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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Lonely Voices Denounced U.S. Indian Policies

During the 1830s, the U.S. government passed more than 70 laws forcing Indians from their homelands and forcing them West. For another six decades, it made war on any that resisted this ethnic cleansing. Gen. Phil Sheridan summed up the official government policy in 1869 with the comment, "The only good Indian I ever saw was dead" – a sentiment that struck most Americans as common sense at the time.

Only a few people back then thought this was immoral. A handful of Wisconsin residents were among them.

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Rev. Cutting Marsh came here to help the Stockbridge tribe in 1830 and lived with them for 18 years. He set up a school, channeled missionary funds into basic human services, and tried to defend his congregation of Christian Indians from the worst abuses. "I cannot review the scenes with which I have been conversant," he wrote in 1857, "… without the deepest pain. I am ashamed of my country."

In 1884, Milwaukee's Gen. Charles King, generally no friend to Native Americans, denounced the public hysteria over the "massacre" of Custer at the Little Big Horn. He defended Dakota leader Sitting Bull, saying, "His village was attacked and he did right in defending it."

In 1892, Reuben Gold Thwaites was among the first historians to seriously investigate the 1832 Black Hawk War, which had opened Wisconsin to waves of white settlers. After untangling the archival records for the first time, he concluded that the war had been "a tale fraught with dishonor to the American name… characterized on our part by heartlessness, bad faith, and gross mismanagement."

In the 19th century they were prophets crying in the wilderness. Not until the 1970s would most Americans begin to appreciate how their government had treated the country's original inhabitants.

To see original documents that expressed Native American perspectives on Wisconsin history, browse the relevant topics at Turning Points in Wisconsin History (

[Sources: Hutto, Paul Andrew. Phil Sheridan and His Army (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2013): 180; Mieder, Wolfgang. The Politics of Proverbs: From Traditional Wisdom to Proverbial Stereotypes (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1997): 145-149; Marsh, Cutting."The Stockbridges." Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; v. 4 (1857): 299-301; Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct. 16, 1884; Thwaites, Reuben G. The Story of the Black Hawk War (Madison, 1892): 47 & 50]

:: Posted in on November 27, 2013
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