Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Odd Wisconsin Archive

Ho-Chunk Persistence

This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of the settlement of the long treaty rights case between the U.S. and the Ojibwe, which reaffirmed tribal rights to off-reservation hunting and fishing. Under treaties from the 1840s and 1850s, the Ojibwe managed to hold onto rights that other Wisconsin tribes had been forced to give up in earlier decades. The Ho-Chunk, for example, were stripped of all their territory and forced west by a government policy that proved, ultimately, unsuccessful. Though the government did its best to force them into exile, the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk kept coming back.

In the treaties of 1832 and 1837, the Ho-Chunk lost all their Wisconsin lands to the U.S. government and agreed to move to Iowa. Before they went, a smallpox outbreak around Portage, where most of the tribe was then gathered, is said to have killed almost half their population.

The leader of one Ho-Chunk band, Chief Dandy, protested removal by trying to reason with white authorities. When he and his relatives were rounded up for transport west of the Mississippi, he insisted on seeing Governor Henry Dodge, which was allowed. "Dandy produced a Bible from his bosom and asked the governor if it was a good book. Greatly surprised, the governor answered that it was. 'Then,' said Dandy, 'if a man could do all that was in that book could any more be required of him?' Receiving a negative answer, he continued: 'Well, look that book all through, and if you find in it that Dandy ought to be removed by the government to Turkey river, I will go; but if you do not find it, I will stay here.'" Dodge was not persuaded by this argument, and had Dandy brought in chains to Prairie du Chien. While there he managed to escape from white captivity and lived in Wisconsin until 1870.

Although the treaties compelled the tribe to leave Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk actually lived in many small independent bands such as Dandy's, and their leaders did not necessarily accept the authority of the chiefs who had signed the 1832 and 1837 documents. These groups were pursued by authorities for years, and when discovered, federal troops moved them west. Here is a newspaper account from 1847 of exactly such an encounter. Chief Spoon Decorah and his band were among those rounded up and sent to Iowa. In 1887 he gave an interview to Society director Reuben Thwaites that records the Indian perspective on the removal policy.

As settlers flowed into southern Wisconsin, a few reflected on the fate of the people whom they had just displaced. "In traveling over these beautiful rolling prairies and through these pleasant groves by the side of her crystal streams and lovely lakes," Albert Tuttle wrote home to New England, "the conviction strongly forces itself upon the mind of the fraud, injustice, and wrong resorted to to compel the inheritors of so fine a country to abandon it... I confess, when I have seen bands of these red men of the forests returning from beyond the Mississippi to visit the old hunting ground where are buried the bones of their fathers, and among them many a noble and revered warrior whose traditionary history will live until their tribes become extinct, I have felt indignant that civilization should have spun them from her embrace, driving them without her borders, compelling them to brook the wrongs and insults of brutal and degraded white men."

Meanwhile, things grew worse for the Ho-Chunk west of the Mississippi. As Iowa became more densely settled by white people, the Ho-Chunk were moved again, this time north into Minnesota where they were expected to live peacefully near their hereditary enemies, the Sioux. Spoon Decorah recalled how they resisted this move in his interview with Thwaites. After the Sioux Uprising there in 1862, the Ho-Chunk were moved further west into So. Dakota, only to be relocated again, in 1866, to a reservation in Eastern Nebraska.

Throughout these decades many individual Ho-Chunk traveled back to Wisconsin and wandered around our state without settling down. The story of one of them, Avery Nash, is told in this obituary.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the federal government had other priorities, and gave up trying to hunt down the Ho-Chunk. In 1863, Dandy and several other leaders called on the governor to profess the loyalty and peaceful intentions of the Ho-Chunk, a meeting described in the Madison papers. In 1875 the Ho-Chunk were finally permitted officially to return to Wisconsin, and allowed to take up farm land to homestead. An investigation and census during the 1880s showed that the principal effect of decades of displacement and persecution was widespread poverty.

Over the next century they successfully weathered the new federal policies of assimilation and relocation that threatened their heritage, community, and cultural identity. Their experiences during the Great Depression and World War Two are revealed in the weekly newspaper columns written by Charles Round Low Cloud. Visit their Web site at to learn more about the Ho-Chunk today.

You can also see more than 100 pictures of the Ho-Chunk over the last two centuries at Wisconsin Historical Images and learn more about their history, both in and after the treaty era, at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 19, 2006

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text