concludes this section saying, “These logging bees were great features with the Brothertown people. Everyone was willing to turn out and help his neighbor.”
Twice, the Brothertown people chose to name their town “Brothertown”. This name was more than just the name of a town or a Tribe; it also described the intention of the people therein to live as “brothers”. Despite their change of location and circumstances in the mid-1800’s, the heart of the Tribe continued to hold fast to its original intent of being a place where “kind and brotherly feelings…bound them together”. In more modern times, while no Tribal members currently reside within the original lands in Brothertown, Wisconsin, this “brotherly” bond continues to be the strength and glue that binds the Brothertown Indian Nation together as a people.
~to be continued…