[Note: This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles ( Huron, Assiniboine, etc.).
This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism. At the end of this History you will find links to those Nations referred to in the History of the Winnebago.
Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments... Lee Sultzman.
The Winnebago do not remember a time when they did not live at Red Banks on the south shore of Green Bay. Their occupation of Wisconsin is very ancient, perhaps thousands of years. Although they have no memories of mound-building, they may well be descendents of the earlier Mississippian, Hopewell, and Adena cultures. Their homeland lay between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago in northeast Wisconsin but they dominated the area from Upper Michigan south to present-day Milwaukee extending west to the Mississippi. Beginning in the 1640s, thousands of Algonquin refugees from the Beaver Wars (1630-1701) invaded Wisconsin from the east, and the resulting wars and epidemics brought the resident tribes, Winnebago and Menominee, to the point of near extinction. The Winnebago who survived remained near Green Bay but were forced to share their homeland with other tribes.
After the French and Great Lakes Algonquin victory over the Iroquois in 1701, many of the refugee tribes left Wisconsin allowing the Winnebago to reclaim some of their homeland - especially after the near-annihilation of the Fox during the Fox Wars (1712-16 and 1728-37).
The Winnebago spread south afterwards along the Wisconsin and Rock Rivers into southern Wisconsin eventually claiming a portion of northwestern Illinois. American settlement of Wisconsin began after 1825, and the Winnebago rapidly lost territory. By 1840 the Winnebago had ceded their Wisconsin land and agreed to move to northeast Iowa. Despite this many Winnebago remained in Wisconsin defying efforts to remove them. During the next 50 years, the the Winnebago were shifted around like a piece of unwanted baggage. In 1848 the Winnebago were sent north to the Crow Wing River in Minnesota. Eight years later, they were moved south to Blue Earth county, Minnesota where they remained until after the Sioux uprising in 1862. Although the Winnebago had no part in this, the government deported them to South Dakota and placed with the Nakota (Yankton Sioux).
At this point, the Winnebago began to rebel. Many left the reservation and returned to Iowa, Minnesota or Wisconsin. The others fled down the Missouri to the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. In 1865 the government accepted this and created a separate Winnebago Reservation (40,000 acres) in northeast Nebraska. During their many moves, many Winnebago never left Wisconsin. In addition, some had managed to stay in northeast Iowa and southern Minnesota when the main group was moved. Raided by the Lakota and pressured to allot their reservation, many Winnebago left Nebraska during the 1870s and 80s and went home to Wisconsin. The government would send them back, but the Winnebago just kept going, and the government finally gave up and purchased land in Wisconsin for the Winnebago. As a result, there are two separate Winnebago tribes today: the Wisconsin Winnebago with 4,400 acres (333 acres tribally owned) scattered in small holdings across ten counties; and the Nebraska Winnebago who still have 27,500 acres from their 1865 reservation, 3,100 belongs to the tribe.
Estimates of the Winnebago's pre-contact population are usually about 8,000, but it probably was much higher. On Nicollet's second visit to the Winnebago in 1639, he estimated they had 5,000 warriors suggesting a population of 20,000. This higher figure would explain the pre-contact dominance of the region by the Winnebago. It is also more in line with Winnebago's own tradition which says that, due to over-population, several large groups of their people (Otoe, Missouri, and Iowa) left shortly before Nicollet's visit. Whatever their original number, the sudden drop in their population during the next 30 years was one of the most worst experienced by any tribe. When the French returned to Wisconsin in 1665, wars and epidemic had reduced the Winnebago to fewer than 500.
From the point of near-extinction, the Winnebago began a slow recovery. In 1736 the French said there were about 700, but afterwards they grew rapidly through intermarriage with neighboring Algonquin. While other native populations declined, the Winnebago actually increased. Zebulon Pike made the first American estimate in 1806 - about 2,000, but he probably was too low. In 1825 American Indian agents in Wisconsin gave 5,800, and even after a smallpox epidemic in 1835 killed 25%, this only dropped to 4,500. The first accurate count in 1842 was 2,200 Winnebago living in Iowa near Fort Atkinson. The trouble was no one knew how many Winnebago were still in Wisconsin. Four years later, the government said there were 22 Winnebago bands totaling 4,400 people. By 1848 the figure was back to 2,500. There were 1,756 "official" Winnebago in Minnesota in 1856 - 1,200 of whom were finally settled in Nebraska in 1865.
The Wisconsin Winnebago (Ho-Chunk Nation) at first actually avoided seeking federal recognition and delayed this until 1963. Tribal headquarters are at Black River Falls with an enrollment close to 5,000. Taken together, there are currently more than 12,000 Winnebago which makes them one of the larger tribes in the United States.
Like many other tribes, the Winnebago's name is not what they called themselves. It comes from a Fox word "Ouinipegouek" meaning "people of the stinking water." No insult was intended. Instead, the name referred to algae-rich waters of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago where the Winnebago originally lived. The French translated this as "stinking people" and shortened it to Puan. In its English form, it became Stinkard. For obvious reasons, the Winnebago have never been overly fond of this name. They call themselves Hochungra (Hochungara, Hotcangara, Ochangra) "people of the big speech" - perhaps better rendered as "people of the parent speech" referring to their role as "grandfathers," the original people from which other Siouan-speaking tribes sprang. Dissatisfied with their Algonquin name, the Wisconsin Winnebago recently changed their official name to Hocak Nation (pronounced Hochunk). Other names include: Aweatsiwaenhronon (Huron), Banabeouik, Bay Indians, Hatihshirunu (Huron), Hotanka (Dakota), Mipegoe, Nipegon, Ochungaraw (Otoe, Iowa, Omaha, and Missouri), and Otonkah (Dakota).
