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Dakota, Ho-Chunk, and French Indigenous Communities Between St. Paul and Prairie du Chien, ca. 1300–1865

Winona County Historical Society
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Wakan Ozanzan’s village

The village of Wakan Ozanzan (Medicine Bottle) on the Mississippi River (at present-day Pine Bend) in a view recorded by Seth Eastman in the 1840s and printed by Henry Lewis as a lithograph on paper ca. 1855.

The stretch of land between present-day St. Paul, Minnesota, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, served as a highway for Native and mixed-ancestry (metis) fur traders—especially those with French heritage or kinship ties—during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Building on Native trade networks, they created new communities, adapted to cultural change, and contributed to Minnesota’s recognition as a state in 1858.

Present-day Minnesota, along with parts of northwestern Wisconsin and northern Iowa, is Mnisota Makoce, the Dakota homeland. Important villages flourished in what is now western Minnesota, as well as at Bdote (Mendota), Kapozia, (the present-day St. Paul area), Bde Wakan (Mille Lacs Lake), and He Mni Caŋ (the present-day Red Wing area). Smaller villages formed further down the Haha Wakpa (Mississippi River), near ancient burial and effigy mounds. He Mni Caŋ was a village and cultural center for centuries; Dakota oral history mentions a migration of the tribe’s seven bands that began there and spread in all directions.

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation along the northern Mississippi dating to 11,000 BCE. They also confirm that a large group of Native people migrated in about 1300 CE to the area north of present-day LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Often identified as part of the Oneota culture, they are ancestors of the Dakota. Their villages on the Mississippi were for summer living, gardening, and fishing; in the fall, Native people moved up tributary rivers to winter lodging and hunting sites. By 1600 the La Crosse Dakota moved across the Mississippi to the Root River. In 1780 Wabasha I and his son (Wabasha II) moved their band from Mille Lacs to the Root River; in 1810 they relocated again, this time to Keoxia (Winona).

The beginning of French colonization of Quebec in 1608 disrupted Native nations’ hunting and trading patterns. French and British competition in the fur trade caused conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Wyandot (Huron) in what were called the Beaver Trade Wars. Thus began a western migration of the Ojibwe, Wyandot, Potowatomi, Sauk (Sac), and Meskwaki (Fox). The Ojibwe stayed to the north while the others moved southwest, towards the Mississippi River basin.

By 1650 the tribal migrations began to affect the present-day Wisconsin area, pushing the Dakota, the Bahkhoje (Ioway), the Menomonee, and the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) towards the Mississippi River. The Bahkhoje moved across the Mississippi to the Root River and down the Oneota and Iowa Rivers.

As European nations established colonies in North America, the French claimed the extensive Mississippi River watershed. Frenchmen Jacques Marquette, Louis Joliet, Louis Hennepin, and Robert La Salle each explored the Mississippi River in the late 1600s looking for fur trade sites and established contact with Native people.

In the late eighteenth century, Frenchmen from Quebec, Michilimackinac, and Illinois Country built homes at Prairie du Chien. They established wintering posts close to Dakota villages the length of the Mississippi north to Kapozia. French Canadian and French Indigenous men from Prairie du Chien married daughters of the Native leaders with whom they traded, forming more French Indigenous families. Among these were the Rocs, the Grignons, the La Bathes, the Pizannes, the Rolettes, the Faribaults, and the Baillys.

Although the French lost their North American colonies to the British after the French and Indian War in 1763, fur trade on the Mississippi continued under British control, as did French culture. French Indigenous traders signed trading contracts under British licenses. The land east of the Mississippi became part of the US after the American Revolution (1776); the Louisiana Purchase (1803) transferred land west of the Mississippi to the United States. British control of the fur trade in the upper Mississippi, however, continued unabated with the aid of French Indigenous people. All of these transfers ignored the rights and sovereignty of indigenous nations.

During the War of 1812 the United States built a fort at Prairie du Chien, which was soon attacked by a British force of French Inidgenous traders and Native warriors. The US lost that battle but won the war, and by 1816, it had gained political control of the upper Mississippi. Many French Indigenous veterans responded by applying to US Indian agents for trading licenses.

