Witch-e-ain: The Second Wife of Thomas A. Holmes

By David Schleper

Witch-e-ainWitch-e-ain was around 15 years old in early 1840s. Witch-e-ain’s father was another chief named Mock-ah-pe-ah-ket-ah-pah. (Although some people said that Witch-e-ain’s father was Wah-pa-sha).

The name of Witch-e-ain is closest to the Dakota word wićíte, “the human face,” although like some of LaFayette Houghton Bunnell’s other names, it is highly corrupted. The name “Face” could allude to her beauty and seductiveness. The name may also be a corrupted front formation from Wićítokapa, “the eldest born,” although this posits such a degree of corruption as to defy probability.

In the early 1840s, a special celebration was happening in Wah-pa-sha’s band. They assembled, and after elaborate preparation and sanctification of the ground by invocations and incense, the chief speaker came forward, and in a sonorous address lauded the virtues of chastity and warned against the sin of bearing false witness.

Wah-kon-de-o-tah, the great war-chief of the band, addressed his warriors in a quiet and affectionate manner, and told his braves to maintain the truth as sacred, and not offend the spirits of their ancestors. Wah-pa-sha then called for the virgins and matrons to come forth, and for some time there was the silence of expectation.

Again the call was made for any virgin to come forward and receive her reward. Two maidens came partly forward, but, upon reaching the line of denunciation, faltered and turned back, probably from modesty. We-no-nah, the wife of the speaker, and eldest sister (or cousin) of Wah-pa-sha, motioned to her youngest daughter, Witch-e-ain to come forward.

After repeated calls by the crier of the assembly, Witch-e-ain came modestly forward and was crowned goddess of the feast that immediately followed. Her head was encircled with braids of rich garniture and scented grass, and presents of colored cloths, calicoes, yarns, beads and ribbons were lavished upon her as the tribe’s representative of purity.

Wah-pa-sha said that Witch-e-ain could pick either LaFayette Houghton Bunnell or Thomas A. Holmes, as both allowed royal alliance for the family. Witch-e-aim said she did not like the trader, and preferred LaFayette. When Bunnell declined her offer, Witch-e-ain’s withering, silent contempt was clear.

During the feast, Thomas was so enchanted that he decided at once to make Witch-e-ain his wife.

Witch-e-ain was allowed to marry European American traders, like Thomas A. Holmes, in the fashion of the country. This means that these marriages were not recognized by law or religion. The French speaking traders of Canada term for this is “a la faḉon du pays.” Some people would call them “country wives.” While many marriages brought loving couples together for the rest of their lives, other marriages were very short-lived or violent. Many traders married native women, but also had other wives back home. Sometimes when the men retired from the fur trade, they returned to their legitimate, or legally married wives.

These marriages came with the expectation that trade between the woman’s relations and the trader would be secured, and that aid would be mutually provided in times of need. It was also the hope of the woman’s family that the trader’s generosity would increase after the marriage took place. The marriages between these two groups would lead to the creation of the Métis people, who would be considered the offspring of the fur trade.

So Thomas gave Wah-pa-sha an offer that he accepted. Based on this, Witch-e-ain then picked Thomas A. Holmes. This was in the early 1840s.

Thomas then married Witch-e-ain a la faḉon du pays. They were married in the fashion of the country, and lived together. But Witch-e-ain did not like living with Thomas. Like a caged bird, she soon pined for her Dakota prairie home. By the spring, while flowers bloomed, Witch-e-ain died of consumption.

(Some information from Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, Winona (We-No-Nah) and Its Environs on Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days, Winona, MN: Jones & Kroeger, 1897; History of Wabasha County: Together with Biographical Matter, Statistics, Etc. Gathered from Matter Furnished by Interviews with Old Settlers, County, Township and Other Records, and Extracts from Files of Papers, Pamphlets, and Such Other Sources as Have Been Available. Also a History of Winona County, H.H. Hill & Company, 1884.)

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