Siouan - Chiwere. Besides the Dakota (Sioux) at the west end of Lake Superior, the Winnebago were the only Siouan-speaking people of the Great Lakes. Their language is identical to that of the Iowa, Otoe, and Missouri who acknowledge that they separated from the Winnebago shortly before contact. Although the Sioux (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota) have provided the name for the Siouan language group, it appears likely that Winnebago may have been the more important branch. It is closer to the Dhegiha dialect of the Osage, Quapaw, Omaha, Kansa, and Ponca (who call the Winnebago grandfathers or elder brothers). There also appears to be a closer relationship of Winnebago to the Mandan from North Dakota and the Siouan speaking tribes in the southeast United States. Siouan-speakers in North America originally were located along a diagonal line extending roughly from North Dakota to South Carolina. The Winnebago position in Wisconsin was near the midpoint which lends weight to their claim as the "grandfather tribe."
Only a few names have survived, all of which were in Wisconsin except as noted:
Butte des Mortes, Prairie la Crose, Red Banks, Sarrochau, Spotted Arm's Village, Tokaunee, Village du Puant (IN), Wuckan, and Yellow Thunder.
Mention Sioux, and visions of war bonnets, horses, buffalo, and tepees flood the mind. However, this would be a poor description of the Winnebago. Although the Winnebago spoke a Siouan language, they were very much a woodland tribe whose lifestyle and dress closely resembled their Algonquin neighbors in the upper Great Lakes. Like other Siouan-speaking peoples, the Winnebago were taller than other natives (for that matter, taller than most Europeans). Nicollet in 1634 described them as brave but lacking in humility ...almost to the point of arrogance. Their clothing was fringed buckskin, which the Winnebago frequently decorated with beautiful designs created from porcupine quills, feathers and beads - a skill for which they are still renown. Men originally wore their hair in two long braids, but in time this changed to the scalplock and roach headdress favored by the Algonquin. Body tattooing was common to both sexes.
In the process of rebuilding their population after 1670, the Winnebago frequently intermarried with Algonquin. So much so, it has been suggested they lost their original traditions and replaced them with Algonquin. Intermarriage certainly happened, and as a result, the purest Winnebago bloodline may actually be the Iowa and Otoe-Missouri. However, prior to contact the Winnebago resembled the Algonquin in so many ways, there was not that much to change. The Winnebago were one of the northernmost agricultural tribes. In spite of a limited growing season, the Winnebago successfully grew three types of corn together with beans, squash, and tobacco. They supplemented this with fishing and hunting, including buffalo from the prairies of southern Wisconsin. Using dugout canoes (rather than the lighter birchbark variety used by the Ojibwe and Ottawa), they also gathered wild rice from the nearby lakes during the fall. The Winnebago used pottery for cooking and food storage, and copper implements were fairly common since it was easily available from the south shore of Lake Superior.
The Winnebago also resembled the Algonquin in that they were patrilineal with descent and clan membership determined by the father. Winnebago clans served both ceremonial and social functions, but in distinctive Siouan characteristic, were grouped into two major divisions, or moieties: an Upper (Sky) with four clans; and a Lower (Earth) having eight. Of these, the Thunderbird and Bear clans were the most important with the hereditary head chief of the Winnebago almost always chosen from the Thunderbird clan. Clan membership was more important among the Winnebago than band affiliation, and a Winnebago chief governed with the help of a council composed of the principal members of each clan. Despite intermarriage with Algonquin, it would appear the Winnebago made few changes to their traditional social or political structures.
Of course, they never surrendered their distinctive Siouan language, but it was not uncommon for a Winnebago to speak several languages besides his own (Algonquin, French, and English). Originally a farming people, the Winnebago lived in large semi-permanent villages. Unlike the Algonquin, they followed the Siouan pattern and did not usually separate to small, scattered hunting camps during winter - a possible link to the earlier Mississippian Culture. The Algonquin influence, however, revealed itself in the eight types of lodge (round or oval) the Winnebago are known to have used during the historic period. This included the tepee for temporary shelter on buffalo hunts. Burials varied according to clan with the dead either buried or placed on a platform. Some things, however, never changed. They were always allies of the Menominee, but throughout their long history, the Winnebago remained enemies of the Illinois.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Winnebago lived in the vicinity of Green Bay in northeastern Wisconsin. The most powerful tribe in the region, they dominated the western shore of Lake Michigan from Upper Michigan to southern Wisconsin. As part of major climatic change in North America sometime around 1400, three closely related tribes - Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa - began moving west along the shore of Lake Huron towards the point where Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan meet. The Ottawa stopped at Manitoulin Island, but the Ojibwe occupied the north shore of Lake Huron including Upper Michigan near Sault Ste. Marie. About 1500 the Potawatomi crossed over the Strait at Mackinac into northern part of the Lower Michigan peninsula. The invasion drove the original tribes of the region south and west. Among the victims were the Menominee and possibly the Cheyenne, Sutai, and Arapaho. The Menominee were forced south where they became tributary and allies of the Winnebago. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, however, were set adrift to the west until they reached the Great Plains.
