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The Ho-Chunk followed all the rules for Native Americans in the 19th century — and the government still exiled them

Their story is a great example of how native peoples just couldn’t win.

Black-and-white photo print of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Indian Agency, c.1860.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1855, a federal treaty moved the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people from their reservation near Long Prairie to a site along the Blue Earth River. The Ho-Chunk farmed the area’s rich soil with some success, but drew the hostility of white neighbors who wanted the land for themselves. Though they did not participate in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, they were exiled from Minnesota during the conflict’s aftermath.

On February 27, 1855, the Ho-Chunk ceded 897,900 acres of their land near Long Prairie in exchange for two hundred thousand acres along the Blue Earth River. The new area was better suited to their needs as farmers than the dense forests of the Long Prairie region.

On May 24, 1855, the Ho-Chunk began their move south to Blue Earth. A large group of local white citizens gathered in Mankato on June 2 to protest their arrival. The Ho-Chunk were now in possession of arguably the finest crop land in the territory—a prize for white farmers and speculators. White immigrants already living on the land (recently ceded by the Dakota) had been forced to leave to accommodate the incoming Ho-Chunk.

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The Ho-Chunk settled into the area in the middle of June and attempted a peaceful co-existence with their new neighbors. Many adapted to Euro-American customs, cutting their hair, building houses and schools, and wearing Euro-American clothes. In 1859 Indian Agent Charles H. Mix reported to his superiors that the Ho-Chunk had acclimated to their new life and had a bright future in front of them. According to Mix, farming activity, educational progress, and the general health of the Ho-Chunk were at their highest point since their arrival at Blue Earth.

In 1859 the Ho-Chunk looked for a new source of income. Their old annuities had expired, and they needed money to pay off their debts, improve their farms, and buy equipment and stock. Continued immigration to Minnesota had raised the value of the Blue Earth land. With this in mind, the Ho-Chunk signed a new treaty with the government relinquishing the western part of their reservation.

The people of Mankato and surrounding communities were jubilant over the treaty and welcomed the opportunity to move onto the ceded land. However, they felt that the government had not gone far enough. They called for the complete removal of the Ho-Chunk from Minnesota. Articles in local newspapers pushed for drastic action.

The 1859 treaty superseded all previous agreements between the Ho-Chunk and the government. By 1861, however, it had not yet been ratified. White farmers and developers began to move onto the land. Frustrated by the incursions and lacking the money needed to continue to support their farms, many Ho-Chunk suffered.

On August 18, 1862, a group of Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, beginning the U.S.-Dakota War. The Ho-Chunk did not participate and remained at Blue Earth. After the war, thirteen Ho-Chunk were tried for allegedly acting in concert with the Dakota. No evidence implicated them, and none were convicted. The angry and fearful white public, however, did not distinguish between American Indian groups. They demanded that the government remove the Ho-Chunk as well as the Dakota.

Later that year, a special session of the U.S. Congress was called to approve the exile of the Ho-Chunk from Minnesota. A federal act authorizing removal was passed on February 21, 1863.

On April 25, 1863, the Ho-Chunk were notified that they would be moved to a barren tract of land along the Missouri River in Crow Creek, South Dakota. A small group applied for citizenship to avoid removal but was denied. Many others resisted the government’s orders and refused to leave. In early May, under threat of military force, over two thousand Ho-Chunk were moved to Camp Porter in Mankato and from there to Crow Creek. More than 550 Ho-Chunk died during their removal to South Dakota.

Conditions at Crow Creek proved to be dismal, prompting many Ho-Chunk to relocate to an Omaha reservation in Nebraska. The federal government formally created a reservation for them on the Nebraska site on November 15, 1865. In the twenty-first century many Ho-Chunk (members of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska) still make their homes there. Others, whose ancestors returned to the Ho-Chunk homeland in Wisconsin or never left, are members of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.