The Ho-Chunk: A History of Removal and Endurance
Like most groups of Native American peoples, the Ho-Chunk, commonly called the Winnebago, have a long, unfavorable history of forced removal and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the U.S. government. Originally residing on what is now Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, the Ho-Chunk were given the name Ouinepegi by the French, a term heard as Winnebago by U.S. officials. It translates roughly to “People of the Stinky Waters” and is thought to have been given to them because of their location near scented marsh lands. Correctly termed Hochungra, or “The People with the Big Voice”, the Ho-Chunk officially took back their name in 1993.
While adapting to the fur-trade with the French and British throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Ho-Chunk expanded south and west to the regions surrounding Lake Winnebago and along the Fox, Wisconsin, and Rock River systems toward the Mississippi. Eventually abandoning the Bay area they laid claim to a large portion of land in what is today southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois.
It was shortly after the War of 1812 that the U.S. government gained an interest in the region inhabited by the Ho-Chunk. The first treaty between the U.S. and Ho-Chunk was signed in 1816 to end hostilities heightened by the War of 1812. Then, in 1825, the U.S. and an assortment of Native groups, including the Ho-Chunk, negotiated the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, an agreement that established firm boundaries among those Native groups. Even though the Ho-Chunk had not ceded any territory, miners pursuing rich lead deposits quickly began moving into the region. This led to a violent incident in 1827 that became known as the Winnebago War. Following the incident, new treaty negotiations were held in 1829 in which the Ho-Chunk reluctantly agreed to sell a portion of their land.
A few years later the Ho-Chunk became embroiled in the Black Hawk War of 1832 with divided loyalties among them. With the loss of the war, the Ho-Chunk were compelled to sign a new treaty. In this treaty, the Ho-Chunk agreed to sell their land in southeastern Wisconsin in exchange for land in eastern Iowa along with annual cash payments and other provisions. Known as the Neutral Ground, the Ho-Chunk’s new territory was selected by the U.S. government as a buffer zone between the warring Dakota tribes to the north and Sauk and Meskwaki to south. Five years later, the same year the Ojibwe and Dakota signed a major land cession treaty, the Ho-Chunk ceded their remaining Wisconsin lands and those Ho-Chunk that did not agree to the 1832 treaty were removed to the Iowa Neutral Ground reservation.
The so-called Neutral Ground proved unlivable for the Ho-Chunk and by 1848 they were removed again. This time, the Ho-Chunk were sent north to Minnesota Territory where they were resettled at the Long Prairie Reservation. Many of the Ho-Chunk, missing their homelands, did not make the long trek north and attempted to resettle in Wisconsin. Those that made it to Long Prairie found that the reservation was densely forested and not well-suited for agriculture despite the fact that U.S. officials had been promoting farming among the tribe for years. Also, like their previous reservation, their new lands served as a buffer zone—this time between the Ojibwe to the north and Dakota to the south.
In 1853, the Ho-Chunk negotiated the Watab Treaty which was to give them five hundred thousand acres of land further south on the Crow River, near the Mississippi. However, settler-colonialists of the burgeoning settlement of Saint Anthony feared the Ho-Chunk’s new land would impede on future expansion of the white settlements. Therefore, the Watab Treaty was never ratified. Instead, in 1855, the Ho-Chunk ceded 897,900 acres of their land near Long Prairie in exchange for two hundred thousand acres along the Blue Earth River, just south of Mankato.
The Ho-Chunk remained on their Blue Earth reservation for several years, making improvements on the land and living peaceably with their neighboring white settlers. In 1859, seeking funds to pay off debts and buy farming equipment, the Ho-Chunk signed a treaty ceding the western half of their Blue Earth reservation. Then, in 1862, a contingent of Dakota living just west of the Ho-Chunk, launched an attack on the government agencies and white settlements of south and southwestern Minnesota. Known as the U.S. – Dakota War, the Dakota were defeated and thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota in December of 1862. In the spring of the following year, all Dakota people were exiled from the state of Minnesota and resettled at Crow Creek Reservation in present day South Dakota. The Ho-Chunk, despite the fact that they lived peaceably and did not participate in the war, were also removed from the state of Minnesota by an act of Congress passed on February 21, 1863. In May of that year 1,945 Ho-Chunk boarded steamships and were sent south and west to Crow Creek. It’s been reported that “more than 550 Ho-Chunk died during their removal to South Dakota.”
Crow Creek was a barren, inhospitable land and within a few years of being removed there hundreds of Dakota and Ho-Chunk died of starvation and disease. After petitioning the U.S. government, in 1866 the Ho-Chunk were allowed to resettle in Nebraska where the Omahas willingly gave up a portion of their reservation. At the same time, many of the Ho-Chunk returned to their lands in Wisconsin. However, Wisconsin Ho-Chunk were considered “dissidents” by the U.S. government and were often rounded up and sent back to Nebraska. After seeing that the Ho-Chunk were determined to live upon their ancestral homelands, in 1874 the U.S. government extended the 1862 Homestead Act to Ho-Chunk peoples allowing individuals and families to claim up to 80 acres in their homeland.
The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk gained federal recognition in 1963 and today, according to Wisconsin First Nations, “the Ho-Chunk Nation is not located on a reservation or a single continuous land base in Wisconsin, but rather, the Ho-Chunk Nation owns land in fourteen counties in Wisconsin, including Adams, Clark, Crawford, Dane, Eau Claire, Jackson, Juneau, La Crosse, Marathon, Monroe, Sauk, Shawano, Vernon and Wood Counties and also land in the State of Illinois.” Those that stayed in Nebraska are still there today and are called the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. It’s clear now that from 1816 to 1874, the U.S. government perpetrated a continuous effort to remove and ethnically cleanse the Ho-Chunk people. But the Ho-Chunk endured each effort, recovered some of their homelands, and today is one of Wisconsin’s leading employers.
Matt Reicher, “Ho-Chunk and Blue Earth, 1855–1863,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/ho-chunk-and-blue-earth-1855-1863 (accessed May 1, 2022).
Reicher, Matt. “Ho-Chunk and Long Prairie, 1846–1855.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/ho-chunk-and-long-prairie-1846-1855 (accessed May 1, 2022).
Will and John Gorenfield, “The Ho-Chunks Were Forced West, and Misery and Violence Followed,” Historynet, Published February 28, 2017, Accessed May 1, 2022, https://www.historynet.com/ho-chunks-forced-west-misery-violence-followed/
“Ho-Chunk and Winnebago Explained,” Wisconsin Historical Collections, Volumes III, IV, X, XIII, and XIV, https://www.csmpl.org/files/local/wardvol1/05%20Ho-Chunk%20and%20Winnebgo%20Explained%20-%20About%20Section%20AA.pdf
“Ho-Chunk Treaties and Treaty Rights,” Milwaukee Public Museum, Accessed May 1, 2022, https://www.mpm.edu/content/wirp/ICW-105
“Ho-Chunk Nation: Hochungra – The People With The Big Voice,” Wisconsin First Nations: American Indian Studies in Wisconsin, Accessed May 1, 2022, https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/
About the Author
Colin Mustful is an independent author, historian, and publisher. His work helps readers learn and understand the complicated and tragic history of settler-colonialism and Native displacement in the Upper Midwest. He has a Master or Arts degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He is also the founder of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes high-quality fiction that is rooted in historical research. Mustful is an avid runner and soccer player who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.