The Winnebago were obviously powerful enough for the moment to prevent the Ojibwe from moving further south, but the loss of territory and and a growing population must have stressed the resources available to them. From subsequent events, it appears that the Winnebago tried to solve this by moving into southern Wisconsin creating confrontations with the tribes of the Illinois Confederation. With no place to expand, the Winnebago began to separate. Sometime around 1570, the Iowa, Missouri, and Otoe left the Winnebago near Green Bay and moved west. Passing down the Wisconsin River, they crossed the Mississippi and settled in Iowa before separating into individual tribes. Weakened by this defection, the remaining Winnebago concentrated into large villages near Green Bay to defend their homeland against the Ojibwe from the north or Illinois in the south.
It was in this state of siege that the Winnebago felt the first effects of Europeans in North America. The French had begun their fur trade along the St. Lawrence River in 1603 and, during 1609, had helped the Algonkin, Huron and Montagnais defeat the Iroquois and drive them south. Following the Ottawa River west, Étienne Brulé reached the Huron villages in 1611 and Sault Ste. Marie in 1623. But for the most part, the French stopped at the Huron villages on the south end of Lake Huron and allowed native traders to conduct the fur trade beyond that point. The Ottawa and Huron soon linked with the Ojibwe in upper Michigan and then made attempts to open trade with the Winnebago to south. The French first learned about the Winnebago from the Ottawa in 1620, and what they heard was not especially good. Knowing that the Ottawa were closely related to and trading with their Ojibwe enemies, the Winnebago were suspicious and refused to allow Ottawa and Huron traders to proceed further west.
The matter smoldered for several years, while the Winnebago felt their first taste of the steel weapons the Ojibwe were receiving from the French in exchange for their furs. Trying to break the impasse, the Ottawa finally sent envoys to the Winnebago to arrange trade. Revealing a talent for treachery, the Winnebago killed and ate the Ottawa representatives. While the Ottawa and Huron prepared for war, the French in 1634 sent Jean Nicolet west to the Winnebago on what appeared to be a suicide mission. When Nicollet landed at Red Banks on the south shore of Green Bay, he was the first European the Winnebago had ever seen which probably saved his life. Nicollet ultimately succeeded in arranging a truce between the Winnebago, Huron, and Ottawa which allowed trade. The fragile arrangement lasted for some time afterwards allowing Nicollet to make a second visit to the Winnebago villages at La Baye (Green Bay) in 1639. Twenty-six years would pass before another Frenchman would visit Green Bay.
The Winnebago were almost destroyed in the meantime. The Beaver Wars started in 1628 when the Iroquois, having defeated the Mahican for control of the Dutch fur trade, began a war to reclaim their territory on the upper St. Lawrence River from the Algonkin. Montagnais, and Huron. The fighting quickly spread west to other tribes. Having exhausted the beaver in their homelands, Ottawa, Neutral, and Tionontati warriors equipped with firearms and steel weapons invaded lower Michigan to seize hunting territory from the Algonquin living there. The first refugees from these wars to arrive in Wisconsin were a group of Potawatomi who attempted to settle near Green Bay in 1641. Showing no mercy, the Winnebago immediately attacked and by 1642 had driven them north into upper Michigan.
Unfortunately, this was only the beginning. The remaining Potawatomi soon joined the early arrivals followed by other tribes from lower Michigan. As all of these refugee tribes united against them, disagreements arose among the Winnebago over how to deal with the situation resulting in fighting among themselves. In the end most Winnebago decided on war and to concentrate on the Fox. Disaster was immediate. Crossing Lake Winnebago in canoes to attack the Fox, the Winnebago were caught in a storm and 500 warriors were drowned. The three largest Winnebago bands then drew together into a single village - a traditional defensive measure in times of war, but it proved to be a death trap. 12,000 people in a confined space was the perfect conditions for the epidemics which accompanied the refugees to Wisconsin, and they struck the Winnebago with devastating effect. Smallpox has been blamed, but the Winnebago say the disease turned their people yellow suggesting it was something else.
The Winnebago emerged from this with less than 1,500 warriors and 4,500 people. They were also starving since war and epidemic had made it impossible to harvest their crops. As mentioned, the hostility between the Illinois and Winnebago must have existed for many years before the refugees began to arrive. Perhaps motivated by a need to form an alliance against the newcomers who were also overrunning their territory, or even pity for an old enemy fallen on hard times, the Illinois sent 500 warriors and food to help the Winnebago. This proved a serious mistake. The Winnebago welcomed and held a feast for them, but in the midst of the dancing and celebration, they secretly cut the Illinois' bowstrings. Then they fell upon their benefactors and killed all of them to appease the spirits of Winnebago warriors killed earlier by the Illinois.
