The Big Picture
The big picture of the Ho-Chunk Nation's story exceeds the widest lenses of written history as the tribe's roots trace back prior to written records in Wisconsin. Hoocąk heritage in this region likely begins as the glaciers retreated. Thus, the four centuries since the 1600s arrival of Europeans in Wisconsin is only a small chapter of a much broader narrative. However, the decades leading up to, and following the 1832 census would prove to be a critical turning point in the story. These years provide a key to understanding the background of the present-day Ho-Chunk Nation as they have persevered through the trauma of expulsion from their homeland and continue to press onward today. The 1832 census stands at the culmination point between what came before and the wholesale changes which would imminently follow for Hoocąk families.
**Please note that many historic quotes in the following timeline refer to the Ho-Chunk (Hoocąk) as the "Winnebago," a name used for the Ho-Chunk by other tribes and the U.S. Government. The word's meaning differs from the tribe's preferred name for themselves, but it refers to the same people group.
Lead mining boom erupts in northern Illinois: Incursions on Hoocąk land begin
Lead had been a resource mined and used by Hoocąk and other native peoples for centuries stretching back well prior to the arrival of Europeans. The presence of lead in the lower reaches of Hoocąk territory had been noted early on by the French and British, but as it was protected by the Hoocąk and their Sauk and Fox neighbors to the south and west, few efforts were made to speculate. Starting in the first years of the 1820s, however, miners began to boldly test the waters. The trickle became a flood which quickly spilled onto Hoocąk land, occasioning increasingly tense interactions which unnerved the Rock River Hoocąk.
"The number of miners at Fever is increasing rapidly. Such are the inducements to individual enterprise and industry at those mines, that numbers of the most respectable inhabitants of the Upper Mississsippi are resorting to them as a reward for labor not attainable elsewhere."
"[T]the Winnebagoes...have manifested a degree of forbearance highly creditable to themselves... [The] whites...have not scruples to advance into the village of those people, to dig mineral from under their feet, and to destroy the corn which was their only dependence through the winter to sustain the lives of their women and children."
"When some lead was found, and it was known down the Mississippi, white men came flocking to Fever river, like the wolves in the plains to the dead buffalo. Many crossed in our canoes at Rock River, and some did not pay for it. More came up...on the Mississippi, and there is not much land to hold them. They spread out in every direction, and began to dig and find and carry off lead on the Winnebago lands."
The first treaty of Prairie du Chien: Setting up boundaries
As Euro-American settlements in the northwestern reaches of the Great Lakes and central Midwest elevated the United States' interest and stakes in the area, a meeting between U.S. commissioners and representatives of numerous regional tribes, including the Hoocąk Nation, was convened at the ancient meeting grounds of Prairie du Chien. Officially aimed at stabilizing the region by establishing boundaries between Native peoples, the treaty in effect laid the groundwork for defining an aggressive slate of tribal land cessions which would sweep the entire region of its Native inhabitants over the course of the following decades. It is ironic that the boundaries which the U.S. sought to establish in this treaty were referenced by Hoocąk leaders in subsequent years as white settlers began to blatantly disregard these very same borders.
"I have a small portion of country of which I wish to tell you. It is where I was born & now live. It commences at our village on Lake Winnebago. The lands I claim are...not only claimed by us but by our brothers the Sac and Fox, Menominee, Iowa, [?] and Sioux. They have used it in common. It would be difficult to divide it. It belongs as much to one as the other…My Fathers, I did not know that any of my relations has any particular Land. It is true every one owns his own lodge & the ground he may cultivate. I had thought the Rivers were the common property of all [Indians] & not used exclusively by any particular nation."
War and Rumors of War: The Red Bird Uprising
In late June, 1827, news arrived that two residents of Prairie du Chien had been killed and a keel boat attacked on its way down the Mississippi River south of La Crosse Prairie. The hostilities were connected to Red Bird, who had planned the Prairie du Chien killings as a means of avenging the rumored murder of Hoocąk men near Fort Snelling. Red Bird saw larger purposes at play and sent war messages to surrounding tribes and to the other Hoocąk bands, proposing to drive the lead miners from their midst. The Rock River band—who had suffered loss of land, game, and nearly their lives in hostile encounters with these lead miners—teetered on the edge of seeking redress through war but eventually joined the majority of the tribe in seeking a peaceful solution to the developing conflict.
