This day in history, Feb. 21, 1863, Congress passed a law — pushed by members of Minnesota’s delegation — to expel the Winnebago people from the state. The Act was fueled by fear, prejudice, and greed; it resulted in land theft and the deaths of more than 550 Winnebago people.
The Winnebago (also called Ho Chunk) were expelled from Minnesota in the wake of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, a war in which the Winnebago did not participate. Yet Minnesota’s leaders were so eager to free up the Winnebago’s reservation lands for settlers to farm that they expelled the Winnebago before they officially exiling the Dakota.
This is a horrifically ugly chapter in Minnesota history. It includes the little known story of the Knight of the Forest, a secret Klan-like group that formed to expel all indigenous peoples from the state.
There’s probably lots of Minnesotans who have no idea the Winnebago ever lived here. Unlike the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, this was not their home land. Like many Indigenous nations, they kept getting pushed westward as settlers encroached on their lands.
As the map above shows, the Winnebago homeland was in what is now part of southwest Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The federal government made them move repeatedly — from Wisconsin to Iowa to north central Minnesota. In 1855, they were moved again, this time to Blue Earth County on what happened to be prime farm land.
Only seven years after this move, the Dakota-U.S. War broke out near New Ulm, about 30 miles west of Blue Earth County.
Following the war, Rumors started that the Winnebago participated in it. The story was likely an easy sell; prejudice and hatred of Indians was part of the country’s ethos.
In Minnesota, a secret group called “Knights of the Forest” took hatred and greed to a new level. Formed by prominent men of Mankato, the group’s goal was to remove the Winnebago. A Blue Earth County Historical Society Review article from April 27, 1866, quoted in a Ho-Chunk history timeline, offers the following:
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 Knight of the Forest targeted the removal of all Indians from the state. Their secret pledge read: “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.
William Windom, a Congressman representing southern Minnesota, introduced a bill in Congress to remove the Winnebago. (The city of Windom in southwestern Minnesota is named after him.) Minnesota U.S. Sen. Morton Wilkinson, who lived in Mankato, carried the bill in the Senate.
According to historian William Lass’ article: The REMOVAL From MINNESOTA of the Sioux and Winnebago Indians, both men were Republicans and had been embarrassed that President Lincoln had commuted the death sentences of so many Dakota fighters following the Dakota-U.S. War. (Ultimately, 38 were hung Dec. 26, 1862 in Mankato, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Two more were hung later.)
While the Winnebago had nothing to do with the war, they were expelled from the state of Minnesota Feb. 21, 1863; the Dakota Removal Act passed 10 days later on March 3. Both were sent to Crow Creek, South Dakota, an area where they were ill-equipped to survive, especially given the extreme trauma both groups had just experienced. “There were frequent droughts, and wild game was scarce,” MPR reports.
The Winnebago Removal Act provided both for relocating the Winnebago and selling their lands. According to Lass, in the spring of 1863, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs feared “collision and possible bloodshed” among the white settlers because they all wanted to begin spring planting on patches of ground the Winnebago already had cleared and cultivated.
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.
Both Dakota and Winnebago were moved to Crow Creek and it 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” it was another broken promise by the federal government.
According to an article “Survival at Crow Creek, 1863-1866” in Minnesota History, Winter 2008/09, a congressional delegation visited Crow Creek in 1865 to investigate conditions there. “The testimonies of soldiers, missionaries, and Dakota leaders about life at Crow Creek paint a picture of starvation, disease and dehumanization.”
Some Winnebago moved to a reservation in northeast Nebraska. Others found their way back to their homeland in Wisconsin.
We’ve run versions of this blog several times in the past. It’s a piece of Minnesota history that is so little known, this blog bears repeating.