This day in history, Feb. 21, 1863, Congress passed a law to expel the Winnebago people from Minnesota. Like many acts of injustice, it was fueled by fear, prejudice and greed.
The fear came from the recent Dakota-U.S. War. While the Winnebago (also called Ho-Chunk) had not participated in the fighting, that didn’t stop rumors that they had. The greed came from the fact that the Winnebago were sitting on prime farm land coveted by white settlers. The prejudice and hatred against Indians was part of the country’s fabric. In this case, that prejudice was institutionalized further through a Mankato-based secret group called Knights of the Forest. It was similar to the Ku Klux Klan, but its story much less known.
According to William Lass, a former history professor at Mankato State University, in 1863, the Winnebago were recent arrivals to southern Minnesota. In his article The REMOVAL From MINNESOTA of the Sioux and Winnebago Indians, published in Minnesota History, he writes: “Forced out of their native Wisconsin, [the Winnebagos] were relocated several times in Iowa and Minnesota before being moved in 1855 from the Crow Wing area onto some of the choicest land in Blue Earth County.”
Only seven years after their arrival, the Dakota-U.S. War breaks out. Following the war, prominent men in Mankato organized the secret society “Knights of the Forest” whose goal was to remove the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk from the area. According to a Ho-Chunk history timeline,
One noteworthy act of the Mankato [Knights of the Forest] lodge…was the employment of a certain number of men whose duty it was to lie in ambush on the outskirts of the Winnebago reservation and shoot any Indian who might be observed outside the lines.
According to Wikipedia, the Knights targeted the removal of all Indians from the state. Their secret pledge, made public only years later, read in part: “I will sacrifice every political and other preference to accomplish that object. … the permanent removal of all tribes of Indians from the State of Minnesota.”
Following the war, the Mankato Record newspaper launched an “extermination or removal” campaign against both the Dakota and the Winnebago.
One of Minnesota’s U.S. Representatives, William Windom, introduced a bill in Congress specifically aimed at removing the Winnebago, and Minnesota Sen. Morton Wilkinson followed suit in the Senate. Lass wrote that they were both Republicans, and had been embarrassed that President Lincoln had commuted the death sentences of so many Dakota fighters following the Dakota-U.S. War.
While they had nothing to do with the war, the Winnebago were officially expelled from the state of Minnesota before the Dakota. The Winnebago Removal Act passed Congress on Feb. 21, 1863 and the Dakota Removal Act passed on March 3.
The Winnebago Removal Act provided both for relocating the Winnebago, and also for selling their reservation lands to settlers. It reads in part:
And be it further enacted, That upon the removal of the said Indians from the reservation where they now reside, it shall be the duty of the Secretary of the Interior to cause each legal subdivision of the said lands to be appraised….And be it further enacted, That after the appraisal of the said reservation the same shall be opened to pre-emption, entry and settlement in the same manner as other public lands …
Settlers were so ready to claim Winnebago lands, government leaders feared potential conflicts as settlers moved in too fast. According to Lass, in the spring of 1863, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs instructed the Winnebago agent to assemble the Winnebago for expulsion and “above all to disarm them.”
The commissioner feared “collision and possible bloodshed” because white settlers were eager to begin spring planting on the patches of ground cleared and cultivated by the Winnebago.
Mnopedia’s entry on Ho-Chunk and Blue Earth County, 1855-1863 tells what happened next.
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.
The move to Crow Creek was a disaster. Even though the Winnebago Expulsion Act said the Winnebago were to get “a tract of unoccupied land … well adapted for agricultural purposes” [emphasis added] they did not. Many Winnebago moved to a reservation in Omaha, Nebraska. Others returned to their homeland in Wisconsin.