The U.S. government response was quick and decisive. Instead of merely demanding the surrender of those guilty in the murders, military forces from Green Bay and St. Louis converged at the Fox-Wisconsin Portage where Red Bird and his associates were surrendered to the military. With the weight of the overcalculated military response behind them, U.S. officials used what became known as Red Bird's Uprising as an occasion to gain quick congressional approval to pressure Hoocąk leadership to cede their mineral lands to the mining interests which had surged into Hoocąk territory upon Red Bird's surrender.
"We said, if we do not stop them [the lead miners] soon, it will be too late. More and more are coming every day; the game and furs are leaving the country, and the Indians cannot live in it any longer, if we do not stop the white men from coming over the line into our country. Our Great Father has bought no land of us, and we will tell his children so. But the white men would not listen; our chiefs were sorry, and our young men were very mad. Bad thoughts came along; and there were none to advise. Bad birds sung in our warriors’ ears, and lies came down the Mississippi from St. Peters, and white men have been murdered. We know now that we ought to have sent this word to our Great Father, and he would secure our land to us, and take away his white children...We have called all the Winnebageos from that country; we are afraid to let our young men go to their hunting grounds—our people to their village near them. General Atkinson told our Chiefs, that our Great Father should know all; and that he would send men, after the corn moon, to see where our country is, and mark it by a good line that his people would not pass. We hope it will not be long..."
"Prompt movements and a sudden throwing in among these people...of a strong force, and fierce spirited retaliation, will be a most happy event—and it is to be hoped that their war feelings may not have evaporated until Genl. Atkinson may arrive, as I trust he may, in time, and...be enabled to chastise them well. Nothing short of such measures can subdue these people."
Quiet Unrest: Hoocąk avert the sale of their homeland as tensions continue
Tensions did not cease with Red Bird's surrender. Emboldened lead miners drove deeply into Hoocąk territory and resisted Indian agents' attempts to evict them. In August, a council was convened at Lake Butte des Morts at which the U.S. commissioners attempted to convince the Hoocąk to give up their lead producing land. With Hoocąk leadership firmly opposed to selling their homeland, and with new provocations arising daily, the military established Fort Winnebago at the portage of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to quell any attempts to resist. Just months later, a delegation of Hoocąk leaders was sent to Washington, D.C., as another U. S. government attempt to dissuade them from any reprisals against the injustices in the lead mines.
"Father! I was born on this [the Fox] river. I have lived on Rock river for ten years. You told us yesterday if we had any complaints to make you would hear them. You recollect the line we drew at the Council of Prairie du Chien. Some of your young men have perhaps not seen it. They have come over it, and now they are upon us and are driving us from our camps. Father! If you had a piece of land and a stranger should take possession of it, would you like it?"
The Year of the Treaty
Hoocąk leadership was called to Prairie du Chien in July, 1829, in a second U.S. government attempt to purchase the tribe's lead-rich land. Although the speeches recorded from the treaty demonstrate a great reluctance to sell, the council ended with a cession of millions of acres to the U.S. stretching well beyond the end of the lead district to the west side of the Four Lakes villages. From this treaty arose the need to be paid on an annual basis for that land. A new Indian sub-agency—or embassy—was established at Fort Winnebago on the crossing point between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers at modern day Portage. The mechanisms established through this treaty formed the basis for the annuity payments which became the occasion of the penning of the1832 census.
"My Fathers! I am going to say a few words—listen…We are a nation not like the whites, we have different customs and manners from you. The land we are speaking of is our own; we are one of the Nations of Indians who have never sold. What we are going to do, we hope will be strong and well done, that those who come after us may know and respect it."
"It is not a little thing we are talking about. I hope you will have patience to hear us. We are not all born in the same country. You whites came from the other side of the big water, while we have always been here. The French were our first fathers. We never heard from them what we hear from you about land. The next were the red coats and they were the same..."
"If you get the land to where you ask, what can you do with it? If you can get all our country, where can we go? We cannot get our living like the whites. We cannot live and work as they do. We must not be too crowded. What answer do you want? What can we say, more than we have; what can we say tomorrow?"
"We don’t think we can give more. If we could get our living east of the four lakes, we would give you the land, but we cannot. As we look upon you as our fathers, you would not wish to see us suffer."
The Year of the Census
The year 1832 began with a spillover of uncertainty from the previous autumn's inter-tribal tensions. The Hoocąk were quick to declare their neutrality as the unrest culminated in the Black Hawk War which brought the Sauk band, the U.S. Army, and a roving militia through the midst of Hoocąk homeland. From early on in the conflict, the U.S. announced that any tribe with a substantial portion of their people supporting Black Hawk would only be granted peace if they gave up a corresponding proportion of their land. Hoocąk leadership stayed largely neutral, but since some individuals had aided Black Hawk, the military constructed a case which resulted in Hoocąk tribal members losing the rest of their land east and south of the Wisconsin River, displacing nearly 75% of the those listed in the 1832 census.
