On November 25, 1855, Tribal headman, Thomas Commuck, drowned in the icy waters of Lake Winnebago. Newspaper notices and his final resting place being unknown, one of the few words we have on the matter is found at the end of a publication printed by Wisconsin’s Historical Society.  When printed, the “Sketch of the Brothertown Indians”, written by Commuck on August 22, 1855, was given a footnote by Lyman Draper, Secretary for the Society. “Poor Commuck!,” he wrote, “The following winter after penning the preceding sketch, he was drowned, through a hole in the ice, near his residence, in Calumet County—whether by accident or design, is not known.” Whether this question was only Draper’s or if it was also on the minds of those who better knew the situation, one can only speculate. However, one thing is certain; Brothertown is privileged to be able to count Thomas Commuck as one of its own.

Thomas Commuck was born a Narragansett Indian in Charlestown, Rhode Island on January 18, 1804. Both of his parents died when he and his older brother James were very young. In 1825, the same year that his grandmother passed on, twenty-one-year-old Thomas followed the path of many of his tribal kinsmen and migrated to Oneida country in upstate New York to join the Brothertown Tribe of Indians.

In 1831, the newly married Thomas Commuck and his bride, Hannah Abner (Pequot/Brothertown), were among the very first Brotherton to settle in their new lands on the east side of Lake Winnebago. Thomas became the first postmaster of Brothertown Wisconsin, served as a Justice of the Peace for the Tribe and was eventually the father of 10 children. Still, he found time to teach himself, as he put it in the preface of his Indian Melodies, “to learn, scientifically, the art of singing.”

When Indian Melodies came out in 1845, Commuck became the first Native American to publish tunes in “Euramerican” music notation. His tune book was published in both standard and patent (shape) note style. The latter also earning him the distinction of being the first person in Wisconsin to publish in shape notes. More importantly, in Indian Melodies Commuck memorialized Native American tribes and individuals; particularly those related to Brothertown: our parent tribes and their histories, our leaders, and the many tribes that helped us throughout our journey*.

Not only did Commuck memorialize Brothertown in his tunebook, but, as we see from a number of advertisements which he put in local papers, he also energetically “toured” with his tunes and four of his Tribal friends. These concerts given by the “Sons of the Forest”, as he called his group, included a short talk on the history of the Brothertown Indians.

Commuck also commemorated the Tribe in numerous letters written to the Historical Society and to local newspapers. He was very passionate about his Tribe and his heritage and he felt keenly, a sense of despair and sorrow for his people. In his final, 1855 letter to Draper, Commuck spoke of how he feared the loss of {our} memory as he contemplated, what seemed to him, the extinction of Brothertown “in another generation” or so. Toward the end of this letter he said, “Here we have taken our last stand, as it were, and are resolved to meet manfully, that overwhelming tide of fate, which seems destined, in a few short years, to sweep the Red Man from the face of existence. The thought is a sad and gloomy one, but the fiat seems to have gone forth, and we must submit.”

So what happened as Commuck walked toward Lake Winnebago on that cold November in 1855?  Was he going ice fishing?  Was he just out for a walk?  Or did something else lay heavy on his mind?  If you know the Tribal significance of tomorrow’s date (November 26), you may have an idea as to what his thoughts may have been.  Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post to find out more.


*See the 2018 publication, A Selection of Plain Tunes, Set Pieces, and Anthems from Indian Melodies. printed by Calumet and Cross Heritage Society, Inc.