Recounting the History of the Ho-Chunk Presence in Madison
From Time Immemorial
Top: Janice Rice
Above: A map of the Madison area depicting where Ho-Chunk villages were located
before the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk beginning in 1832
By Jonathan Gramling

There really is no way to pinpoint how long the Ho-Chunk Nation has occupied spaces within
what is now called Wisconsin. People just say from time immemorial for there was no one here
to chart the Ho-Chunks arrival here.

According to Janice Rice, a retired UW-Madison librarian and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the
Ho-Chunk people are river people who used them for hunting and fishing. And so one really
needs to follow the water to chart where the Ho-Chunk lived in Wisconsin.

“The territory covered all the way from Green Bay down to Northern Illinois, the Rock River down
near Dixon, Illinois,” Rice said. “We followed the rivers, the Fox, Wisconsin
and others all the way to Rock Island, Illinois. If you follow the rivers, it is the
Black River and the Yellow River. The Yellow River runs south of Marshfield
and comes down near Wisconsin Rapids and joins the Wisconsin River. The
Fox comes down from Lake Winnebago and the Rock River down to Northern

And some of those waters are the four lakes in the Madison area: Mendota,
Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa.

“There are villages all around the four lakes,” Rice said. “The populations of
the villages was flexible depending on ceremonies, hunting and fishing. The
waterways such as Howį́xera (Catfish, Duck) or Yahara River provided a
source of transportation and a basis for economic well-being of the
community.  Waterways enabled men, women and children to reach their
choice hunting grounds, fishing spots, rice beds, cornfields, gardens and
natural vegetation. It was our livelihood during the fur trade era.”

The first Europeans the Ho-Chunk came in contact with were the French who
also used the rivers for navigation. The French were primarily interested in
trading for furs with the Ho-Chunk and not in competing for the land. French
trading posts were scattered throughout the region and a major one was on
Lake Mendota where Pheasant Branch Creek empties into the lake in

Everything changed with the arrival of the American settlers.

“There was a symbiotic relationship between the French and the Ho-Chunk,”
Rice said. “That was a peaceful relationship. But then when the French and
Indian War happened and the Ho-Chunk were with the British. Americans were
fighting the British and the Ho-Chunk were with the British. Most of the tribes
were with the British because they didn’t know Americans at all. They just knew that they kept encroaching. In the previous culture and political situation, they were
always communicating with the British and the French prior to that. And then when the British took over on fur trading, they didn’t come in and actually take over the
fur trading. They just hired out the French people to continue the trade going. But the British were the people with whom they negotiated.”

The area that was to become the state of Wisconsin was ceded by the British to the Americans in 1783 and the areas of Iowa and Minnesota were purchased from
the French in 1803, part of the Louisiana Purchase. The environment was set to change as American settlers and miners poured into the area and after the War of
1812, which ended any British designs on the United States, the U.S. government began to move against the Ho-Chunk beginning with the Treaty of 1816 signed in
St. Louis. There would be 11 separate treaties by 1881 that would remove more and more ancestral lands out of Ho-Chunk control.

“The treaty that affects Madison is the Treaty of 1832,” Rice said. “That was after Black Hawk came through. The land concessions covered the land that covered
Madison. And then the Treaty of 1837 — a contested treaty because the signers were not authorized to represent the Ho-Chunk and it was negotiated in Washington,
D.C. and not in Indian Country — was the next one. And that’s the one that moved everyone to Turkey River, Iowa. When that Treaty of 1832 happened, all of the Ho-
Chunk who were in Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois got bumped up to the other side of the Wisconsin River. By the time everyone had scooted up across
the Wisconsin River — they hadn’t all moved there yet — the Treaty of 1837 happened to move everyone across to Iowa, that was the contested treaty by the Ho-
Chunk people. That’s why people kept coming back. They were still coming back to Dane County and probably Northern Illinois all along, but came back primarily to
Columbia and Sauk Counties. They kept returning to all of the other counties except for Dane County. Maybe they didn’t come back to DeJope in large numbers. The
larger numbers were going across the Wisconsin River to Baraboo and
Reedsburg and the Wisconsin Dells and Juneau County — anywhere
where there were rivers and good hunting and fishing. They were
coming back to the lands where they had their gardens and where their
relatives were buried. They knew where their home sites were.”

But the removal didn’t end there.

“There were different stages of carving up Wisconsin,” Rice said. “By
the 1837 treaty, they were so close to start moving across the
Mississippi. After several more treaties, the Ho-Chunk were moved to
Nebraska. After Iowa, they were moved to Long Prairie, Minnesota and
from there, they were moved down to Blue Earth and two treaties were
negotiated at Blue Earth. And then they were moved to Crow Creek,
South Dakota. And then from Crow Creek, they were moved to the
reservation in Winnebago, Nebraska.”

While some of the Ho-Chunk stayed in Nebraska, others were determined
to move back to Wisconsin. By the 1880s, the Ho-Chunk were allowed to
come back to Wisconsin as homesteaders. Many homesteads were
established in the Black River Falls area.

“In 1878, Jacob Hauser assisted the Hoocaks (Ho-Chunks) by setting
aside land to create the Winnebago Indian Christian Reformed Church
east of Black River Falls,” Rice said. “Many of the Hoocaks were
already settled nearby. This created a land base for returning Hoocaks
as well. In 1881, special legislation enabled Ho-Chunks to purchase
lands to create homesteads for returning relatives. Eventually, in 1887,
the Dawes Act enabled Ho-Chunks to acquire additional homestead
lands, with 20 year stipulations that many were not aware of. Many lost
their lands in the 1950’s due to non-payment of taxes. Others sold their

And so the Ho-Chunk didn’t have contiguous reservation land like the
Menominee and other Wisconsin tribes. Their lands are scattered across
the vast lands they lived on before the arrival of European settlers.

“In all that time, from that very first treaty in 1832, Ho-Chunk people kept
coming back,” Rice said. “They would get removed and cross the river
and discover that there wasn’t enough food there and not enough game
and their gardens were back in Wisconsin and the crops would be ripe
by then. They would come back over and they were back home again.
With every treaty, people were coming home. They would try to take them
and maybe they would make it there. They would cross the river.”

Next issue: More Ho-Chunk history