At the Great Council and treaty signing held at Prairie du Chien in 1825, the US told Native leaders representing the nations of the upper Mississippi to map out their lands. The leaders insisted that their people shared hunting rights in the lands between them. US representatives insisted on the treaty, knowing that establishing boundaries would facilitate later land cessions. A line was drawn to separate the warring Dakota and the Sauk-Meskwaki. Five years later, a council was held at Prairie du Chien to create a buffer zone, necessitating land cessions by the two tribes.

A forty-mile-wide zone became a “Neutral Ground”—a rectangular strip of land running diagonally southwest for 200 miles from the Root River (Houston County) through Iowa. The Ho- Chunk people were forcibly relocated there from southern Wisconsin in 1840, and many died on the journey.
Growth in the new state of Iowa meant the Neutral Ground was in demand for settler-colonists only six years later, so the Ho-Chunk were moved to a reservation in Long Prairie, Minnesota. Many fled and tried to return to their Wisconsin homeland. Though Henry Rice led an effort to “round-up” the Ho-Chunk, small groups traveled west along the Root River to lesser known areas, living quietly and entering local oral histories. In 1855, the Ho-Chunk were moved yet again, this time to a reservation in Blue Earth, Minnesota.

Minnesota had a population of 30,000 Native Americans and 5,000 white settler-colonists when it became a US territory in 1849. Many of those counted as whites were people of mixed heritage. St. Paul, which had begun as a trading site with a Catholic chapel founded by the French priest Lucien Galtier, was growing quickly. After Wisconsin became a state in 1848, more settler-colonists arrived seeking land along the Mississippi.

The Treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux (1851) confined the Dakota to narrow reservations along the Minnesota River. The US then failed to deliver promised food, supplies, and annuities throughout the 1850s and 1860s, causing many to suffer and prompting some of the Mdewakanton band to begin the US-Dakota War of 1862. At the war’s end, Governor Alexander Ramsey exiled the Dakota and Ho-Chunk from the state, though few of the former and none of the latter had acted as combatants.

The 1830 Treaty of Prairie du Chien had set aside land near Wabasha, eventually called the “Half-Breed Tract,” for the “mixed-blood” members of the Dakota nation. White squatters claimed so much of it that in 1854, the US government gave eligible recipients "scrip” that could be exchanged for the same number of acres of western land. Following the US–Dakota War of 1862, politicians who were also land speculators worked quickly to buy the scrip from its mixed-blood owners for pennies.

In the mid-1860s, settler-colonist villages and cities grew in places where Native people had lived, in places they held sacred, and in places where French Canadians and Native people had once gathered to exchange goods for furs. The newcomers presented French Indigenous families with a choice: join their kin on reservations or adopt “white” customs. By the late 1870s, most of these families had moved to western reservations. But some stayed, and in 1886 the federal government placed 120 acres into trust for what became the Prairie Island Indian Community. Other exiled Dakota returned in the following decades; in the twenty-first century, descendants of the Dakota and their mixed-ancestry kin still enrich Minnesota communities.

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Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997.

Antoine, Mary Elise. The War of 1812 in Wisconsin: The Battle for Prairie du Chien. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016.

Boszhardt, Robert, and Danielle Benden. Beneath Your Feet: Archaeology at Trempealeau. Lodi, WI: Driftless Pathways, 2017.

Boszhardt, Robert, and James Theler. Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Iowa City, IA: Iowa City Press. 2003.

Case, Martin. The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became US Property. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018.

Durand, Paul. Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet: An Atlas of the Eastern Sioux. Prior Lake, MN: Paul Durand. 1994.

Gibbon, Guy. The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2008.

Harris, Matthew L., and Joy H. Buckley, eds. Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 2012.
Iowas of Oklahoma Tribe (People of the Grey Snow).

Kaplan, Anne, and Marilyn Ziebarth, eds. Special Issue: Making Minnesota Territory, 1849–1858. Minnesota History 56, no. 4 (Winter 1999).

Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin, Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013.

Millikan, William. “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp.” Minnesota History 62, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 4–17.

Nilles, Myron A. A History of Wapasha’s Prairie, 1660–1853. Second edition. Winona, MN: Winona Historical Society, 2005.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1984.

