Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War
July 17, Prairie du Chien: The Ho-Chunk Stay Neutral
The author of this letter, Joseph Street (1780-1840), had come to Wisconsin in 1827 to take over as Indian agent at Prairie du Chien. He spent his first years trying unsuccessfully to keep the peace as miners and other white settlers flowed into the Lead Region, often in blatant violation of treaties and displaying great arrogance toward Native American inhabitants.
When the Black Hawk War broke out, Street's main responsibility was to attempt to keep the Ho-Chunk neutral. This was a difficult task, since that nation did not have any central governing authority that spoke for the entire nation. Instead, many small bands lived independently, moved frequently, and came together only rarely.
Moreover, within any band, warriors were free to follow any leader whom they respected. Some of the Ho-Chunk, particularly young men with their careers ahead of them and reputations to make, chose to support Black Hawk.
Street mentions in this letter that many Ho-Chunk had vacated the Wisconsin River Valley and moved into the northwest. Before the war, several bands had centered their activities in villages in the Rock River Valley, from Beloit all the way up to Horicon Marsh. Others had resided on the upper reaches of the Fox River, between Lake Winnebago and Portage. Street suggests than many of them had left those regions to wait out the war with other Ho-Chunk bands, who resided in the western part of the state between Prairie du Chien and Black River Falls.
Subsequent entries will present Ho-Chunk versions of their role in the war, from interviews conducted with their elders later in the 19th century.
Joseph M. Street to Henry Atkinson
U. S. Indian Agency at Prairie du Chien
Br. Genl. H. Atkinson Com'd'g. Rt. W'g. West. Det.
Sir, In compliance with your request, to keep you advised of the State of the Indians within my Agency, I now write, by some men going to the Army with Beef cattle.
Since my last, the Winnebagoes within this Ageney (North of the Wiskonsin) have been perfectly quiet, profess to be friendly to the U. S, behave well, and attend to my instructions to them... nearly the whole of the Winnebagoes on the Wiskonsin have left that [River] and gone to the Winnebago Villages up the Mississippi. From a very particular talk with their great men and chiefs as they passed this place, I can venture to assure you that the Winnebagoes of this Ageny will remain quiet, unless urged into hostilities by the imprudence of the Officer in command of Fort Crawford.
I shall unceasingly exert my influence with the Indians of this Agency to endeavour to avert any evil consequences which the course persued by this Officer is so calculated to produce; and from my standing with these Indiams, I felt confident of being able, under any ordinary circumstance, to maintain the relations of peace, if I can learn in time what is doing with them...
I shall feel gratified if you can find time to reply to my letter by Colo. Hamilton; Having used my utmost exertiones to carry your views into effect...
I am with great respect and high Consideration Your mos. obt. St. Jos. M. Street U.S. Indian Agent
[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p. 817]