It took the Illinois some time to learn what had happened. In the meantime, the Winnebago had anticipated retaliation and retreated to an island in the middle of a lake where they built a fort. A sensible precaution, since it was impossible for the Illinois to bring their heavy dugout canoes overland with them to attack the Winnebago. The Illinois proved patient and waited a year to take revenge. When the lake froze that winter, a large Illinois war party crossed over the ice to attack the village only to find the Winnebago were absent on their winter hunt. After a six-day pursuit, they caught up with the Winnebago and, during the slaughter which followed, almost annihilated them. Few Winnebago escaped to find refuge with the Menominee. About 150 Winnebago prisoners were taken back as slaves to the Illinois villages and, after several years of hard usage, released to return to Wisconsin. Less than 500 Winnebago survived to provide a future for their people, but their near-extermination was the second serious mistake made by the Illinois. Despite the circumstances which had caused it, the Winnebago never forgave or forgot what had happened.
In the east the Beaver Wars had grown in intensity and threatened the French fur trade. The climax came in the early spring of 1649 when the Iroquois overran and destroyed the Huron. Other French allies fell victim during the next few years while the Iroquois moved into the Ottawa Valley cutting French access to the western Great Lakes. The Iroquois then invaded lower Michigan during the 1650s expelling the remaining Algonquin. 20,000 refugees fled west to Wisconsin producing a tide which the decimated Menominee and Winnebago could not resist. Even the Illinois were forced to surrender territory in southern Wisconsin. So far as is known, the Winnebago made only one attempt at resistance during this period when they managed to keep the Mascouten from locating near Green Bay in 1655. However, this success proved temporary and made the Winnebago hated by the refugees. Within three years the Mascouten had allied with the Kickapoo and Miami and settled where they pleased. Only Iroquois attacks in the area during 1660 forced them inland to a safer location at the Fox Portage.
The Iroquois victory over the Huron in 1649 had virtually destroyed the French trade, but they managed to continue on a limited basis by inviting tribes to bring their furs to Montreal. This was only possible for large, heavily-armed canoe fleets able to fight their way past the Iroquois on the Ottawa River. Having become dependent on French trade goods, only the Ottawa and Huron were willing to try, and supported by Ojibwe warriors, they fought their way to and from Montreal. In this manner, French trade goods continued to reach the western Great Lakes in limited amounts, but it also brought Iroquois war parties west to Wisconsin to stop the trade at its source. The French had made a separate peace with the Iroquois in 1645, but this collapsed in 1658. Six years of raids and harassment followed before the French got serious and sent a regiment of soldiers to Quebec to deal with the Iroquois. Their attacks on Iroquois homeland produced an alliance between the British and Iroquois and marked the beginning of the British-French struggle for control of North America.
Meanwhile, the French resumed travel to the western Great Lakes. In 1665 fur trader Nicholas Perrot, Jesuit Claude-Jean Allouez, and four other Frenchmen accompanied a large Huron-Ottawa trading party (400 warriors) on its return journey. After fighting their way past the Iroquois along the Ottawa River, they reached Green Bay. What they found was a disaster: war, disease, and starvation. Allouez mentioned sadly that only 500 remained of once-numerous Winnebago described by Nicollet. French attacks on the Iroquois homeland produced a lasting peace in 1667. For the first time, it also extended to French allies and trading partners, including those in the western Great Lakes. This allowed the French to resume their fur trade, but they first needed to bring some order to the area and end the warfare. Using the threat of withholding trade, they began mediating intertribal disputes, a role which eventually evolved into the relationship of Onontio (the French governor of Canada) and his "Indian children."
Although the French fur trade had been at the root of the Beaver Wars which almost destroyed the Winnebago, it also saved them from extinction. As peace was restored, the Winnebago accepted the Algonquin refugees in Wisconsin and began to intermarry with them adapting parts of their culture in the process. The exception, of course, being that there was nothing the French could do to end the Winnebago's hatred of the Illinois. The peace lasted thirteen years, until the Beaver Wars renewed to the south in 1680 between the Iroquois and Illinois. The Winnebago must have taken a certain pleasure during the next two years while Seneca war parties struck the Illinois with genocidal effect. During 1684, however, the Iroquois failed to take Fort St. Louis on the upper Illinois River after which the tide turned. The French strengthened their forts, provided firearms to their allies, and organized an alliance to fight the Iroquois.
The alliance took the offensive in 1687, and by 1690 the Iroquois were on the defensive and retreating towards their New York homeland. The warfare (coinciding with the King William's War (1688-97) between Britain and France) continued until a peace was signed in 1701 which left the French and their allies in control of the Great Lakes. Still recovering their population, Winnebago participation in this victory was minimal but the benefits enormous. With the Iroquois defeated, refugees began leaving Wisconsin for new homes to the south and east. This relieved the overcrowding and competition for resources, and after 60-years, the Winnebago regained most of their homeland. Meantime, the French fur trade had continued unrestricted and by the 1690s had produced a glut of fur on the European market. The resulting price drop motivated the French monarchy to finally listen to protests from Jesuit missionaries about the corruption the fur trade was creating among Native Americans. In 1696 licenses were revoked and trade suspended in the western Great Lakes.
