Monday, June 8, 2020

Chief Oshkosh and Beer

It wouldn't happen today. A brewery wouldn't build its brand around a dead man with a reputation for abusing alcohol. Especially if alcohol had played a role in that man's violent death. And especially if that man was a Menominee Indian. But that's just what the Oshkosh Brewing Company did. At the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. 

Chief Oshkosh

Chief Oshkosh had been dead 36 years when the Oshkosh Brewing Company put its hooks into him. Born in 1795, Oshkosh died in 1858 at Keshena from injuries he'd taken in a drunken brawl with two of his sons. That part of his story wasn't getting much play anymore when the Oshkosh Brewing Company came around. By then, the Chief had entered the realm of myth.

Oshkosh's fascination with the deceased Chief began in earnest in the early 1880s. A grassroots movement was afoot to have his remains moved from the Menominee Reservation and reinterred in Oshkosh. Decades passed before that happened. In the meantime, the Chief was being re-made into a talisman for the city that bore his name. Chief Oshkosh was showing up everywhere.

A souvenir spoon issued by the Birely & Son jewelry of Oshkosh in 1891.

Oshkosh cigar makers Derksen & Peek brought out their Chief Oshkosh cigar in the fall of 1892.

When there came to be a brewery named Oshkosh, the symbol that would identify it seemed preordained. The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) was created on March 21, 1894 from the merger of three existing breweries. The final arrangements were hastily made with a few of the finishing touches left undone. Among them was the brewery's trademark. The first letterhead employed by OBC looked like something a bread factory might use.

Within a matter of weeks, though, OBC had set in place the image that would be its symbol. On April 15, 1894, the brewery began using an already familiar rendering of Chief Oshkosh that was based upon an 1855 daguerreotype. When OBC went to register the trademark, it described the image as "The representation of a North American Indian grotesquely attired, associated with the words ‘Chief Oshkosh.’"

OBC plastered that image and variations of it on any surface that could take it. Over the coming years, the Chief's visage became inescapable in Oshkosh. It hung from signs on Main Street and appeared daily in the pages of newspapers. Behind it was always the promise of beer.

Chief Oshkosh signs at Leonard Michels saloon on North Main Street, circa 1909.

Chief Oshkosh had been co-opted by a beer company. Surely there were people who didn’t like it. But their voices were not made public in any significant way. Those with a legitimate claim to the Chief's heritage had been forced out of the Oshkosh area some 40 years earlier. They’d been deposited on a reservation 70 miles to the north. The way was clear for OBC to reimagine the Chief in any way it cared to. 

Most of OBC's early advertising and promotional materials employed the Chief Oshkosh image in some manner. Often it was the focal point. It was used as an overarching symbol and not representative of any specific product of the brewery. For the first 30 years, OBC’s Chief Oshkosh remained relatively true to its original form. 

But the reverence with which OBC treated its trademark began waning as the brewery came undone during Prohibition. After the dry law took hold in 1920, OBC lurched from one year to the next narrowly avoiding dissolution. The business came under new management. It was now run by a younger generation that had come of age in Oshkosh after the Menominee population had vacated the area. The degree of separation led to more fanciful representations of the Chief. The drift was clearly on display in the 1929 label applied to a malt syrup OBC produced for homebrewers. Chief Oshkosh had never attired himself like this.

It was also during Prohibition, that the brewery first applied the name Chief Oshkosh to a specific product. In 1928, OBC introduced Chief Oshkosh Special, a non-alcoholic cereal beverage. It wasn't quite beer and its label didn’t look like any that OBC had used in the past. The original Chief Oshkosh trademark was still there, but now it played a bit part.

It wasn't just OBC that appeared to have grown weary of authenticity. In 1911, the City of Oshkosh placed a statue of Chief Oshkosh in Menominee Park. Sculpted in Italy, it depicted a young, idealized Chief with European facial features. The remains of Chief Oshkosh were reinterred at the foot of that statue in 1926. The celebration that marked the event included members of the Menominee Tribe; some of whom came to play the part expected of them. Instead of wearing the ceremonial attire of their ancestors, they dressed as if they had come off the set of a Hollywood movie. 

Menominee Park, Oshkosh.

Chief Oshkosh Day Parade, May 25, 1926.

Prohibition ended in 1933. The non-alcoholic Chief Oshkosh Special was reformulated and made into a real beer. Chief Oshkosh became the most popular beer ever produced by an Oshkosh brewery. Within a decade, the brand had subsumed the brewery. People began referring to OBC as the Chief Oshkosh brewery. But the actual Chief Oshkosh was getting phased out. His implacable gaze was replaced with cartoons and clich├ęs.

Early 1940s.

The Chief in cans. From left to right: 1949, 1950, 1958.

