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American Indians in Early Wisconsin

American Indians have long been a part of the cultural heritage of Wisconsin. During the colonial period, they were important partners in the lucrative fur trade. Unlike the later policies of the American government, the French and English did not seek to diminish Indian land holdings. In general, the French and English were more interested in acquiring furs than acquiring land. This shifted with new American government. From the start, the United States had a rapidly growing population and the solution of the government was to expand its territories westward, at the expense of the American Indians. As an issue of Harper's magazine (1857-1976) once noted, "the Indians were, unfortunately, located on the Great Highway of the West."

The Northwest Ordinances of 1784, 1785, 1787, established the procedure for the settlement of the Northwest Territory. These ordinances called for expansion with the decent treatment of the American Indians. This was designed to be the rule regarding U.S. Indian policy. However in the vast majority of cases, expansion took precedence over decent treatment of the Indians. For Wisconsin, the establishment of the Northwest Ordinances marked the end of the preservation of the land for the Indian nations and the fur trade.

1800-1850 During this time period, the U.S. government took control of Indian land through subterfuge, retaliation, and sale. In Wisconsin, this process began as early as 1804 when the government forced the Sauk and Fox to cede land claims to in Southern Wisconsin. This would later lead to the Black Hawk War of 1832. After his defeat, Black Hawk stated: "the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi." In the north, the Menominee, the largest American Indian population in Wisconsin, also gave into government pressure and sold away 11,600 square miles of land on the lower Fox River. Please follow this link to see a map of Wisconsin Indian Land Cessions.

1825 Treaty of Prairie du ChienThe U.S. government called for a great intertribal council involving Indian groups from Wisconsin, Michigan and the Mississippi River Valley. The government had a definite agenda. They wanted to determine definite boundaries between Indian nations which they could use later on to facilitate acquisitions. At the council, the American government emphasized the concept of the tribe despite the fact that this did not properly describe all Indians living in Wisconsin during this time. A drift towards a pan-Algonquian culture had been developing for quite some time due to many factors including: the fur trade, merging communities, and linguistic similarities. This trend did not suit the federal government. Since the late 1700's, the government's strategy was to encourage negotiation with specific tribes rather than tribal confederations, which enabled the government the gain concessions by playing off one tribe against another. The United States wanted to avoid having to deal with unified opposition or a confederacy that could strengthen the resolve of weaker groups to resist American offers. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien had a profound impact on American Indians living in Wisconsin.

1871 marked a decision by the American government to stop making treaties with American Indian tribes. Most Indian land had been acquired already and most of the Indian population was on reservations. At this time, the American government's emphasis in regard to the Indian communities was focused on de-indianization, which was an attempt to break tribal ties and remold the Indians into the image of white settlers. The emphasis was on schools, western dress and the western way of life. An example of this was the Indian school in Sawyer County (1885) and the Federal School for Indians at Lac du Flambeau (1895).

The Dawes act was a major component in the government's attempt at destroying the Indian way of life. The authors of this Act made the assumption that reservations enforced the Indian way of life, which they viewed as negative. According to this act, the solution was to force Indians to live like white settlers. Reservations were divided into 160-acre parcels for each family head, 80 acres for a single person over eighteen years of age, and 40 acres for minors and orphans under eighteen. Land allotment patents were distributed for free and could not be sold for twenty-five years by which time the U.S. government expected Indians to have broken their tribal ties. This process was projected to take approximately a generation. Later legislation added the stipulation that Indians had to be declared "competent" before receiving a free patent to an allotment of land. Individuals could select their own piece of land, but if they rejected the whole idea of the Dawes Act, a government agent would make the choice for them. Surplus land left after all the Indians were allotted could be bought by the government and put into public sale. White settlers purchased surplus land under the Dawes Act between 1887-1934. As a result, the Indian land base was reduced from 140,000,000 to 50,000,000 acres nationwide. In Wisconsin, half of the total reservation land was lost in this way. The Oneida and Stockbridge reservations were nearly wiped out. The government expected that for the most part, the Indian population would dwindle away and what was left would assimilate into white culture. As white settlers pushed farther beyond the Mississippi River, Indian populations continued to decline due to disease and violence. Fortunately, the Indian tribes did not die out or become assimilated and continue to thrive today. Please visit the links below to the various tribes of Wisconsin.

Photo Credits:
Indian School, Sawyer County SHSW X3 23295
Federal School for Indians at Lac du Flambeau SHSW X3 29356

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