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Treaty Councils, from Prairie du Chien to Madeline Island | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Treaty Councils, from Prairie du Chien to Madeline Island

How the Natives Lost Their Land

Treaty Councils, from Prairie du Chien to Madeline Island | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBlack and white photograph of Old Treaty Hall.

Old Treaty Hall, 1911

Old Treaty Hall, so called because of a treaty signed there on September 30, 1854 between the Chippewas and the settlers that gave the land to the United States. In later years the building was owned by George Francis Thomas who lived with his family in the cottage during the summer months. He presented the building to the DAR, but it was destroyed by fire shortly thereafter. View the original source document: WHI 36891

In August 1825, thousands of Indians representing all Wisconsin tribes gathered in Prairie du Chien. Territorial governors William Clark of Missouri and Lewis Cass of Michigan facilitated discussions that produced a general treaty of peace among all the tribes. Henry Schoolcraft left a long account of the event in his memoirs and painter J.O. Lewis captured the scene and dozens of Indian leaders in color portraits.

The treaty granted no land to the United States. But it enabled talks with individual tribes that were intended to do so. Between 1829 and 1833 the first four of these meetings transferred all lands south of the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to the United States. Over the next fifteen years, the tribes ceded nearly all the rest of Wisconsin to the U.S. government in five more meetings. In one generation, natives who had lived in Wisconsin for centuries or millennia lost the rights to their lands.

EnlargePortrait of Wa-kaun (Snake) a Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Chief painted by J.O. Lewis at the Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1825.

Wa-kaun, 1825

Portrait of Wa-kaun (Snake) a Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Chief painted by J.O. Lewis at the Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1825. View the original source document: WHI 4795

Wisconsin Indians and the U.S. government negotiated more than seventy treaties between 1804 and 1854. Compensation was always granted for ceded territory. But payment was often minimal as white negotiators took advantage of their Indian counterparts. "We are ignorant of the way you measure land," said a Menominee chief. "We do not know what you mean by the acres you speak of. What is it?" U.S. negotiators could be equally ignorant: they negotiated and signed more than one treaty with Indians who lacked authority to speak for their nation. Ignorance, misplaced benevolence, racism, malice and greed all contributed to the legal dispossession of Wisconsin's first peoples.

For a complete list of all treaties and their texts, see "Kappler's Indian affairs: laws and treaties." The major treaties between tribes and the government that resulted in Wisconsin land cessions are the following:

  • 1829 July 29 - August 1 at Prairie du Chien with the Potawatomie, Ojibwe, Ottawa and Ho-Chunk. The tribes ceded the lead mining region of southwestern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 297 - 303)

  • 1831 February 8 at Washington, D.C. with the Menominee. They ceded the area from Milwaukee to Green Bay and settled the N.Y. Indians. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 319 - 323)

  • 1832 September 15 - 21 at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, on Rock Island, with the Ho-Chunk and the Sauk and Fox. The Ho-Chunk ceded all their remaining territory south of the Wisconsin River. The Sauk and Fox ceded the Iowa shore of the Mississippi. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 345 - 351)

  • 1833 September 26 at Chicago with the Potawatomie, Ojibwe and Ottawa. The Ottawa ceded all their remaining lands east of Mississippi. The Potawatomie agreed to leave Wisconsin for lands west of Mississippi. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 402 - 415)

  • 1836 September 3 at Cedar Point, Wisconsin, with the Menominee. They ceded lands in northeast Wisconsin from Green Bay to the Wolf River. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 463 - 466)

  • 1837 November 1 at Washington, D.C., with the Ho-Chunk. They ceded all their remaining lands east of Mississippi and agreed to move west. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 498 - 500)

  • 1837 July 29 at Fort Snelling, St. Peters, Minnesota with the Ojibwe. They ceded the northern lands that drained southwest toward the Mississippi, but retained fishing and hunting rights to it. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 491 - 493)

  • 1842 October 4 at LaPointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island, with the Ojibwe. They ceded all their remaining lands in Wisconsin and Michigan. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 542 - 545)

  • 1848 October 18 at Lake Poygan, Wisconsin, with the Menominee. They ceded all their remaining lands. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 572 - 574)

  • 1854 September 30 at LaPointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island, with the Ojibwe. The treaty established the Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff and Lac du Flambeau reservations. (Kappler vol. II, pp. 648 - 652)

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[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]