Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Winnebago Removal

Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) removal is an interesting case because this group experienced the process in its several manifestations: they were moved to a smaller portion of their ancestral lands, they were removed outright to another region west of the Mississippi, and individuals were offered a choice between removal with the tribe and accepting an "allotment" on their original soil. All told, the Winnebago Nation underwent 11 separate removals. In addition, Winnebago removal illustrates how the process was shaped not only by national policy but also by local whites envious of Native lands.

The Winnebago, like the other Great Lakes tribes, experienced social and political upheaval well before the Indian Removal Act (1830) was passed. Native peoples were being forced westward from the 17th century onward because of wars between tribes, competition due to the fur trade among Native groups, war and rivalry among the French, Dutch, and English colonizers, and later, the Americans. As Native American tribes such as the Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Potawatomi, and Ottawa pressed to the West, the Winnebago and Menominee, the original inhabitants of Wisconsin, were forced to share land and resources. Inevitably, arguments and battles broke out, often abetted by French and English traders, trappers, and military personnel.

By the end of the War of 1812, the tribe had settled into an area that stretched from Green Bay south to north-central Illinois to the Mississippi River. When Illinois achieved statehood in 1818, white settlers began to challenge the Winnebago for land in that state and southern Wisconsin. At the same time, the lead mines in southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois were being exploited, and miners flooded into the area, pressuring not only the Winnebago, but the Sauk and Fox as well. In 1815, American forces replaced the British at Green Bay, and another threat from the East now unfolded, the arrival of Native Americans from New York, largely backed by the U.S. government.

In 1821, the Oneida, Stockbridge (a subdivision of the Mahican), and Brotherton (colony of Christian Algonquian-speaking Native Americans from throughout New England and Long Island) approached the Menominee and the Winnebago about purchasing land near the Fox River, adjacent to Winnebago territory. This initial contact was followed by other proposals by the New York Natives and the federal government; in the end, 6,720,000 acres were sold to eastern tribes. Although the Winnebago were not party to the final treaties involving the eastern Natives, the latter's arrival had an immediate impact on the Winnebago, as the lands they formerly shared with other Wisconsin tribes shrunk. After reliable translations were furnished the tribes, the Menominee and Winnebago rejected the treaties, saying that their interpretation of them was that the New York and Wisconsin tribes would share the land, rather than take outright ownership of it. Sharing had been common practice among the tribes of the western Great Lakes from time immemorial. The argument was rejected by the U.S. government.

After passage of the Indian Removal Act, the federal government determined to move the tribe west of the Mississippi River. The Winnebago resisted, knowing the difficulties a woodland culture would face in being transported to the western plains. After the Black Hawk War ended in 1832, they were forced to cede their lands in southwestern Wisconsin and northern Illinois and were given the Neutral Ground or Turkey River reservation in western Iowa; some Winnebago held out, however, and remained in Wisconsin. The Iowa area was being contested by the Sauk and the Sioux, so in 1837 the Winnebago were removed from Iowa to northern Minnesota, near Long Prairie. Here, the government wanted to use them as a buffer between the Dakota (Sioux) and Anishinabe, who were traditional enemies. Only when they received a written copy of the treaty did the Winnebago discover that they had not been given eight years to remove, but only eight months. Many refused to leave Iowa, and others returned to Wisconsin. By 1847, however, the Winnebago had left Iowa for northern Minnesota.

In 1855, the tribe was moved once again from northern to south-central Minnesota near Blue Earth, where they remained, growing their crops and living peacefully. However, when the Civil War began and many of the young Winnebago joined the Union Army, the white settlers in the vicinity of their reservation began to complain about their presence, especially after the Sioux Uprising in 1862. In response, Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order for the tribe to remove again, this time to South Dakota. They were forced to move in the dead of winter, and they reached their reservation in 1863. On the way, many of the people died. In 1865, most of the tribe left South Dakota, which they found inhospitable, for Nebraska, where a reservation was created for them adjacent to Omaha lands.

All through the middle of the century, individual and small groups of Winnebago returned to Wisconsin, where the federal government attempted to round them up and return them to the Nebraska reservation. Many individuals returned to their northern homelands only to find white settlers living where they had resided for centuries. In 1874, the government extended the Homestead Act to Native Americans, and many Winnebago took homesteads in Wisconsin, mostly in central Wisconsin. Today, the Winnebago people reside in both Nebraska and Wisconsin.

James W. Parins

Further Reading
Johansen, Bruce E., and Barry M. Pritzker, eds. Encyclopedia of American Indian History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007; Loew, Patty. Indian Nations in Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Removal. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2001.

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