With a stipulation that Hoocąk families were to leave the ceded territory by June 1, 1833, either to the Neutral Grounds which had been provided as a substitute to ceded lands or over the Wisconsin River, the autumn witnessed distress, anger, and a family-by-family decision of whether to resist or comply. The war had resulted in the loss of crops across the entire region. With no winter's supply and defaults on promised relief combined with a late payment of the annuity which prevented many from reaching their hunting grounds, the months surrounding the 1832 census produced a life-threatening situation.
"Ever since I can remember, I have followed the advice of the whites. I am in a very bad situation, as also our band. We have waited here long. Our American father has been a great while trying to purchase our lands; but we always told him we would not sell, unless the whole nation would consent. Some years ago we sold a piece of land, because he told us we would be a great deal better off than ever we were before; but ever since, we have been worse off than we were before we sold any of our land.
This spring, when the snow went off, the Sacs and Foxes came to us and said they were going to raise the war club against the whites, and wished to persuade us to join them… When he (Atkinson) saw we could not get them off our land, he advised us to leave our land; to go away from our country, and to keep out of his way. We said we could not do that, as we had nothing to eat. He then said we should eat whatever we found in our country...but we told him we could not do so, as there would be claims enough presented against us, by the whites, at our payment... I have been told by some of the white chiefs that, as soon as the fuss would be over, we should be recompensed for our losses for corn, &c., they destroyed for us... If we should not get something, we shall certainly lose half of our nation."
Removal across the Wisconsin River
January 1, 1833, launched a period of tense controversy as U.S. officials argued about how to administrate the expulsion of the Hoocąk from ceded lands. Hoocąk elders, their agents, and local officials pled for more time so that the nation could recover from the winter's famine prior to relocating. With no crops from the previous summer and some government officials attempting to manipulate promised relief to force Hoocąk families to move to the Neutral Grounds rather than their remaining land north of the Wisconsin, Hoocąk leaders requested an undisturbed growing season in their villages, after which they would move. The final orders following four months of government infighting required Hoocąk people would still have to relocate by June 1 or be forced from the ceded territory by mounted rangers. The majority of the tribe once again lost their season's crops due to the poorly timed move. Nearly all moved to the area of Baraboo and Sauk Prairie north of the Wisconsin River rather than risk reprisals from the Sauk and Dakota whose territories hemmed in the Neutral Grounds.
"…Tell our great father how we have suffered this past winter. He has taken pity on our women and children already, in supplying us occasionally with something to eat. We want him to continue good to us, and to permit us to cultivate our fields once more this summer, and it is all we ask. We wish to be better off next winter. We have not prepared now for a move. We have nothing to break up our land, and to make it good to plant our corn. The help which our great father is to give us will come too late for the time of sowing. Our old fields are ready made, and we wish to raise corn enough this year to last our women and children all next winter and part of next summer. Tell him we speak strong, and we want him to think strong, for our poor women and children. Our wish is for peace. If our great father cannot grant our request we will then move. Our families will then have to suffer, and we will be miserable for a great while."
"Father, General Dodge has hunted us from lake to lake like deer; we could not hide from him; we wanted to remain where we were."
Eyes on the Wisconsin
Smallpox had been periodically dogging Hoocąk families for generations and most recently since the early 1830s. In 1836, the crowded refugee villages of the Baraboo region became the center of a full-scale epidemic. One third of the tribe's population perished in the plague.
Coinciding with this year of loss, Wisconsin officially became a territory. With nothing separating a territory from statehood but population numbers, the vast expanse of Hoocąk land north of the Wisconsin River was unacceptable in the eyes of the new territorial leadership. Efforts began in earnest to convince the tribe to relinquish their remaining piece of ancestral land east of the Mississippi. These demands were met with stiff resistance.
"[W]e were all born and raised on the land we now live upon; all the white men [know?] this to be the truth: ever since the white landed upon our shores, you know the course they have pursued toward us...We do not know what will become of us. We are getting frightened...A short time since I’ve heard [the U.S. president] wanted a tract of land of us, and that he could build a fence so that no white man should get over it, or come see through it. All our chiefs and forefathers have died upon the land we are now living upon; Their bones are buried here, and it seems hard for us to leave them...I hope our great father will not think hard of us. We had one tract of land which did not suit us so well as this, and we sold it, but we did not tell our great father we would sell this country, not a part of it, or a stem of grass. We have been told that our country is not good. What does our great father want to buy it for if it is not good? —all our principal men have died upon it, and we wish to remain here. I do not believe there is a man, white or red that can say he owns the world—It was our Great Maker that made it and he alone is the master of it. I hope our great father will hear every thing that has been said upon this subject; and it is the wish of our warriors, young men, and children that he would let us remain in peace..."
The year 1837 marked the first year in which the U.S. government began to overtly default on its treaty payments, replacing the payment in specie with a distribution of trade goods of uncertain quality and value. In the fall of the year, the new Fort Winnebago agent imposed upon Hoocąk leaders to send a delegation to talk with the president at Washington, D.C. The Nation reluctantly sent a non-land-holding delegation without authority to sign a treaty to appease the agent. In Washington, the delegation was threatened and forced to sign a treaty which they were not authorized by their tribe to sign.
Plea for reprieve; plans to remain
The arrival of news of the Treaty of 1837 stunned Hoocąk leaders back home. A treaty had not been expected, much less a treaty which gave them only eight months to relocate from their homeland to the Neutral Grounds of Iowa. A meeting which was convened in Prairie du Chien with territorial Governor Dodge became a forum in which delegates to the 1837 treaty unanimously asserted that they had requested and been assured of four years' time on their land before having to move. The Hoocąk at the meeting appealed for fulfillment of this promise but were given no assurances. Later that fall, emerging Hoocąk leaders, including Dandy, Little Soldier, and Yellow Thunder, solidified their determination to stay in Wisconsin.
"Blind Dekauri—Our father told us at Washington that we were to remain four years on the land—that he had pity on our old men and women, and we came back under this belief. Father, when you ask any thing of us we always grant it, and we now ask of you to permit us to remain on this land four years—it is hard for us to leave, but much harder for our brothers from the Portage—Father, we ask this of you, for the words we have heard today are not what we heard at Washington. Fathers, many of the chiefs went to Washington before me & the promises they made to us have not yet been fulfilled.
Dodge: Say to Dekauri that I have listened with attention to his words, but that his father (Mr. Boyd) and Mr. Clark, who were with them at Washington, say that their Great Father (Mr. Harris) told them, when they asked for four years, that if they signed the treaty they must leave the Country in eight months.
Dekauri replied, that, if their Great Father (Mr. Harris) said so it was in English and not in Indian.
...Wah-kon-kah (The Snake) rose & said...Father, when our Chiefs went to see the President, I went twice with them and heard what was said...I heard Wau-kon-kah (Wau kon Dekauri) who was the last to sign the treaty, when he took up the paper, ask that four years should be given to remove in. Father, the Great Spirit above and the evil spirit below hears me and knows that I speak the truth—Father, I hope you will...give us the four years. Father we are willing and will consent to do what you advise us, but we wish you to take pity & grant our request."
Removal across the Mississippi commenced in earnest under the supervision of military forces led by Henry Atkinson. A strong contingent of Hoocąk families were greatly reluctant to leave. Those who had not already removed themselves to Turkey River, however, were escorted by the military to the reservation. This initial 1840 removal drive which concluded in June, 1840, failed when a substantial portion of the tribe returned to Wisconsin in the subsequent weeks and months. A second push under General Brooke combined the arrest of non-removing leaders such as Dandy and Yellow Thunder with military sweeps of the Black River and Four Lakes area. The "entire and complete" removal of the Hoocąk Nation from Wisconsin was announced in June, 1841.
"We went down to Rock River to look for Mas-i-ma-ni-ka-ka; from there we went to Madison, and thence to Fox River. We picked up two hundred and fifty Indians, men, women and children, and we took them down to Prairie du Chien. Before we got there, at the head of the Kickapoo Rover, we came to three Indian wigwams. The Captain directed me to order the Indians to break up their camp, and come along with him. Two old women, sisters of Black Wolf, and another one, came up, throwing themselves on their knees, crying and beseeching Captain Sumner to kill them; that they were old, and would rather die, and be buried with their fathers mothers and children, than be taken away; and that they were ready to receive their death blows…
A little further on, we came to the camp of Ke-ji-que-we-ka and others; when they were told by the captain, through me, to break up their camp, and put their things in the wagon, and come along. After they had thus deposited their little property, they started south from where we were. The Captain bade me to ask them where they were going? They said they were going to bid good bye to their fathers, mothers, and children. The Captain directed me to go with them, and watch them; and we found them on their knees, kissing the ground, and crying very loud, where their relations were buried. This touched the Captain’s feelings, and he exclaimed 'Good God! What harm could those poor Indians do among the rocks.'"
Driven from reservation to reservation
The reservation at Turkey River was also soon to be lost to the onslaught of settlement. By 1846, Hoocąk families were again uprooted and sent to Long Prairie, an impenetrable swampland in northern Minnesota. There was some relief when, in 1855, they were moved to Blue Earth Reservation in southern Minnesota. Although an 1859 treaty resulted in half of this reservation being subdivided and thus opened to external sale, this land was similar to that in Wisconsin and many began to settle into a routine. This, however, would only be temporary. The Dakota War of 1862 offered an occasion for Minnesota's leadership to expel Native peoples from their midst, resulting in Hoocąk families being transported to Crow Creek, a desolate stretch of land on the Missouri River in Dakota Territory. Their time in Crow Creek was short. With death, famine, and hardship as had never yet been encountered being emblematic of the reservation, they built canoes and fled to Nebraska where they eventually gained a reservation among the Omaha. This Nebraska reservation exists to the present day, hosting a substantial population of Hoocąk whose ancestors had persisted through a trail of tears which had lasted decades.
All the while, hiding and returning amidst repeated removals
From the very first forced expulsions, Hoocąk families began to return to their home villages. By 1836, the Indian Department had halted annuities to a substantial portion of the Rock River band which had returned after being removed north of the Wisconsin River and continued to live in their ancestral land. When wholesale expulsion from Wisconsin was commenced, these returns increased. Those eluding capture and making secret migrations back to Wisconsin culminated in a substantial Hoocąk population in western Wisconsin communities. They had risked their lives fleeing the reservations.
Persistence in returning and eluding removal came at a cost. Stories are passed down of some families experiencing upwards of eight or more removals. Periodic mass roundups in west-central Wisconsin continued until 1874 when a particularly messy experience, along with the imminent passage of the Indian Homestead Act, led to a discontinuation of the policy.
"On my arrival at Rowan’s Place 35 miles from Fort Winnebago I was informed by a man named Sutton that the Winnebagoes were passing daily from North of the Wisconsin River into the country of the four lakes and Rock River in bands of eight and ten—carrying with them their wigwams and fishing and hunting implements on sleds—The evening that I arrived at Roan’s a band of ten or twelve Winnebagoes with their families passed there on their way to the Rock River country...one of them told Sutton that he intended going on the Rock River and remaining there—that he could but be killed by the whites and that he would as soon die in that way as starve to death in their new country North of the Wisconsin."
"My father gave me good talk about our tribe. He liked to speak of those things. Now the Winnebagoes are poor. They have not so much pride…We get a very poor living, now. Our farms have not good soil. The game is not as plenty as it was. The white traders cheat and rob us. They make our young men drunk…We think the Big Father does not care for us any longer, now that he has all our best land. Perhaps it will not be long before he will want the poor land we now live on. Then we must go to the reservation. Life on the reservation is hard. The Winnebagoes in Wisconsin do not want to go there. They want to die in their own land. They like best the streams and woods where their fathers and uncles have always hunted and trapped."
A glimmer of hope
In 1881, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs formally recognized the reality of persisting Hoocąk presence in the state by offering to those who had purchased land under the Homestead Act the opportunity to become registered anew as Native peoples who could receive their share of payments promised them in earlier treaties. At the same time, the Wisconsin Winnebago were recognized as a legitimate branch of the tribe.
A constitution and federal recognition
After a long road, the Wisconsin Hoocąk scored a major victory on January 19, 1963, when representatives of the Wisconsin group signed their Nation's first constitution and received federal recognition as the Wisconsin Winnebago under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Government-recognized self-determination as a sovereign people was something they had not fully enjoyed for over a century.
People of the Sacred Voice
On November 25, 1994, signatures dried on a document which made history for the Wisconsin Winnebago. The newly revised constitution announced the official change of the tribe's name from Wisconsin Winnebago to Ho-Chunk Nation. The People of the Sacred Voice once again embraced the name of their forefathers one hundred sixty-five years after efforts commenced to erase their name, culture, and presence from their Wisconsin homeland. The stories of Hoocąk people continue to be written as new generations find their own voices and make their own contributions. Older generations work hard to pass along the Nation's language and legacy in a world that is very different from the time of the 1832 census.
—The Story Continues Today—
"The Ho-Chunk, or 'The People of the Sacred Voice,' are resilient. They know both prosperous times and difficult times, yet they have persevered. We will continue to speak our language, celebrate our customs, respect the Hoocąk value system and teach our future generations the 'Hoocąk way of life.'"
-Ho-Chunk Nation Language Division-