Along with that, the folks at OBC had succumbed to the delusion that the hard-drinking Chief was one of their early customers. Several of OBC's promotional pieces from the 1950s mentioned that Chief Oshkosh had often visited the brewery, and on one occasion "Was persuaded to let the boys at the brewery dress him up in a coat and "Beaver" hat, and take his picture. This picture is used in our trademark." There wasn't a drip of truth to any of it. Chief Oshkosh had died nearly a decade before any of the breweries that merged to form OBC had opened. 

The 1855 daguerreotype that was the basis for the OBC trademark.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company closed in 1971, but the Chief Oshkosh brand was picked up by Peoples Brewing and survived for another year. Peoples carried on with the same sort of balderdash OBC had resorted to. 

In 1972, Peoples Brewing closed and Chief Oshkosh Beer was left for dead. The end coincided with a rising chorus of protest against the "mascotting" of American Indians and the poaching of their culture to sell things like beer. That didn’t keep Jeff Fulbright from picking up the Chief Oshkosh name and running with it.

Fulbright launched the Mid-Coast Brewing of Oshkosh in 1991. He named his flagship beer Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. Like OBC and Peoples, Fulbright used American Indian imagery that bore no relation to the individual his beer had been named after. But at the same time, Fulbright was careful to point out that his re-imagining of the Chief was meant as a tribute. Sometimes that message got lost. As part of the launch of the brand, Fulbright placed five billboards in and around Oshkosh that brought precisely the sort of attention he was hoping to avoid.

“My idea was to suggest that this was the return of Chief Oshkosh,” Fulbright said. “It's the wording (Indian Uprising) that made it edgy. Those words pissed some people off. I even got letters from a priest of some sort. But the only people who contacted me were white people. That's the sworn truth. No Native Americans complained about it.”

It wasn't the last scrap Fulbright would get into over Chief Oshkosh. In 1993, Fulbright was pulled into the fray when a Minnesota-based group attempted to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages that used American Indian names or related images as part of their brand identity. The group's efforts were eventually rebuffed, but by then Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was no longer an issue. Mid-Coast Brewing ceased operations in 1995.

The Chief was reincarnated again in the summer of 2010 when then Oshkosh Mayor Paul Esslinger put a new name on the tavern he had acquired at 216 North Main Street. 

Esslinger, a longtime collector of breweriana with a focus on memorabilia related to Chief Oshkosh Beer, planned to feature his collection in what was to become the Chief Oshkosh Saloon. The new name would reflect the tavern's motif. That never happened. Shortly before opening, Esslinger dropped the Chief Oshkosh name after concerns were expressed by members of the Menominee Indian Tribe. Instead, Esslinger's tavern became the Old Oshkosh Saloon. Today, that bar is named Screwballs.

The most enduring connection between Chief Oshkosh and beer began in 1911 when the Oshkosh Brewing Company commissioned the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago to create an emblem for the front of its new brewery. The completed piece weighed 800 pounds and was more than five feet in width. It was the brewery's original trademark, a faithfully rendered image of Chief Oshkosh. The Chief looked down over Doty Street for the next 75 years.

In 1986, the main facility of the Oshkosh Brewing Company was demolished. Fifteen years of neglect had transformed it into a towering eyesore. The massive Chief Oshkosh emblem was spared. It was taken down and sold at auction.

The dismantling of OBC’s emblem, 1986.

Breweriana collector Paul Winter, who had grown up near the brewery, placed the winning bid of $9,240. He later sold the emblem back to the City of Oshkosh. The city mounted the emblem on the river-facing side of the Oshkosh Convention Center. It remained there until 2008 when the Convention Center was expanded and remodeled.

The emblem then moved to the Oshkosh Public Museum. It resides there in an elevated case near the museum entrance. Below it is a granite plaque inscribed with a brief history of the brewery and its enduring symbol. It’s the last stand of Chief Oshkosh.

Notes and links to further reading.

Much of what's been written about Chief Oshkosh amounts to little more than hearsay. For an accurate portrayal of his life see Scott Cross' book Like a Deer Chased by Dogs: The Life of Chief Oshkosh. Cross is the archivist at the Oshkosh Public Museum.

The Oshkosh Times of June 6, 1888, provides a good example of the city’s 1880s fascination with Chief Oshkosh. 

I didn't address the various claims made that the body reinterred in Oshkosh was not actually that of Chief Oshkosh. I’m skeptical of those claims. This document raises doubts.

The story of Mid-Coast Brewing and Chief Oshkosh Red Lager is here. The fight over the use of American Indian names attached to beer is here.


  1. I have a beer bottle cap that has Little Chief on the shield. Was that a small bottle of Chief Oshkosh, or a different beer?

    1. Ann, I've never seen one of those in relation to the Oshkosh beers. I'm guessing that may be from some other brand.

  2. Does anyone know of a good resource to use to determine prices of a Chief Oshkosh Collection?

  3. I just found an old Chief Oshkosh cigar box. On the bottom it says Factory 500, distict 50