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Rice Lake – The Legend

According to a July 27, 1899 article in the Milwaukee Sentinal, there is an Indian legend with regard to Rice Lake. Hiawatha, leading a lonely wandering life, journeyed throughout the north woods, often visiting Gitchee Gumee which he himself had made, and the Apostle Islands which he formed on a beaver hunt. On one of his journeys he came to Rice Lake, which at the time was covered with wild rice, and was abundant with ducks and geese. When he saw the geese, he was determined to catch some to eat.

He made himself a woven willow basket from the trees along the shoreline, and went to the top of a steep bank and rolled himself down to splash in the water. The ducks and geese were amused, and broke out into laughter. The whole flock gathered around Hiawatha and watched his strange performance, which he repeated for his spectators, who applauded him.

He then suggested they try it, and once he coaxed them into the basket he beat it with a club until it rolled into the water, where the cover opened and the few ducks that were left alive flew away. He gathered rest of the fowl, and buried them around a fire to cook, with only their feet sticking out. At this point he was tired, and went to sleep.

While he slept, some Indians came along and found the roasting fowl, noticing that the might hunter was asleep. They pulled up the fowl and ate it, and then took the feet and buried them around the fire to make it look like they were still there. When Hiawatha woke, he pulled the feet out of the hot sand, realizing he had been tricked, and was extremely angry. In his rage he jumped into the fire and attempted to stomp it out, burning himself in the process. At this point he jumped into the lake with his bleeding wounds, turning the water blood red. The willows along the bank soaked up the blood, and since have been known as red-willows. No rice has grown in the lake since Hiawatha jumped into it with his bleeding wounds, which is why there no longer is rice in Rice Lake, although it was plentiful there years ago.

The material for this article was found on the Wisconsin Historical Society website


  1. The “legend” I always heard was that the Knapp-Stout lumber company dammed the Red Cedar River, flooding all the wild rice marshes, to create Upper Rice Lake, which prior to that had been wild rice marshes with the river channel running through it. Lower rice lake, south of the Narrows Bridge, is the natural, glacial pothole lake. Knapp-stout built the dam to create a lake to hold the logs they were floating downriver from the pineries, and their sawmill was along the shore near the dam. the dam is of course still there by the main street bridge. Don’t blame Hiawatha for destroying the wild rice beds at Rice Lake.

  2. Your version does make more sense, and I have personally always assumed that was the case. Thought it was interesting however, to see a Hiawatha legend regarding Rice Lake, as I’ve never heard that version after living here for many years. Of course, Hiawatha also should not get credit for creating Gitchee Gumee or the Apostle Islands :-)

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