Since the French alliance was based on trade, it was a terrible decision. Even while they were going down in defeat, the Iroquois sensed the French vulnerability and began to offer French allies access to British traders at Albany. Suspecting the French would make their own peace with the Iroquois, the alliance began to unravel, and the French had great difficulty getting their allies to agree to the peace signed with the Iroquois in 1701. Urgent appeals sent to Paris from Canada asking for a resumption of trade in the Great Lakes brought limited relief in 1701 when Antoine Cadillac was allowed to build Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit to trade with the Great Lakes tribes. Cadillac quickly invited just about every tribe in the region to move to Detroit, and the result was overcrowding and warfare between former allies. Rather than solving the problem, it further strained what remained of the French alliance and during 1712 erupted into the First Fox War (1712-16).
Following confrontations with neighboring tribes, the Fox, Kickapoo, and Mascouten attacked the French at Fort Pontchartrain. In midst of the siege, Ottawa, Huron, and Potawatomi warriors arrived to save the French and killed most of the Fox. The survivors retreated west to southern Wisconsin from where they continued to war on the French and their allies. Although the Winnebago had helped the Fox drive the Kaskaskia (part of the hated Illinois) from southern Wisconsin in 1700, they had never left Wisconsin. When the war between the French and Fox moved west, the Winnebago remained neutral. The French used Potawatomi allies to defeat the Kickapoo and Mascouten taking them out of the war, but an expedition against a Fox fort in southern Wisconsin ended in frustration. Afterwards, the French offered peace, and the Fox accepted. The fighting stopped, but neither side, trusted the other.
Unfortunately, it did not end the fighting between the Fox and Peoria (Illinois) after the Peoria refused to return Fox prisoners captured at Detroit in 1712. French attempts to mediate failed, and the war spread as the Mascouten and Kickapoo joined the Fox against the Peoria. By 1724 the Fox had added the Winnebago and Dakota to their side, and the French began to suspect the Fox were forming an alliance against them. With the Illinois getting the worst of it, the French decided to intervene in 1726 and sent an expedition against the Fox. Like their previous efforts to subdue a tribe they considered a troublemaker, this accomplished nothing, and the French decided to exterminate the Fox. However, they first took the precaution of isolating the Fox from their allies. The Dakota dropped out, and then the Winnebago.
With the outbreak of the Second Fox War (1728-37), the Winnebago switched to the French. During the winter of 1729, a combined Winnebago, Menominee, Ojibwe war party attacked a Fox hunting party killing at least 80 warriors and capturing some 70 women and children. The French, in the meantime, had reoccupied their old fort at La Baye to prosecute the war against the Fox. Concerned about Fox retaliation, the Winnebago moved close to Green Bay and built a fort on an island in the Fox River. The Fox found them but the fort was too strong for direct attack, so they laid siege. To appease the Fox, the Winnebago seized two Menominee who had married into their tribe and killed them. The headless bodies were thrown outside the fort with the explanation that the Winnebago had killed them because they were part of the war party which had attacked the Fox. This did not satisfy the Fox who continued the siege. The French finally arrived from Green Bay with 34 Menominee warriors to help the Winnebago, but when the Menominee learned what had happened, it was all the French could do to stop them, with Fox warriors just outside the gate, from killing every Winnebago in sight.
The Fox eventually abandoned the siege, after which the Winnebago made amends with the Menominee who had always been their allies. The war continued during which the Mascouten and Kickapoo ended their alliance with the Fox after a fatal argument over French prisoners. Without allies, the Fox decided in 1730 to leave Wisconsin and flee east to the Iroquois. Caught in the open in northern Illinois, they were almost annihilated by the French and their allies. The few remaining Fox found refuge with the Sauk living near Green Bay, but the French were determined to finish the Fox and dispatched an expedition in 1734 to demand the Sauk surrender the Fox. This was refused, and in the battle which followed, the French commander was killed. In the confusion, the Sauk and Fox escaped and fled west of the Mississippi into Iowa. Another French expedition against them failed in 1736, and at a conference held in Montreal during the spring of 1737, the Winnebago and Menominee asked the French to show mercy to the Fox while the Potawatomi and Ottawa made the same request on behalf of the Sauk.
The French reluctantly agreed and made peace. The departure of the Fox and Sauk from Wisconsin provided the Winnebago an opportunity to expand their range to the south and west. Although some Winnebago remained in the vicinity of Green Bay after 1741, most moved their villages inland. Since the animal populations near Green Bay had never recovered from the stress placed on them by the refugees during the 1600s, the Winnebago had been forced to make longer and longer trips inland to feed themselves and find the furs they needed for trade with the French. Although the Dakota and Ojibwe were at war with each other over hunting territory in western Wisconsin, neither objected to Winnebago hunters in the area. The Menominee enjoyed the same immunity, but in their case, the Fox and Sauk were a serious threat. The Winnebago were able to establish a friendly relationship with the Fox and Sauk after 1737, but the Menominee could not.
