Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Treaty Site: Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, is the site of three treaties among Native nations and the United States, the most significant of which was signed in 1825. In that year, disputes among Native tribes and the resulting impact on white settlement led the United States to convene a peace conference. A thousand representatives from Native tribes met at Prairie du Chien with William Clark, Lewis Cass, Indian agent Thomas Forsyth, and other U.S. negotiators to set boundaries for Native nations.

Situated at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, the site where the city of Prairie du Chien now stands had served as neutral ground for meetings among tribes for hundreds of years. French fur traders were established on St. Feriole Island at the confluence soon after the arrival there of Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in the late 1600s, and diverse tribes traded there. During the War of 1812, the British secured fleeting control over the area with the help of local tribes and French traders who were commercially tied to Canadian ports. With the conclusion of that war, the United States regained control over Prairie du Chien and built Fort Crawford, site of the treaty signing in 1825.

By 1825, conflicts among Native groups had become common. Eastern tribes were relocating to new territories; alliances among tribes, the British and U.S. governments, and French fur traders shifted frequently; white settlement increasingly encroached on Native land; and competition for resources was growing. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1825) addressed conflicts among tribes that lived in a vast area stretching from New York State to what is now South Dakota. Direct parties to the treaty included "Sioux and Chippewa, Sacs and Fox, Menominie, Ioway, Sioux, Winnebago, and a portion of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawattomie, Tribes."

The 10th article of the treaty asserted the "controlling power" of the United States over the territory in question. Other articles of the treaty stated the boundaries within which each group would live but acknowledged that further negotiation would be necessary to finalize several of the boundaries. Some groups with an interest in lands covered by the treaty—particularly tribes in New York—were not represented or were underrepresented in the negotiations at Prairie du Chien, and separate negotiations were required to secure their consent to provisions of the treaty. Ojibwe (Anishinabe) bands were spread throughout the area covered by the treaty, and a full year is allocated in the treaty for informing Ojibwe bands of its provisions. The work begun at Prairie du Chien was furthered in the Treaty of Fond du Lac (1826) and the Treaty of Butte des Morts (1827).

While the Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1825 was not a land concession treaty, it did serve as a critical step in the acquisition of Native lands by white settlers and the federal government. Although the fourth article of the 1825 treaty at Prairie du Chien states that "the sole object of this agreement [is] to perpetuate a peace" among Native tribes, historians have debated how central land acquisition was to the intentions of the United States in brokering the treaty. Competing land claims by various tribes made land acquisition problematic, and the concept of strict divisions of territory was not necessarily compatible with traditional relationships to the land among many of the tribes. Regardless of whether the intent of the United States was to "clear the title" to millions of acres through the treaty of 1825, this was decidedly the outcome, and Native landholdings rapidly diminished after 1825 through purchase by individuals and concessions in subsequent treaties. The territory of the Dakota Sioux people, for instance, as defined in the treaty of 1825, covered part of what are now five states; by 1851, all Dakota people were expected by the federal government to live on a strip of land in Minnesota five miles wide and seventy miles long. Among the many land concession treaties that followed the "peace" treaty of 1825 include the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1829), signed by the Ojibwe people, and the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1830), signed by members of a variety of tribes (including Ojibwe and Dakota bands).

Martin Case


Further Reading
Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Danziger, Edmund J., Jr. The Chippewas of Lake Superior. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979; Satz, Ronald. "Chippewa Treaty Rights: The Reserved Rights of Wisconsin's Chippewa Indians in Historical Perspective." Transactions, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 79, 1 (1991).
 

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