Pocahontas: Story of a Denver City Squ*w

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

The following findings were made during the course of my research into the etymologies of Denver Street names, in particular, Wewatta, Wazee, Champa, and Wapoola (now Court). Before my research began, two years ago, my understanding of Native American culture was limited and interest was minimal. Admittedly my knowledge is still limited, but I find that is due to the vast richness and diversity of all the cultures inhabiting North America during the colonization period. It would take lifetimes to explore them all in depth, so I stick with what tribes, and bands, that pertain to my research of early Denver. My passion for our city history and how these tribes are remembered has been a fundamental reason for creating Wewatta Row and others are encouraged to learn more about these important groups that once inhabited these great plains and the American South.


Pocahontas

Man shot


A Frenchman, named Labine, who keeps the mountain Boys Saloon, was shot by a squaw on Friday last about sundown. The particulars, as near as we can learn them, are as follows: the squaw is a Sioux woman, known as Pocahontas. She came to town on Friday, sold some articles and procured whisky, with what she got drunk, and begin flourishing a pistol which she carried. Some say she fired it once or twice-at any rate it was considered dangerous-and Labine attempted to take it from her. While he had hold of the barrel, and she of the stock, it was discharged, the ball striking Labine in the abdomen, passing through and lodging near the spine. Labine fell but arose immediately and walked to his house, and a upon an examination by Dr. McDowell, it was thought the wound was not necessarily fatal. toward the morning of Saturday the symptoms were more unfavorable; during the day he sunk rapidly, and died about four o'clock P.M. If the shooting in such instances would take effect upon the individuals who furnished whiskey to the Indians, there would be little cause for regret.

Rocky Mountain News April 25, 1860


Sweetwater
Sweetwater River, Wyoming. c. 1830's

The Sweetwater is a river that winds its beautiful flow of water through the heart Wyoming, it was a landmark, a guidepost to the largest and most famous rendezvous that gathered around the Green River. it's at one of these types of rendezvous that McGaa and John Simpson Smith most likely had their first encounter. Once McGaa found Smith they apparently became great friends as they were sharing in mining and trading operations that were taking place on the cherry creek by mid 1858


John Smith
Left: John Simpson Smith Right: William McGaa; sketch from a picture of William McGaa.

Native tribes and trappers had been using the confluence of the Cherry Creek as a meeting spot to trade goods and supplies for years. Although McGaa’s trade activity is not talked about or written about, John Smiths was. Invoices of trade supplies from that period are given in his biography. One from 1853 includes, with robe cost: Vermillion, two robes; scarlet, two Robes; sugar, one robe; hickory shirts, one robe; red blanket, two robes; blue blanket, two robes tobacco, two Robes, blue drill two robes, looking glass and cup, one robe; powder and bullets, one robe; beads, two robes; Calico 1/2 robe. And another from 1857 gives a total of 4,159.73 in trade goods to Smith. The first pioneers of the Cherry Creek were traders and trade is what was going on when the Auraria, Lawrence, Leavenworth and Lecompton parties arrived.


Auraria
People arriving to Auraria in 1859, sketch from photograph

John Smith had two Tsitsista wives in his life; Zerepta and Notema, but while on the Cherry Creek the "squaw" that shows up in given history is not Tsitsista but Lakota. McGaa’s wife was Lakota as well; his "mistress" was not. According to given Denver history, McGaa named several of the streets after his wives/mistresses or honoring his wives/mistresses tribes: These streets are Wazee, Wewatta, Champa. John Smiths Companion on the Cherry Creek was also supposedly honored with one. Court street used to be called Wapoola, and since the beginning it has been attributed to Smiths "Sioux Squaw".


Jennie Adams McGaa
Jennie Adams, wife of William McGaa. No picture of the Lakota wife of John Simpson Smith has yet been recovered.

But this word Wapoola has an obscure etymology, naturally the first thought would be to see if it can be found in a Lakota dictionary, but nothing was found. There is a word that sounds like Wapoola, it would fit perfectly and would shed light on this companion of John Smiths: Wopeela (wopila). Its most positive translation is Gods gift; its worst: 'give-a-way'. With the newcomers came Christianity, and when the younger William Larimer wrote about a church service, he noted that the Smith and McGaa "Squaws" were in attendance. Later it is revealed that John Smith attended and even spoke at the meetings and is listed as belonging to the temperance society. These early church and temperance society members would have had issues with calling a woman a "give a way" and it is recorded in John Smiths biography that they wished to be historically accurate, so they dubbed John Smiths wife "Pocahontas".


Pocahontas
Bang.

John Smith, with two wives from one tribe and a "Squaw" from another would have been the odd man in the congregation. His known proclivity for drinking would have clashed with his temperance affiliation and previous social circle. We can see how bad they clashed from a letter written from “John W. Jones"; John Jones being a known alias of William McGaa:

We have preaching here every Sunday Morning by an "old Gentleman miner" of the Methodist race, horse racing after preaching, gambling after speeches, dancing after gambling, and to wind up the grand performance of the Sabbath, after the dance our beloved and most respected friend, the original John S Smith brakes his squaws back with a creepy, or a three-legged stool, for daring without his permission to trip the light fantastic toe. The original John S. Smith has just been served notice to leave this town in four days; his conduct has been such of late that the mining community will stand it no longer. His squaw is suffering severely from the effects of said creepy. The original John S. goes into Exile alone, among the Arapahoes, there to recruit his almost shattered fortunes.



shattered fortunes? try a shattered vertebrae. Stan Hoig, in 'the Western Odyssey of John Simpson Smith' almost seems to sympathize with him when he says:

"Smith left Denver along with Arapahoes more than likely feeling unappreciated and certainly misunderstood over the accepted custom of beating his wife."