Little fighting occurred in the western Great Lakes during the King George's War (1744-48), but Winnebago warriors travelled east to Montreal with the Ottawa, Menominee, Saulteur and Mississauga Ojibwe, Illinois, Potawatomi, and Huron to defend Quebec from the British. The capture of the French fortress at Louisbourgh in 1745 allowed a British blockade of the St. Lawrence which cut the supply of French trade goods. The effect was immediate, and the French quickly lost control of their allies in the the Great Lakes. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the increasingly beleaguered Illinois. In 1746 while the Winnebago and Menominee were fighting the Missouri west of the Mississippi, the Mascouten, Potawatomi, Menominee, and Ojibwe joined to force the Peoria from their last strongholds in southern Wisconsin. Without the leverage of their trade goods, the French were powerless to protect the Illinois, and the other Algonquin continued to attack them. Between 1751 and 1754, the Mascouten, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi took more territory from the Peoria - this time in northern Illinois.
With the start of the French and Indian War (1755-63), the Winnebago once again went east to fight for the French. They helped to defeat Braddock at Fort Duquesne and also fought at Oswego and in the French campaign in northern New York in 1757. They paid a terrible price when Great Lakes warriors contracted smallpox at Fort William Henry and brought it back with them to their villages that winter. Smallpox swept through the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley taking most the western tribes out of the war. Meanwhile, a British blockade was having the same effect it had in 1746 in stopping French trade goods. Dissatisfaction resulted, and during the winter of 1758, an Menominee uprising at Green Bay killed 22 French soldiers. After the capture of Quebec by the British in September, 1759. France had lost the war in North America. Montreal surrendered the following year, and British soldiers occupied Green Bay in 1761.
The breakdown of French authority in the region had brought the Winnebago, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Winnebago at Green Bay to the verge of war with the Michilimackinac Ojibwe in 1761, but the British assumed the old French role of mediator and provider of trade goods. In preventing the outbreak of serious warfare, the British won the trust and loyalty of the Winnebago and Menominee. With the start of the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763, the Winnebago (also the Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Iowa and Arbre Croche Ottawa) sent wampum belts to the British as a token of their loyalty. Pontiac's revolt quickly collapsed, and discredited among his own people after signing a peace with the British in 1766, he abandoned his village near Detroit and moved to northern Illinois where he still had a loyal following. In 1769 he was murdered by the nephew of a Peoria chief during a visit to Cahokia (just east of St. Louis). Almost all of tribes of the old French alliance united in a war against the Illinois and almost exterminated them. The Peoria made their last stand at Starved Rock that year from which fewer than 200 reached safety at the French settlement of Kaskaskia. After a long wait, the Winnebago finally had their revenge against the Illinois. The victors then occupied much of the Illinois territory - the Winnebago's share was a portion of northwest Illinois valued because of its lead deposits.
During the next 50 years, the Winnebago would ally with the British by fighting both the Spanish and Americans during the Revolutionary War (1775-83) and The Americans during the War of 1812 (1812-14). Early fighting in the west during the Revolutionary War was mostly confined to Ohio and Kentucky and did not involve the Winnebago. George Rogers Clark's capture of the Illinois country in 1778 created alarm. and the British moved to reconcile disputes between the Great Lakes tribes and to use them against the Americans. To this end, they settled the lingering hostility between the Green Bay tribes and the Michilimackinac Ojibwe as well as other disputes between the Ojibwe, Fox, and Sauk. and the Potawatomi and Miami. This allowed the Winnebago (also Fox, Sauk, Potawatomi, Dakota, and Menominee) in 1780 to join an unsuccessful British effort to capture St. Louis from the Spanish (Spain had joined the war against Britain) and retake Illinois from the Americans. The Revolutionary War "officially" ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, but in the Ohio Valley, the British continued to occupy Detroit and their other forts on American territory until the United States paid its treaty obligations to British loyalists.
In the meantime, the British encouraged the formation of a western alliance to keep the Americans out of Ohio. They succeeded until the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The Winnebago in Wisconsin were too far away to participate in this effort, but the British dominated the tribes and trade of the Upper Great Lakes until the 1830s. Intertribal warfare during the 1770s and 80s had hindered the fur trade, and at the request of Montreal fur traders, the British met with the tribes of upper Great Lakes at Michilimackinac in October, 1786. The treaty signed there produced 20 years of peace with the exception of the war between the Dakota and Ojibwe which continued until the 1850s. This, however, was not a problem for the Winnebago who were friendly with both parties and free to hunt in the war zone between them. They also maintained a friendship with the Fox and Sauk living along the Mississippi in eastern Iowa and western Illinois, and it can be said that during this period the Winnebago lived in peace with very few enemies. However, their ties to the Fox and Sauk and those lead deposits in northwest Illinois would soon bring this to an end.
The United States purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 changed the Winnebago's homeland from being at the edge to the center of American territory. Before this, the Winnebago had known the Americans as a distant enemy. Aside from their foray into the Illinois with the British in 1780, the Winnebago had never really met an American. This changed when Zebulon Pike's expedition explored the upper Mississippi in 1805. His meeting with the Winnebago near Prairie du Chien was peaceful, but the Winnebago soon had reason to worry. During 1804 William Henry Harrison entertained a visiting Fox and Sauk delegation at St. Louis and, after getting them drunk, succeeded in convincing them to sign away their tribe's lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for a few presents. Next came Fort Madison, the first American fort on the upper Mississippi, built in southeast Iowa in 1809 and garrisoned with 50 soldiers.
