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The Annual Report of the Interior Department, 1862

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


In the Annual Report of the Interior Department for 1862 the condition of things is thus described: " While it may be true that a few of the Winnebago were engaged in the atrocities of the Sioux, the tribe, as such, is no more justly responsible for their acts than our Government would be for a pirate who happened to have been born on our territory. Notwithstanding this, the exasperation of the people of Minnesota appears to be nearly as great toward the Winnebago as toward the Sioux. They demand that the Winnebago as well as the Sioux shall be removed from the limits of the State. The Winnebago are unwilling to move. Yet the Minnesota people are so excited that not a Winnebago can leave his reservation without risk of being shot; and as they have never received their promised implements of agriculture, and the game on their reservation is exhausted, and their arms have been taken from them, they are starving."

Their agent writes: " These Indians have been remaining here in a continuous state of suspense, waiting for the Government to cause the stipulations of the treaty of 1859 to be carried into operation: such has been their condition for three years and a half, and they do not understand why it is so. The fact that a very few of the Winnebago were present and witnessed, if they did not take part in, the massacre at the Lower Sioux Agency, has caused the Winnebago themselves to be universally suspected of disloyalty. The hostile feelings of the white people are so intense, that I am necessitated to use extra efforts to keep the Indians upon their own lands. I have been notified by the whites that the Indians will be massacred if they go out of their own country.; and it is but a few days since an Indian was killed while crossing the Mississippi River, for no other reason than that he was an Indian, and such is the state of public opinion that the murderer goes unpunished."

As to the loyalty of the tribe, the agent says: " There is no tribe of Indians more so." There is " no doubt of their loyalty as a tribe. In consequence of a threat made by the Sioux, immediately upon their outbreak, that they (the Sioux) would exterminate the Winnebago unless they joined them in a raid against the white people, the Winnebago have lived in fear of an attack from the Sioux, and have almost daily implored me for protection. To further assure them, I requested of the Governor of the State that two companies of United States infantry be stationed here in their midst, which has allayed their fears. *Notwithstanding the nearness of the belligerent Sioux, and the unfriendly feelings of the white people, and other unfortunate circumstances, I am confident that my Indians will remain loyal to the last. They have been informed that, not withstanding their fidelity to the Government and the people, the people of this State are memorializing Congress to remove them out of the State-which they consider very unjust under the circumstances, for they have become attached to this location and would not leave it willingly, and think their fidelity ought to entitle them to respect and kind treatment."

The "popular demand" of the people of Minnesota triumphed. In February 1863, Congress passed an act authorizing the "peaceful and quiet removal of the Winnebago Indians from the State of Minnesota, and the settling of them on a new reserve." It was determined to locate them "on the Missouri River somewhere within a hundred miles of Fort Randall, where it is not doubted they will be secure from any danger of intrusion from whites." All their guns, rifles, and pistols were to be taken from them, "securely boxed up," labeled "with the names of their respective owners." The Department impressed it on the agent in charge of the removal that it was "absolutely necessary that no time should be lost in the emigrating of these Indians." The hostile Sioux were to be removed at the same time, and to a reservation adjoining the reservation of the Winnebago. The reports of the Indian Bureau for 1863 tell the story of this removal.

The commissioner says: "The case of the Winnebago is one of peculiar hardship. I am still of the opinion that this tribe was in no manner implicated in or responsible for the cruel and wanton outbreak on the part of the Sioux; but its consequences to the tribe have been as disastrous as unmerited. In obedience to the Act of Congress, and the popular demand of the people of Minnesota, they have been removed to a new location upon the Missouri River, adjoining that selected for the Sioux. Contrasting the happy homes, and the abundant supply for all their wants which they have left behind them, with the extreme desolation which prevails throughout the country, including their present location, and their almost defenseless state, as against the hostile savages in their vicinity, their present condition is truly pitiable; and it is not surprising that they have become to some extent discouraged, and are dissatisfied with their new homes. It cannot be disguised that their removal, although nominally peaceable and with their consent, was the result of the overwhelming pressure of the public sentiment of the community in which they resided; and it is to be feared that it will be many years before their confidence in the good faith of our Government, in its professed desire to ameliorate and improve their condition, will be restored. Their misfortunes and good conduct deserve our sympathy."

