In 1825, federal negotiators invited representatives of nearly a dozen different Indian nations of the Great Lakes to Prairie du Chien in present-day southwestern Wisconsin for what was described as a peace and friendship treaty. More than a thousand Native Americans attended the 16-day gathering. U.S. officials were anxious to end intertribal conflict, especially between the Ojibwe (Anishinabe) and the Dakota, which was seen as an impediment to white settlement and trade. Indian agents insisted that chiefs and headmen establish boundaries between each tribe. The demarcation of borders paved the way for future land cession treaties.
The fur trade and other activities had created considerable enmity between the tribes in the Great Lakes. Along the Mississippi River, diplomacy between the Dakota and the Ojibwe had given way to continual attacks and reprisals. In the Fever River valley in present-day southeastern Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk, Sauk, and Fox were at odds with more than 10,000 miners who had illegally invaded their territory. The Menominee were nervous about the arrival, several years earlier, of three New York tribes: the Oneida, the Mohican Nation Stockbridge-Munsee bands, and the Brothertown, who were trying to buy Menominee land. Representatives of the Great Lakes tribes viewed the council at Prairie du Chien as an opportunity to settle some of these disputes.
At the council, Gen. William Clark and Gov. Lewis Cass insisted that the tribes declare their boundaries, an exercise that confused some of the Native leaders. Carimine, the Ho-Chunk chief, expressed the sentiments of many tribal leaders at the gathering. Members of the Anishinabe Confederacy—Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa (Ottawa)—were also reluctant to declare their borders. Chambly, an Odawa chief, told the gathering, "I never yet heard from my ancestors that any one had an exclusive right to the soil." Eventually, with the exception of the Menominee, who were underrepresented at the conference, most of the tribes declared their territories and negotiated boundaries.
Federal negotiators complained about the "dispersed condition" of tribes like the Ojibwe and the lack of principal chiefs with whom they could bargain. Each Ojibwe band had several clan leaders and headmen who "governed" by consent rather than ruled by authority. The decentralized nature of the tribes represented at the treaty negotiations was evident in the number of signatures on the document. A total of 41 Ojibwe, 26 Sioux, and 29 Sauk and Fox chiefs and headmen signed the treaty.
Although at the time tribal leaders did not understand the implications of declaring boundaries, within a few years they began to realize what it meant. The U.S. government began to approach Indian nations individually and negotiate land cessions.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, by which government officials began moving tribes located in the eastern portion of the United States to lands west of the Mississippi River. Officials first removed the Sauk and Fox, then the Ho-Chunk, then the Potawatomi. Removal orders against the Ojibwe and Menominee were signed but never carried out. The "peace and friendship treaty" at Prairie du Chien had laid the groundwork for the disenfranchisement of thousands of indigenous people from their lands in the Great Lakes region.
Patricia A. Loew
Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001; Proclamation, "Treaty with the Sioux and Chippewa, Sacs and Fox, Menominie, Ioway, Sioux, Winnebago, and a portion of the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawattomie, Tribes (1825)," 7 Stat 272 (Feb. 6, 1826).