The Fox and Sauk refused to acknowledge the 1804 treaty and instantly became hostile to the Americans. The Winnebago were also concerned because of the lead deposits in their lands in northwest Illinois. In 1788 the Fox had allowed Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian from Michilimackinac, to open a lead mine near the site of the Iowa city which now bears his name. Dubuque obtained a Spanish land grant to the site in 1796 and became wealthy from fur trading and lead mining. When he died in 1810, St.Louis creditors and land speculators attempted to seize his holdings, but the Fox and Sauk prevented this by burning Dubuque's buildings to the ground. The threat of American takeover was no longer a distant threat in Ohio, and the Winnebago listened with great interest in 1809 to the religion of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet and the call for unity and no further land cessions by his brother Tecumseh. Within a short time, the Winnebago were one of the most militant members of Tecumseh's alliance against the Americans.
The Winnebago began making regular visits to Prophetstown (Tippecanoe) in Indiana during 1810 and even established a permanent village (Village du Puant) nearby. Tecumseh went south in the fall of 1811 to enlist the southern tribes against the Americans, During his absence, the Potawatomi attacked American settlements in Illinois starting a frontier war. William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory, organized an army and in November marched on Prophetstown. Tenskwatawa ignored his brother's instructions to avoid any confrontation with the Americans while he was absent and ordered his warriors to attack. The Winnebago lost heavily at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but the military defeat was not nearly as important as the damage done to Tensquatawa's reputation as a prophet. Angry Winnebago warriors held him prisoner for two weeks and almost killed him. When Tecumseh returned in January, 1812, his alliance was in shambles, but he able to rebuild and soon regained the allegiance of the Winnebago. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 (1812-14) in June, the Winnebago threw their support to Tecumseh and the British.
With the Fox, Sauk, and Potawatomi, the Winnebago besieged Fort Madison and forced its abandonment in 1813. Winnebago warriors also fought as part of Tecumseh's forces at Maumee Rapids and River Raisin in Ohio and Michigan. After Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames (October, 1813), the Winnebago joined 500 warriors from the upper Great Lakes to help the British defeat the American attempt to retake Fort Michilimackinac in August, 1814. The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate between the British and Americans, but for the tribes of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley it was total defeat. The Winnebago made peace with the Americans at St. Louis in June, 1816. Their first treaty with the United States did not involve land cessions and called upon both sides to forgive and forget injuries suffered during the war. The Winnebago kept their part of the agreement but remained hostile. They allowed Americans to travel through their territory from Mississippi to the Fox portage but charged tolls.
After the War of 1812, settlement began to advance up the Mississippi from St. Louis, but warfare in Iowa and Minnesota between the Dakota, Ojibwe, Fox, and Sauk slowed its progress. The government in 1825 attempted to end the fighting at a grand council held with the area's tribes at Prairie du Chien. Attended by the Ojibwe, Fox, Sauk, Menominee, Iowa, Sioux, Winnebago, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, the resulting treaty attempted to end intertribal warfare by establishing boundaries between them. It also created a 40-mile wide buffer zone between the Dakota, Fox and Sauk in northeast Iowa. Called the Neutral Ground, the Americans hoped to relocate the Winnebago there since they were friendly with both sides, but the Winnebago did not share the Americans optimism for this arrangement. Since its purpose was to facilitate settlement, the treaty made almost no provision to protect native lands from white encroachment. It had only limited success in preventing warfare, but settlement afterwards moved north at an accelerated pace.
During the next 15 years the Winnebago would be forced to surrender most of their homeland. The first target was the lead deposits in northwest Illinois, and in what can be described as the first (and last) "lead rush," Americans rushed in to stake their claims. Government agents described these people as "lawless" but did nothing to prevent encroachment. Less than two years after the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, the Winnebago were forced into war to defend their lands. The resistance, known as the Winnebago War (1827), was led by the Winnebago Prophet White Cloud and the war chief Red Bird. Fighting began in the summer of 1827 when a barge ascending the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien was fired upon. Other attacks killed some settlers along the lower Wisconsin River and struck the lead mines near Galena, Illinois. Soldiers were rushed north from Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, and by August it was over. Faced with a war they could not win, Red Bird and White Cloud surrendered themselves to be hanged to save their people. Red Bird died in prison, but White Cloud was pardoned by the president and released. Meanwhile, in a treaty signed a Green Bay in August, 1828, the Winnebago (also Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa) ceded northern Illinois for $540,000.
With the lead mining district secured, the next victims were the Fox and Sauk in western Illinois. As a condition of peace in 1816, the United States had finally gotten their reluctant acceptance of that dubious treaty signed at St. Louis in 1804 ceding all of their lands east of the Mississippi. The bait was that the Fox and Sauk could stay until the Americans needed the land. Most likely. neither the Fox, Sauk nor the American representatives realized how soon this would be. Illinois became a state in 1818 and within ten years was pressing for removal. Blackhawk's Sauk at Rock Island refused to move, but after the Menominee and Dakota murdered 15 Fox chiefs enroute to a meeting with the Americans at Prairie du Chien, war seemed eminent. Blackhawk brought his people west into Iowa to protect the Fox and Sauk villages there from Dakota attacks which never came. When he started back to Illinois, the Americans refused to allow him to recross the Mississippi.
