The 1837 Winnebago Treaty

During the first part of the nineteenth century, the American Indian policy was to remove Indians from east of the Mississippi River and to “give” them reservations in Indian Territory. Under the U.S. Constitution, Indian tribes were considered to be domestic dependent nations which meant that the federal government had to negotiate treaties with them.

A treaty is simply an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Following the Constitution, the United States recognized Indian nations as sovereign entities and thus negotiated treaties with them. From the viewpoint of American law, there are three basic steps involved in the treaty process: (1) the treaty is negotiated, (2) it is then ratified by the Senate, and (3) it is proclaimed (signed) by the President. At this time, the treaty is considered to be in force and is a law which is superior to that of local or state laws.

In negotiating treaties with Indian nations, the Americans viewed the treaties, and the Indians themselves, as being temporary. “Knowing” that Indians were destined to vanish, the Americans generally viewed treaties as a way of increasing the pace of assimilation and the destruction of Indian cultures.

Treaties were negotiated for many different reasons. In addition to establishing peace, and thus preventing war, the United States negotiated treaties to obtain land. The United States frequently gave voice to the idea that no Indian land was to be taken without the consent of the Indians. At the same time, the United States had a policy of recognizing Indian leaders who were favorable to land cession and who were willing to accept bribes.

Winnebago Background:

 In 1634, the French explorer Jean Nicolet encountered the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) living along the Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan in what is now Wisconsin. According to Winnebago oral tradition, this was their original home. Like the other Indian nations in the western Great Lakes region, the Winnebago at this time were a farming people who lived in villages. Like many other Indian nations, they did not live in tipis, but in rectangular pole-framed houses covered with bark. For subsistence, they grew corn (maize), beans, and squash. They raised tobacco for ceremonial use.

The Winnebago’s initial contacts with Europeans were with fur traders and missionaries. Then, in the nineteenth century, came the Americans. The first treaty with the Winnebago occurred in 1816 when a delegation of 11 Winnebago chiefs, including Naw-Kaw and Spoon Decora travelled to St. Louis, Missouri to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States.

The Treaty of 1837:

The road to the Winnebago Treaty of 1837 began in 1830 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Here the United States negotiators met in treaty council with several tribes: Sioux (Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Medawakonton), Iowa, Menominee, Winnebago, Omaha, Otoe-Missouria, Sauk, and Fox. Tribal leaders signed a treaty which gave the United States most of what is now Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. During the council, the Americans told the Indians that it is time to bury the war tomahawk deep in the earth or face the U.S. army. The threat of war and genocide was not even thinly veiled. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) assured the chiefs:  “we didn’t purchase those lands with a view to settle the white people on them.”  This was, in reality, the beginning of non-Indian settlement in the region.

Two years later, in 1832, the United States met with the Winnebago and as a result the Winnebago agreed to give up their lands east of the Mississippi and to move to Neutral Ground in Iowa. They were to receive $10,000 per year for 27 years for their lands.

As with other removals in which Indian nations were verbally told that their new lands would be theirs forever, American greed tended to be impatient. In 1837, the United States imposed a new treaty on the Winnebago nation. This new treaty confirmed the Winnebago land cessions in Wisconsin and reduced the size of the Neutral Ground. The Winnebago treaty delegation had gone to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President to plead for their lands. Instead, they were told that they could not return home until they had signed the new treaty which gave their lands away. This was an effective negotiating practice often used by the United States.

Under Winnebago protocol, treaty signers in matters pertaining to land must include a significant representation of leaders of the Bear clan, which was lacking in the Washington delegation. Anthropologist Nancy Lurie, writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:  “To make sure no land would be sold, the tribe sent 20 men who had no authority to sign a treaty of cession.”

Two respected civil chiefs—Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora—led the delegation of mostly younger men.

In Washington, the Winnebago were promised that they would have 8 years to move and the members of the treaty delegation hoped that by then they would be able to negotiate a new treaty. However, the actual treaty required that they move in 8 months. The interpreter had been directed to deceive the delegation into thinking that they had 8 years. The Governor of Wisconsin had informed Washington that if the federal government did not remove the Winnebago, he would raise a state militia to forcibly remove them.

The treaty created a permanent division in the Winnebago. One group under the leadership of Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora abided by the treaty and the other group under the leadership of Yellow Thunder and Dandy hid out in central Wisconsin.