The Act of Congress above mentioned provides for the peaceable removal of the Indians. In its execution some of the members of the tribe were found unwilling to leave their homes; and as there was neither the disposition nor the power to compel them to accompany their brethren, they remained upon their old reservation. The most of them are represented as having entirely abandoned the Indian habits and customs and as being fully qualified by good conduct and otherwise for civilized life. Many of them are enlisted in the military service, and all arc desirous of retaining possession of the homes allotted to them under the provisions of their treaty.

The trust lands belonging to the amount to the tribe have been placed in the market, and from the amount already sold has been realized $82,537 62. An appraisement has also been had of the lands of the diminished reserve, and the same will soon be placed in the market."

In the Report of the Superintendent of the Northwest Territory for the same year is the following summing up of their case: "The case of these Winnebago Indians is one of peculiar hardship. Hurried from their comfortable homes in Minnesota, in 1863, almost without previous notice, huddled together on steamboats with poor accommodations, and transported to the Crow Creek Agency in Dakota Territory at an expense to themselves of more than $50,000, they were left, after a very imperfect and hasty preparation of their new agency for their reception, upon a sandy beach on the west hank of the Missouri River, in a country remarkable only for the rigors of its winter climate and the sterility of its soil, to subsist themselves where the most industrious and frugal white man would fail, five years out of six, to raise enough grain upon which to subsist a family. The stern alternative was presented to this unfortunate people, thus deprived of comfortable homes (on account of no crime or misdemeanor of their own), of abandoning this agency, or encountering death from cold or starvation. They wisely chose the former; and after encountering hardships and sufferings too terrible to relate, and the loss of several hundred of their tribe by starvation and freezing, they arrived at their present place of residence [the Omaha Agency] in a condition which excited the active sympathy of all who became acquainted with the story of their wrongs. There they have remained, trusting that the Government would redeem its solemn promise to place them in a position west of the Missouri which should be as comfortable as the one which they occupied in Minnesota.

"This tribe is characterized by frugality, thrift, and industry to an extent unequalled by any other tribe of Indians in the North-west. Loyal to the Government, and peaceable toward their neighbors, they are entitled to the fostering care of the General Government. The improvement of the homes which they have voluntarily selected for their future residence will place them in a short time beyond the reach of want, and take from the Government the burden of supplying their wants at an actual expense of $100,000."

It was in May 1863, that the Winnebago gathered at Fort Snelling, ready for their journey. The chiefs are said to have "acquiesced in the move as a matter of necessity, for the protection of their people," but some of them "actually shed tears on taking leave." Colonel Mix, who was in charge of this removal, wrote to Washington, urgently entreating that tents at least might be provided for them on their arrival at their new homes in the wilderness. He also suggests that it is a question whether they ought to be settled so near the hostile Sioux, especially as just before leaving Minnesota some of the tribe had "scalped three Sioux Indians, thinking it would propitiate them in the kind regards of their Great Father at Washington, and, as a consequence, they would perhaps be permitted to remain in Minnesota."

The removal was accomplished in May and June. There were, all told, 1945 of the Winnebago. They arrived to find themselves in an almost barren wilderness-a dry, hard soil, " too strong for ploughs;" so much so, that it was " difficult to get a plough to run a whole day without breaking." A drought had parched the grass, so that in many places where the previous year several tons of good hay to an acre had been raised there was not now "pasturage for a horse." The cottonwood timber, all which could be procured, was " crooked, difficult to handle, full of wind-shakes, rots, etc." The channel of the Missouri River here was so "changeable," and the banks so low, that it was "dangerous to get too near." They were obliged therefore to settle half a mile away from the river. No wonder that on July 1st the Winnebago are reported as "not pleased with their location, and anxious to return to Minnesota, or to some other place among the whites." They gathered together in council, and requested Superintendent Thompson to write to their Great Father for permission " to move among the whites again. They have lived so long among the whites that they are more afraid of wild Indians than the whites are." The superintendent hopes, however, they will be more contented as soon as he can get them comfortable buildings. But on July 16th we find Brigadier-general Sulley, commander of the Northwestern expedition against Indians, writing to the Department in behalf of these unfortunate creatures. General Sulley having been detained in camp near Crow Creek on account of the low water, the chiefs had gone to him with their tale of misery. "They stated that nothing would grow here. They dare not 'go out to hunt for fear of other tribes, and they would all starve to death. This I believe to be true, without the Government intends to ration' them all the time. The land is sandy, dry, and parched up. The land is poor ; a low, sandy soil. I don't think you can depend on a crop of corn even once in five years, as it seldom rains here in the summer. I find them hard at work making canoes, with the intention of quitting the agency and going to join the Omaha or some other tribe down the river. They said they had been promised to be settled on the Big Sioux River. I told them they must stay here till they get permission from Washington to move; that, if they attempted it, they would be fired on by my troops stationed down the river."

This is a graphic picture of the condition of a band of two thousand human beings, for whose "benefit" $82,537.62 had just been realized from sale of their lands by the Government, to say nothing of the property they owned in lands yet unsold, and in annuity provisions of previous treaties to the amount of over $1,000,000 capital! Is not their long suffering, their patience, well-nigh incredible.

Spite of the dread of being fired on by the United States troops, they continued to make canoes and escape in them from this " new home " in the desert, and in October the Department of the Interior began to receive letters containing paragraphs like this: "I have also to report that small detachments of Winnebago are constantly arriving in canoes, locating on our reserve, and begging for food to keep them from starving." Agent for Omaha Agency.

These are the men who only one year before had been living in comfortable homes, with several hundred acres of good ground under cultivation, and " clamoring for certificates" of their " allotted" farms now shelterless, worse than homeless, escaping by canoe-loads, under fire of United States soldiers, from a barren desert, and "clamoring" for food at Indian agencies!

The Department of the Interior promptly reports to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Minnesota this "information," and calls it " astounding." The Department had " presumed that Agent Balcombe would adopt such measures as would induce the Winnebago to remain upon their reservation," and had " understood that ample arrangements had been made for their subsistence." It, however, ordered the Omaha agent to feed the starving refugees till spring, and it sent word to those still remaining on the reservation that they must not "undertake to remove without the consent 'of their Great Father, as it is his determination that a home that shall be healthy, pleasant, and fertile, shall be furnished to them at the earliest practicable moment."

This was in the autumn of 1863. In one year no less than 1222 of the destitute Winnebago had escaped and made their way to the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. Here the Superintendent of the Northern Superintendency held a council with them.

"They expressed," he says, "a strong desire to have some arrangement made by which they would be allowed to occupy a portion of that reservation. It was represented that the Omaha wished it also. I found that I could not gain their consent to go back to their -reservation, and I had no means within my reach of forcing them back, even if I had deemed it proper to do so." The superintendent recommended, therefore, that they be subsisted where they were "until some arrangement be made for their satisfaction, or some concert of action agreed upon between the War Department and the Interior Department by which they can be kept on their reservation after they shall have been moved there."

In September of this same year the agent for the Winnebago Reserve wrote that the absence of a protecting force had been one of the reasons of the Indians leaving in such numbers. "Both the Winnebago and Sioux who have stayed here have lived in fear and trembling close to the stockade, and have refused to separate and live upon separate tracts of laud."

He gives some further details as to the soil and climate. "The region has been subject, as a general rule, to droughts, and the destructive visits of grasshoppers and other insects. The soil has a great quantity of alkali in it; it is an excessively dry climate; it very seldom rains, and dews are almost unknown here: almost destitute of timber. It is generally supposed that game is plenty about here. This is an erroneous impression. There are but a very few small streams, an entire absence of lakes, and an almost entire destitution of timber-the whole country being one wilderness of dry prairie for hundreds of miles around ; hence there is but a very little small game, fish, or wild fruit to be found. In former times the buffalo roamed over this country, but they have receded, and very seldom come here in any numbers. The Indians must have horses to hunt them horses they have not. The Winnebago had some when they first arrived, but they were soon stolen by the hostile Sioux."

Agent Balcombe must have led a hard life on this reservation. Exposed to all the inconveniences of a remote frontier, three hundred miles from any food-raising country; receiving letters from the Interior Department expressing itself " astounded " that he does not "induce the Indians in his charge to remain on their reservation;" and letters from citizens, and petitions from towns in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, imploring him to " gather up " all the wandering Winnebago who have been left behind; unprovided with any proper military protection, and surrounded by hostile Indians no wonder that he recommends to the Government "to remove and consolidate" the different tribes of Indians into "one territory" as soon as possible.

The effects of this sojourn in the wilderness upon the Winnebago were terrible. Not only were they rendered spiritless and desperate by sufferings; they were demoralized by being brought again into conflict with the wild Sioux. They had more than one skirmish with them, and, it is said, relapsed so far into the old methods of their barbaric life that at one of their dances they actually roasted and ate the heart of a Sioux prisoner! Yet in less than a year after they were gathered together once more on the Omaha Reservation, and began again to have hopes of a "permanent home," we find their chiefs and headmen sending the following petition to Washington:

"Our Great Father at Washington, All Greeting,
From the chiefs, braves, and headmen of your dutiful children the Winnebago.

"Father, we cannot see you. You are far away from us. We cannot speak to you. We will write to you; and, Father, we hope you will read our letter and answer us.

"Father: Some years ago, when we had our homes on Turkey River, we had a school for our children, where many of them learned to read and write and work like white people, and we were happy.

"Father: Many years have passed away since our school was broken up; we have no such schools among us, and our children are growing up in ignorance of those things that should render them industrious, prosperous, and happy, and we are sorry.

Father: It is our earnest wish to be so situated no longer. It is our sincere desire to have again established among us such a school as we see in operation among your Omaha children.

Father: As soon as you find a permanent home for us, will you not do this for us? And,

Father, as we would like our children taught the Christian religion, as before, we would like our school placed under the care of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.

And last, Father, to show you our sincerity, we desire to have set apart for its establishment, erection, and support, all of our school-funds and whatever more is necessary.

"Father : This is our prayer. Will not you open your ears and heart to us, and write to us?"

This letter was signed by thirty-eight of the chiefs and headmen of the Winnebago.

In March, 1865, a new treaty was made between the United States and this long-suffering tribe of Indians, by which, in consideration of their "ceding, selling, and conveying" to the United States all their right in the Dakota Reserve, the United States agreed "to set apart for the occupation and future home of the 'Winnebago Indians forever" a certain tract of 128,000 acres in Nebraska-a part of the Omaha Reservation which the Omaha were willing to sell. The United States also agreed to erect mills, break land, furnish certain amounts of seeds, tools, guns, and horses, oxen and wagons, and to subsist the tribe for one year, as some small reparation for the terrible losses and sufferings they had experienced. From this word " forever" the Winnebago perhaps took courage.

At the time of their removal from Minnesota, among the fugitives who fled back to Wisconsin was the chief De Carry. He died there, two years later, in great poverty. He was very old, but remarkably intelligent; he was the grandson of Ho-po-ko-e-kaw, or " Glory of the Morning," who was the queen of the Winnebago in 1776, when Captain Carver visited the tribe. There is nothing in Carver's quaint and fascinating old story more interesting than his account of the Winnebago country. He stayed with them four days, and was entertained by them "in a very distinguished manner." Indeed, if we may depend upon Captain Carver's story, all the Northwestern tribes were, in their own country, a gracious and hospitable people. He says: " I received from every tribe of them the most hospitable and courteous treatment, and am convinced that, till they are contaminated by the example and spirituous liquors of their more refined neighbors, they will retain this friendly and inoffensive conduct toward strangers."

He speaks with great gusto of the bread that the Winnebago women made from the wild maize. The soft young kernels, while full of milk, are kneaded into a paste, the cakes wrapped in basswood leaves, and baked in the ashes. " Better flavored bread I never ate in any country," says the honest captain.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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