He spoke at the sermons, he was friends with the clergy, he should have known that that type of thing would be frowned upon. But no, he decided to teach her a lesson for daring to dance. Because as a "squaw" you cant just do anything you want, you need permission to do anything. The fact that McGaa’s "squaw" was at the sermon while he wasn't, shows the level of freedom she had. McGaa was drinking and gambling, and did not care to attend a temperance meeting let alone a sermon. Its safe to say that if Wopila didn’t get permission to be there, she wouldn't, but willing or not, she was there because John Smith was there.

This behavior is an example of how the so called "squaw" was treated. The squaw wasn’t a person, she was property; to be used and discarded as her "caretaker" saw fit. She did not have a say in any matters, rather, her whole purpose was to serve and please her "master". Another example of this can be found in The western Odyssey of John Simpson Smith, where on page 120 an account of how he handed a five dollar piece to a lieutenant to buy a pair of moccasins that his new Tsitsista Wife, Zerepta, makes to sell. When she receives the five dollar piece she hurridly and faithfully delivers it to her "husband". Her relief with being able to do right by her "husband" is palpable. Less obvious but just as present is his manipulation of Zerepta’s happiness. One can see that if he did not supply the money for the moccasins, then Zerepta would have felt she failed in her duties and would not only feel dejection but also maybe resolve to do better in the future. From this perspective saying there is a power imbalance is an underestimation, the "Squaw" is kept under complete control and subjugation of her "husband". This control system, not often talked about, would have extended into the bedroom where whatever her "husband" wanted was given and any sense of feminine empowerment was surrendered.

And this is why "squaw" is a bad word, this is why people should cringe when hearing it. The "squaw" wasn’t a romantic Disney fairytale figure, she was a domestic slave destined to serve the whims of whatever man was keeping her at the time. Authors will point out how squaw comes from an Iroquoian word for a woman’s genitals and is comparable to the word "nigress". Here I will not put it so lightly, the following list are all words borne of ignorance and perpetuated by hate:

Nigger, spic, kike, coon, polack, chinaman, beaner, towel head, washee, chink, squaw...

The list goes on, and if you cringed when you read it, good. Any person with even an ounce of empathy would. All of us know these words; some of us had them directed at us. But even if you never have, no one needs to be part of any specific ethnicity to point out bad behavior or call out hateful word usage. This exhibit is the only place on the Row where you will find it thrown around so "freely" and only to make a point; words like "negro" and "squaw" have no place in a progressive and accepting environment.



But what of the origin of the word "Wapoola"? If it wasn't named after Wopila, then where does it come from? To find that out we have to travel all the way back east to South Carolina. Its coastal city, Charleston, was a major port and was the southern gateway into America, McGaa would have come through this port and before traveling west he would have become familiar with the immediate surroundings and native peoples. Originally this was the land of Catawba and Wassamasaw peoples. The Wassamasaw have a band called the Wapoo and just up the Cooper River there is a plantation with the name Wappaoola. They say it’s named after a nearby creek, the creeks name is “an old Indian word”, that word?


"Sweetwater"

Wanting to retain a little bit of the Rendezvous history at Cherry Creek, McGaa chose to name a street Sweetwater after the famous River that led to the great rendevous at the Green River; thus, this Sweetwater road leads to the Rendezvous that was held at Cherry Creek.


A wild place it must have been.





Jennie Adams' and Wopilas' influence on McGaa choosing Wewatta as a street name will be explored in 'Turnips and Gold: The Story of Wewatta', they both will be featured in thier own exhibits.


Further inspiration drawn, by McGaa, from Native Americans of the American South, will be explored in 'Town Rows: Building Blocks of the Queen City'

Sources


Hoig, Stan. The Western odyssey of John Simpson Smith Frontiersman and Indian Interpreter, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003


Butler, William. The Fur Trade In Colorado, Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2012


Mumey, Nolie. History Of The Early Settlements Of Denver, Arthur H Clark Company, 1942


Digital Sources


Byers, William. Man Shot, Denver Rocky Mountain News April 25, 1860 (Available in website library)

Irving, John. A Day On Cooper River, A.E. Miller, 1842, Googleplay

Larimer, William. Reminiscences of General William Larimer and his son William H. H. grammar two of the founders of Denver City, Press of the New Era Printing Company, 1918 Googleplay


Web Links


Author Unknown. Not Your Squaw, No More Slurs, Native Daily Network, October 19, 2018


South Carolina Plantations, Wappaoola Plantation


Sciway (Wassamasaw Indians of Varnertown)


Wikipedia Pages


Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians


Muscogee (Creek) Nation


Catawba


Squaw


List Of Ethnic Slurs








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