Throughout the winter of 1831-32, the old war chief sat in eastern Iowa and fumed. In his anger, he listened to arguments from his friend Neapope and the Winnebago Prophet (White Cloud) convincing him the British and other tribes were ready to join him against the Americans. In the spring he defiantly crossed the river into Illinois touching off the Blackhawk War (1832). The help did not materialize. Only a few Potawatomi and White Cloud's small following among the Winnebago joined the revolt. Pursued by the army and Illinois militia, Blackhawk retreated towards Wisconsin hoping to reach safety with either the Winnebago or Ojibwe. Most Winnebago wanted nothing to do with him and refused to help. Finally realizing this, Blackhawk turned west to try to return to Iowa. He never made it. Trapped between an American army and gunboat at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, the Sauk were slaughtered before surrendering. Menominee and Dakota warriors killed many of those who managed to elude capture by the Americans.
A marked man, Blackhawk escaped before the battle and fled north. He was captured by the Winnebago of Chief Spoon Decorah (Choukeka), a friend of the Americans, who delivered him to the Indian Agent at Prairie du Chien. Despite this, the general feeling among the Americans was that the Winnebago had cooperated with Blackhawk. By the harsh terms of the treaty negotiated by General Winfield Scott at Fort Armstrong in September, 1832, the Winnebago ceded their lands east of the Mississippi and agreed to move to Neutral Ground in northeast Iowa. They were to receive $270,000 ($10,000/year for 27 years) and were required to surrender several of their tribesmen accused of murdering whites during the war. Settlement moved into southern Wisconsin afterwards, but the Winnebago remained in their old lands, primarily because of hostility among the Fox and Sauk for the Winnebago's failure to help them during the Blackhawk War.
One out of four Winnebago died during a smallpox epidemic in 1836, which may have been a not-so-subtle hint for them to leave Wisconsin. A second treaty signed at Washington, D.C. in 1837 confirmed the Winnebago cession of Wisconsin and reduced the size of the Neutral Ground, but the Winnebago did not leave until 1840 when General Henry Atkinson refused to make their annuities except at the Turkey River Subagency (Decorah, Iowa). By 1842 approximately 2,200 Winnebago had settled in villages near the agency which was guarded by cavalry stationed nearby at Fort Atkinson, a necessary precaution since the threat of attack by the Fox and Sauk was very real. During the winter of 1839, they had killed 40 members of a Winnebago hunting party west of Wapsipinicon River. The following year, Fox and Sauk decided to attack the Winnebago villages near the agency but were only prevented by a unusually heavy snowfall that winter. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Winnebago had remained in their homeland giving Fort Atkinson's cavalry the added problem of keeping the Iowa Winnebago from going back to Wisconsin.
With Iowa statehood in 1846, it was time for the Winnebago to be moved again. In a 1845 treaty, the Winnebago exchanged their Iowa lands for the 800,000 acre Long Prairie (Crow Wing River) reserve in Minnesota and $190,000. The move ended the threat of the Fox and Sauk, but placed the Winnebago as a buffer between the Dakota and Ojibwe. Some Winnebago managed to remain in northeast Iowa for more than a century, but the main group was moved during 1848 and 1849. The new location was unsatisfactory from the beginning. Not only was there poor soil and a short growing season, but the Ojibwe used the agency as a way-station to attack the Dakota. In a treaty signed in 1856, the government allowed the Winnebago to exchange the Long Prairie reserve from another farther south in Minnesota at Blue Earth. As their population declined, the Winnebago surrendered a part of this in 1859 as excess lands.
All went well until the Dakota uprising erupted in the Minnesota River Valley during 1862 killing over 400 whites. The Winnebago had no part in this, but in the aftermath, Minnesota was no longer safe. The Winnebago were forcibly gathered together and deported by steamboat down the Mississippi and then up the Missouri to the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota with the Yankton (Sioux). Some got to leave the steamboat at Hannibal, Missouri and travel by train to St. Joseph where they were put back on a boat for the rest of their journey up the Missouri. Even allowing that the Civil War was in progress, conditions were terrible at the South Dakota reservation. Many Winnebago slipped away to return to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Finally, the remaining 1,200 left enmass and fled down the Missouri to ask the Omaha in eastern Nebraska for a refuge.
The government finally accepted their self-relocation and in 1865 purchased 40,000 acres from the Omaha to provide the Winnebago with their own reservation. Life in Nebraska was far from easy, and exposed to Lakota (Sioux) raids, many of the Nebraska Winnebago volunteered as army scouts against Lakota during 1868. While Winnebago were serving as scouts, the Indian Bureau - in its wisdom - conceived a plan of relocating the Winnebago to North Dakota as a buffer between the Lakota and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. For some reason, the Winnebago declined. Meanwhile, the Winnebago in Wisconsin were routinely being arrested and returned to Nebraska. Within a month, they were usually back in Wisconsin. After ten years of this game, the government gave up after 1875, purchased homestead lands for the Winnebago, and let them stay in Wisconsin. During the 1880s, over half of the Nebraska Winnebago went home to Wisconsin where they have remained ever since scattered across ten counties. The other Winnebago remained in Nebraska although 1/3 of their original 40,000 acre reservation was eventually lost to whites through allotment after 1887.
First Nations referred to in this Winnebago History: