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The Winnebago Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


The Winnebago belonged to the Dakota family, but, so far as can be known, were naturally a peace-loving people, and had no sympathy with the more warlike tribes of their race. The Algonquins gave them the name of Winnebago, or "people of the salt-water;" and as the Algonquin word for saltwater and stinking-water was the same, the French called them "Les Puants," or " Stinkards." The Sioux gave them a more melodious and pleasing name, "O-ton-kah," which signified " The large, strong people."

Bancroft, in his account of the North American tribes, says: "One little community of the Dakota (Sioux) family had penetrated the territories of the Algonquins : the Winnebago dwelling between Green Bay and the lake that bears their name preferred to be environed by Algonquins than to stay in the dangerous vicinity of their own kindred."

One of the earliest mentions that is found of this tribe, in the diplomatic history of o our country, is in the reports given of a council held in July, 1815, at "Portage des Sioux," in Missouri, after the treaty of Ghent. To this council the Winnebago refused to send delegates; and their refusal was evidently considered a matter of some moment. The commissioners "appointed to treat with the North-western Indians" at this time reported that they found "the Indians much divided among themselves in regard to peace with the United States." Some of them "spoke without disguise of their opposition to military establishments on the Mississippi," and many of them, "among whom were the Winnebago, utterly refused to send deputies to the council." This disaffection was thought by the commissioners to be largely due to the influence of British traders, who plied the Indians with gifts, and assured them that war would soon break out again between the United States and Great Britain. It is probable, however, that the Winnebago held themselves aloof from these negotiations more from a general distrust of white men than from any partisan or selfish leaning to the side of Great Britain; for when Dr. Jedediah Morse visited them, only seven years later, he wrote : " There is no other tribe which seems to possess so much jealousy of the whites, and such reluctance to have intercourse with them, as this."

Spite of this reluctance they made, in 1816, a treaty " of peace and friendship with the United States," agreeing "to remain distinct and separate from the rest of their nation or tribe, giving them no assistance whatever until peace shall be concluded between the United States and their tribe or nation." They agreed also to confirm and observe all the lines of British, French, or Spanish cessions of land to the United States.

In 1825 the United States Government, unable to endure the spectacle of Indians warring among themselves, and massacring each other, appears in the Northwestern country as an unselfish pacificator, and compels the Sacs, Foxes, Chippewa, and Sioux, including the Winnebago, to make a treaty of peace and friendship with each other and with the United States. The negotiations for this treaty occupied one month; which does not seem a long time when one considers that the boundaries of all the lands to be occupied by these respective tribes were to be defined, and that in those days and regions definitions of distance were stated in such phrases as "a half day's march," "a long day's march," " about a day's paddle in a canoe," "to a point where the woods come out into the meadows," "to a point on Buffalo River, half way between its source and its mouth." These were surely precarious terms for peace to rest upon, especially as it was understood by all parties that " no tribe shall hunt within the actual limits of any other without their consent."

At the close of this treaty there occurred a curious incident, which Schoolcraft calls "an experiment on the moral sense of the Indians with regard to intoxicating liquors." "It had been said by the tribes that the true reason for the Commissioners of the United States speaking against the use of ardent spirits by the Indians, and refusing to give it to them, was the fear of expense, and not a sense of its had effects. To show them that the Government was above such a petty motive, the commissioners had a long row of tin camp-kettles, holding several gallons each, placed on the grass; and then, after some suitable remarks, each kettle was spilled out in their presence. The thing was ill-relished by the Indians, who loved the whiskey better than the joke."

At this time the lands of the Winnebago lay between the Rock and the Wisconsin rivers, along the shore of Winnebago Lake, and the Indians claimed that the whole lake belonged to them. It was here that President Morse had found them living in 1822. He gives the following graphic picture of their pleasant home: " They have five villages on the Lake, and fourteen on Rock River. The country has abundance of springs, small lakes, ponds, and rivers; a rich soil, producing corn and all sorts of grain. The lakes abound with fine-flavored, firm fish." Of the Indians themselves, he says: " They are industrious, frugal, and temperate. They cultivate corn, potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, and beans, and are remarkably provident. They numbered five hundred and eighty souls."

In 1827 a third treaty was signed by the Winnebago, Chippewa, and Menomonee with the United States and with each other. This treaty completed the system of boundaries of their lands, which had been only partially defined by the two previous treaties. Of these three treaties Schoolcraft says: " These three conferences embody a new course and policy for keeping the tribes in peace, and are founded on the most enlarged consideration of the aboriginal right of fee-simple to the soil. They have been held exclusively at the charge and expense of the United States, and contain no cession of territory."

They were the last treaties of their kind. In 1828 the people of Northern Illinois were beginning to covet and trespass on some of the Indian lands, and commissioners were sent to treat with the Indians for the surrender of such lands. The Indians demurred, and the treaty was deferred ; the United States in the mean time agreeing to pay to the four tribes $20,000, " in full compensation for all the injuries and damages sustained by them in consequence of the occupation of any part of the mining country."

In 1829 a benevolent scheme for the rescue of these hard-pressed tribes of the Northwestern territory was proposed by Mr. J. D. Stevens, a missionary at Mackinaw. He suggested the formation of a colony of them in the Lake Superior region. He says-and his words are as true to-day, in 1879, as they were fifty years ago: " The Indian is in every view entitled to sympathy. The misfortune of the race is that, seated on the skirts of the domain of a popular government, they have no vote to give. They are politically a nonentity. The whole Indian race is not worth one white man's vote. If the Indian were raised to the right of giving his suffrage, a plenty of politicians on the frontiers would enter into plans to better him; whereas now the subject drags along like an incubus in Congress."

It did, indeed. Appropriations were sadly behindhand. The promises made to the Indians could not be fulfilled, simply because there was no money to fulfill them with. In 1829 a Washington correspondent writes to Mr. Schoolcraft: " There is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere. In 1827 we were promised $48,000 for the Indian service, and got $30,000; in 1828 $40,000, and got $25,000." A little later the Secretary of War himself writes: " Our annual appropriation has not yet passed; and when it will, I am sure I cannot tell."

In 1830 the all-engrossing topic of Congress is said to be " the removal of the Indians. It occupies the public mind throughout the Union, and petitions and remonstrance are pouring in without number."

Meantime the Indians were warring among themselves, and also retaliating on the white settlers who encroached upon their lands. The inevitable conflict had begun in earnest, and in September of 1832 the Winnebago were compelled to make their first great cession of territory to the United States. In exchange for it they accepted a tract west of the Mississippi, and before the 1st of June 1833, most of those who were living on the ceded lands had crossed the river to their new homes. Their title to this new country was not so good as they probably supposed, for the treaty expressly stated that it was granted to them " to be held as other Indian lands are held."

Article three of this treaty said, "As the country hereby ceded by the Winnebago is inure extensive and valuable than that given by the United States in exchange," the United States would pay to the Winnebago $10,000 annually in specie for twenty-seven years. The Government also promised to put up buildings for them, send teachers, make various allowances fin stock, implements, tobacco, etc., and to furnish them with a doctor.

The Winnebago agreed to deliver up some of their number who had murdered white settlers. Lands were granted by patent to four Winnebago by name-two men and two women ; for what reason, does not appear in the treaty.

Five years later the Winnebago ceded to the United States all their lands east of the Mississippi, and also relinquished the right to occupy, "except for hunting," a portion of that which they owned on the west side. For this cession and relinquishment they were to receive $200,000; part of this sum to be expended in paying their debts, the expense of their removal and establishment in their new homes, and the rest to be invested by the United States Government for their benefit.

In 1846 the Winnebago were forced to make another treaty, by which they finally ceded and sold to the United States " all right, title, interest, claim, and privilege to all lands heretofore occupied by them; " and accepted as their home, " to be held as other Indian lands are held," a tract of 800,000 acres north of St. Peter's, and west of the Mississippi. For this third removal they were to be paid $190,000-$150,000 for the lands they gave up, and $40,000 for relinquishing the hunting privilege on lands adjacent to their own. Part of this was to be expended in removing them, and the balance was to be " left in trust" with the Government at five per cent interest.

This reservation proved unsuited to them. The tribe were restless and discontented; large numbers of them were continually roaming back to their old homes in Iowa and Wisconsin, and in 1855 they gladly made another treaty with the Government, by which they ceded back to the United States all the land which the treaty of 1846 had given them, and took in exchange for it a tract eighteen miles square on the Blue Earth River. The improved lands on which they had been living, their mills and other buildings, were to be appraised and sold to the highest bidder, and the amount expended in removing them, subsisting them, and making them comfortable in their new home. This reservation, the treaty said, should be their "permanent home;" and as this phrase had never before been used in any of their treaties, it is to be presumed that the Winnebago took heart at hearing it. They are said to have " settled down quietly and contentedly," and have gone to work immediately, " ploughing, planting, and building."

The citizens of Minnesota did not take kindly to their new neighbors. " An indignation meeting was held; a petition to the President signed; and movements made, the object of all which was to oust these Indians from their dearly-purchased homes," says the Report of the Indian Commissioner for 1855.

Such movements, and such a public sentiment on the part of the population surrounding them, certainly did not tend to encourage the Winnebago to industry, or to give them any very sanguine hopes of being long permitted to remain in their "permanent home."

Nevertheless they worked on, doing better and better every year, keeping good faith with the whites and with the Government, and trusting in the Government's purpose and power to keep faith with them. The only serious faults with which they could be charged were drunkenness and gambling, and both of these they had learned of the white settlers. In the latter they had proved to be apt scholars, often beating professional gamblers at their own game.

They showed the bad effects of their repeated removals, also, in being disposed to wander back to their old homes. Sometimes several hundred of them would be roaming about in Wisconsin. But the tribes, as a whole, were industrious, quiet, always peaceable and loyal, and steadily improving. They took hold in earnest of the hard work of farming; some of them who could not get either horses or ploughs actually breaking up new land with hoes, and getting fair crops out of it. Very soon they began to entreat to have their farms settled on them individually, and guaranteed to them for their own ; and the Government, taking advantage of this desire on their part, made a treaty with them in 1859, by which part of their lands were to be "allotted" to individuals in "severalty," as they had requested, and the rest were to be sold, the proceeds to be partly expended in improvements on their farms, and partly to be "left in trust" with the Government. This measure threw open hundreds of thousands of acres of land to white settlers, and drew the belt of greedy civilization much tighter around the Indians. Similar treaties to this had been already made with some of the Sioux tribes and with others. It was evident that " the surplus land occupied by the Indians was required for the use of the increasing white population," and that it was "necessary to reduce the reservations."

There is in this treaty of 1859 one extraordinary provision: "In order to render unnecessary any further treaty engagements or arrangements with the United States, it is hereby agreed and stipulated that the President, with the assent of Congress, shall have full power to modify or change any of the provisions of former treaties with the Winnebago, in such manner and to whatever extent he may judge to be necessary and expedient for their welfare and best interest."

It is impossible to avoid having a doubt whether the chiefs and headmen of the Winnebago tribe who signed this treaty ever heard that proviso. It is incredible that they could have been so simple and trustful as to have assented to it.

Prospects now brightened for the Winnebago. With their farms given to them for their own, and a sufficient sum of money realized by the sale of surplus lands to enable them to thoroughly improve the remainder, their way seemed open to prosperity and comfort. They "entered upon farming with a zeal and energy which gave promise of a prosperous and creditable future."

"Every family in the tribe has more or less ground under cultivation," says their agent. He reports, also, the minutes of a council held by the chiefs, which tell their own story:

"When we were at Washington last winter, we asked our Great Father to take $300,000 out of the $1,100,000, so that we could commence our next spring's work. We do not want all of the $1,100,000, only sufficient to carry on our improvements. This money we ask for we request only as a loan; and when our treaty is ratified, we want it replaced. We want to buy cattle, horses, ploughs, and wagons; and this money can be replaced when our lands are sold. We hope you will get this money: we want good farms and good houses. Many have already put on white man's clothes, and more of us will when our treaty is ratified.

"Father, we do not want to make you tired of talk, but hope you will make a strong paper, and urgent request of our Great Father in respect to our wishes."

In 1860 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs writes: "The Winnebago continue steadily on the march of improvement. The progress of the Winnebago in agricultural growths is particularly marked with success. There have been raised by individuals as high as sixty acres of wheat on a single farm. The agent's efforts have been directed to giving to each Indian his own allotment of land. Wigwams are becoming as scarce as houses were two years ago. All Indians who had horses ploughed and farmed their own lands.

The Indians were promised that new and comfortable houses should be built for them. The treaty not yet being ratified, I have no funds in my hands that could be made applicable to this purpose. The greater part of the Indians have entreated me to carry out the meaning of the commissioner on his visit here, and the reasons for my not doing so do not seem comprehensible to them. The school is in a flourishing condition."

In 1861 the commissioner writes that the allotment of lands in severalty to the Winnebago has been "substantially accomplished;" but that the sales of the remaining lands have not yet been made, owing to the unsettled condition of the country, and therefore the funds on which the Indians were depending for the improvements of their farms have not been paid to them. They complain bitterly that the provisions of the treaty of 1859 have not been fulfilled. "It has been two years and a half since this treaty was concluded," says- the agent, "and the Indians have been told from one season to another that something would be done under it for their benefit, and' as often disappointed, till the best of them begin to doubt whether anything will be done. The Indians who have had their allotments made are clamoring for their certificates.'"

Drunkenness is becoming one of the serious vices of the tribe. They are surrounded on all sides by white men who traffic in whiskey, and who are, moreover, anxious to reduce the Indians to as degraded a state as possible. " There are some circumstances connected with the location of this tribe which make it more difficult to protect them from the ravages of liquor-selling than any other tribe. They are closely surrounded by a numerous white population, and these people feel very indignant because the Indians are settled in their midst, and are disposed to make it as uncomfortable for them to remain here as they can, hoping at some future time they may be able to cause their removal."

The time was not far distant. In 1862 we find the Winnebago in trouble indeed. A ferocious massacre of white settlers by the Sioux bad so exasperated the citizens of Minnesota, that they demanded the removal of all Indians from the State. The people were so excited that not an Indian could step outside the limits of the reservation without the risk of being shot at sight. The Winnebago had utterly refused to join the Sioux in their attack on the whites, and had been threatened by them with extermination in consequence of this loyalty. Thus they were equally in danger from both whites and Indians: their position was truly pitiable.

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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