The Case of Caspar Partridge and Oakaha

Winnebago County was broken off from Brown County in 1840, with a population of 135 settlers. A county government was formed two years later, though the place was mostly scattered log cabins.

Autumn 1846, the Partridge family arrived – Alvin, Lucia, a young daughter and a newborn son. They were Protestants with roots in Ohio. Being late in the year, they had little more than a shanty that first winter, and Alvin paid $50 for 40 acres of land.

Spring 1847, Alvin’s father Wakeman Partridge arrived from Ohio and bought 180 acres of land for $200 on June 2, 1847. In September, Alvin mortgaged his property to Dan Emery and used the money to purchase 162 acres between Vinland and Clayton.

1850: Winnebago County’s population was around 10,000, an almost unbelievable increase from 10 years before. Oshkosh had 1,392 people; the Partridges were prosperous selling their wheat, corn, potatoes and butter to the cityfolk.

On April 9, 1850, Alvin and Lucia Partridge took their children maple sugaring in the woods near their farm in Vinland, between Neenah and Oshkosh. Their four-year-old son, Caspar, wandered away and was never seen alive again. At the time, relations between white settlers and the Menominee Indians were tense. The federal government was trying to force the Menominee off their Wisconsin homeland. The tribe resisted through legal action. Disputes over tribal boundaries and annuity payments increased anxiety among the settlers. In this tense environment, rumors spread through white communities that the Menominee Indians had stolen Caspar Partridge.

Alvin Partridge hired Archibald Caldwell to ask around about Caspar. Caldwell (who we mentioned in our episode on Stroebe Island) was a trader who married a Menominee woman and could speak the language. He was sent to the Rat River, north of Winchester, but the roving camp there had already moved on. Alvin personally made inquiries at Winneconne but could find nothing. A $2,000 reward was offered but no one said a thing. Eventually, they gave up hope and had a symbolic funeral.

The Partridges continued to be prosperous and had some minor political influence. Wakeman was made the county overseer of roads, for example.

Eighteen months later (Autumn 1851), Alvin Partridge’s sister Maria spotted a light-skinned boy with a Menominee family near Waupaca. Maria, although not close to her nephew, swore it was Caspar. Twenty-two white men invaded the Menominee camp and seized the child, who was named Oakaha. The men summoned Alvin Partridge to identify the boy, but he was not sure it was his missing son. 

Other members of the Partridge family were certain that Oakaha was Caspar – Alvin’s brother Frederick identified him by the shape of his skull. Rev. Cutting Marsh helped with explaining things to the Menominee, but he spoke Ojibwe, not Menominee, so the conversation was not great. (Ojibwe and Menominee are both Algonquian languages, so there is overlap, but it’s like French and Spanish both being Romance languages.) Although Alvin was ready to return the boy, his family (particularly his brother) obtained a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Jedediah Brown at Oshkosh to prevent Oakaha from being returned to the Menominee.

The Green Bay superintendent of Indian Affairs, Elias Murray, was alerted to the situation on January 8, 1852. He had jurisdiction over the Menominee, Oneida, and Stockbridge. His subagent, George Lawe (Father of Kaukauna), saw the matter as a kidnapping, as did Father Bonduel, a priest who was friends with the Menominee.

In February 1852, a six-day trial was held in Oshkosh to determine Oakaha’s true parents. Presiding was Court Commissioner Edwin Buttrick, only 26, filling in for a sick judge. In their testimony, members of the Partridge family pointed to a general physical resemblance between Caspar and Oakaha. Menominee elders, Catholic missionaries, and white traders disagreed. They all swore that they had known the child since his birth and he was not Caspar Partridge. One person testifying for the Monominee was Augustin Grignon, famed Kaukauna fur trader (who now lived at Buttes des Morts). He testified in French that he knew the child and his mother Nahkom for many years from the sugar bush camp on the Rat River. One witness claimed the child was the son of Archibald Caldwell and that’s why he was lighter. Caldwell took the stand and acknowledged he knew the mother and that children in the tribe believed he was the father. Buttrick called Caldwell into his office privately and there Caldwell admitted he had “criminal coversation” (committed adultery) with Nahkom and believed the child was his.

Buttrick ruled in favor of the Menominee on March 27 and ordered Oakaha returned to his Menominee mother, and the Partridges to pay court costs. But before that could occur, vigilantes took the boy away to Partridge property out of state.
 George Lawe, Father Bonduel, and others were outraged. Lawe made his Indian agent superiors aware of this mess, and Bonduel took it as anti-Catholicism. Other whites, siding with the Partridges, vowed never to support Buttrick if he ran for judge or other political office. This pledge successfully crushed Buttrick, and the openly racist clerk of court (Densmore) ran in his place. Densmore, however, was defeated in a landslide by Edwin Wheeler.

Eighteen months later, in May 1853, a child’s decomposed remains was discovered on the Partridge family’s Wisconsin farm. The remains were assumed to be those of Caspar Partridge. This discovery prompted federal officials to track Oakaha to McHenry, Illinois, where they seized him in December 1854. Over the past year, the Menominee had almost been forced to move to Minnesota; had this happened, it’s possible Wisconsin Indian agents would have let the matter go, whether they liked it or not. The officials were on their way to northern Wisconsin to reunite the boy with his Menominee mother when the Partridges filed an injunction to stop them. Before a legal hearing could be held, family members kidnapped Oakaha a second time, on March 5, 1855, in Milwaukee. Chief Oshkosh, through interpreter Charles Grignon, gave an interview to the press decrying this as just one more way the whites screwed his people.

1855, the Indian agent hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down Oakaha, but he was not found. Today we know the family was in Steuben County, Indiana. Not long after, they moved to Kansas and got caught up in the abolitionist movement of John Brown, the Pottawatomie Massacre and other fights of the Bleeding Kansas period.

Despite repeated efforts, neither the federal government nor the Menominee were able to recover Oakaha again. Oakaha was renamed Joseph Partridge. He grew up in Kansas, served in the Civil War, and according to family, spent most of his adult life plagued by mental health and financial problems. He wandered unhappily throughout the Midwest until his death near New Lisbon, Wisconsin, in 1916. He was buried in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin under yet another name: Joseph F. Parker.

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