Ravoux, Msgr. Auguste. Mémoires, Réminiscences, Conférences. St. Paul: Ledoux et LeVasseur, 1892.

Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.

Saler, Bethel. The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Scanlan, Peter L. Prairie du Chien: French, British, American. Menasha, WI: Collegiate Press, 1927.

Van Schaick, Charles, photog., and Tom Jones et al., eds. People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2011.

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Wisconsin State Tribal Relations Initiative. Ho-Chunk tribal page.

Related Images

Wakan Ozanzan’s village
Wakan Ozanzan’s village
Detail of a map of land claimed by France for King Louis XV
Detail of a map of land claimed by France for King Louis XV
Treaty council at Prairie du Chien
Treaty council at Prairie du Chien
Watercolor on paper depicting Chief Wabasha’s village on the Mississippi River. Painted c.1845 by Seth Eastman.
Watercolor on paper depicting Chief Wabasha’s village on the Mississippi River. Painted c.1845 by Seth Eastman.
Black and white engraving on paper depicting Lake Pepin. Made by Jacob C. Ward c.1840.
Black and white engraving on paper depicting Lake Pepin. Made by Jacob C. Ward c.1840.
Red Wing’s village
Red Wing’s village
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Dakota canoers above Prairie du Chien
Dakota canoers above Prairie du Chien
Wabasha III
Wabasha III
Map of Native American land cessions in the present-day state of Minnesota
Map of Native American land cessions in the present-day state of Minnesota
Map of Native American land cessions in the present-day state of Iowa
Map of Native American land cessions in the present-day state of Iowa
Color image of a Dakota summer lodge, ca. 1846–1848. Watercolor painting by Seth Eastman.
Color image of a Dakota summer lodge, ca. 1846–1848. Watercolor painting by Seth Eastman.

Turning Point

In 1763, France loses the Seven Years’ War (known to British people on the American continent as the French and Indian War) and transfers all of its territories along the Mississippi River to England. Families with mixed French and Native heritage remain.


500 CE

Members of the Oneota culture—ancestors of the Dakota and possibly the Ho-Chunk—build burial mounds and effigy mounds near villages along tributaries of the Mississippi River.


A very large group of Dakota ancestors moves from He Mni Can village (at present-day Red Wing) down the Mississippi to just north of the current site of La Crosse, Wisconsin.


The Dakota move across the Mississippi to the Root River in present-day Minnesota, where they begin to exchange goods with errant French traders.


The Beaver (or Iroquois) Wars begin in the Great Lakes and New England. They rage for thirty years and disrupt many Native people, who begin moving south and west.


René Robert Cavalier de La Salle, in the name of the King of France, takes possession of the land drained by the Mississippi River, which he called Louisiane.


Trading forts are constructed on the Mississippi near Lakes Pepin and Trempealeau by Frenchmen Pierre Le Sueur and Nicolas Perrot and by Perrot at the mouth of the Wisconsin River (Prairie du Chien.)


Dakota people begin to trade with the French at a fur post on Lake Pepin.


France loses the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War) and cedes all its territories along the Mississippi River to England. Families of mixed French and Native heritage remain and thrive.


Following the Louisiana Purchase, Zebulon Pike makes a land-cession agreement with the Dakota at Bdote (Mendota). The US government, unaware of Pike’s mission, does not recognize it as a formal treaty.


A Great Council and treaty signing is held at Prairie du Chien with Indigenous nations of the Upper Mississippi and the United States, resulting in a line separating the Dakota from the Sac and Fox (Sauk and Meskwaki).


Another treaty at Prairie du Chien creates the so-called “Neutral Ground” along the 1825 line. The US government would move the Ho- Chunk there before moving them again, to Minnesota, in 1845.


Mdewakanton Dakota people living at Kaposia begin to move their village to the site of present-day South St. Paul after the signing of a treaty that cedes their land east of the Mississippi to the United States.


The Dakota cede most of their lands to the US in return for promised annuity payments and supplies and begin moving to reservations on the Minnesota River.


Minnesota becomes a state.


In the aftermath of the US-Dakota War of 1862, Governor Alexander Ramsey orders most of the Dakota, as well as the Ho-Chunk, to leave Minnesota indefinitely.