The Winnebago War, also referred as the Le or Fever River Warian War, was an armed conflict that took place in 1827, in the southwest region of the state of Wisconsin, between members of the Winnebago (known also as the Ho-Chunk) tribe, local militias and the U.S. Army. Although losses in terms of lives were minimal, the Winnebago War was an immediate and determinant precedent to the much larger conflict known as the Black Hawk War.
i- Causes of War
A treaty of peace had been signed at Prairie du Chien on August 19, 1825, by the terms of which all the common boundaries between the white settlers, the Winnebago, Potawatomi, Sioux, Sauk, Fox and other tribes, were defined. While the situation remained generally tense but peaceful between settlers who arrived in Wisconsin during the lead boom and the local Native Americans, violence eventually broke out. The different tribes not only commenced a warfare among themselves in regard to their respective territorial limits, but they extended their hostilities to the white settlements as response for the increasing occupation of their lands.
The Winnebago War has its immediate roots in the alleged murder of the Method family of Prairie du Chien in spring, 1826, when the family was gathering Maple syrup near the Yellow River in present day Iowa. Following the discovery of the deaths, six Winnebago men were arrested in Prairie du Chien and accused of the murders. While four of the men were soon released, two were jailed in Prairie du Chien’s Fort Crawford. Later during the same year, Col. Josiah Snelling, commander of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, ordered the garrison at Fort Crawford to relocate to Fort Snelling, leaving Prairie du Chien undefended by federal troops. During the relocation, the two Winnebago prisoners were also moved to Fort Snelling, but misinformation spread among the Winnebago that the men had been killed. This further heightened the tensions between the Winnebago and the white settlers of southwest Wisconsin.
On June 27, 1827, a band of Winnebago led by a war chief named Red Bird and a Prophet called White Cloud (Wabokieshiek, who would later have an important role in the events surrounding the Black Hawk War) entered Prairie du Chien seeking revenge for what they believed were the executions of the Winnebago prisoners by the U.S. Army. Red Bird, White Cloud, and their followers first entered the home of local merchant James Lockwood, but finding that he wasn’t home, they proceeded to the home of Registe Gagnier, a few miles southwest of Prairie du Chien. The Gagnier family knew Red Bird, and welcomed him and his companions into the house, offering them a meal. Soon, though, the Winnebago men turned violent. They first shot Rigeste Gagnier, and then turned their attention towards Solomon Lipcap, a hired man who was working in a garden outside the home. Gagnier’s wife took this opportunity to take her three year old son and flee to the home of a neighbour. Still inside the house was the Gagnier’s one year old daughter. After the Winnebagos had succeeded in killing and scalping both Rigeste Gagnier and Solomon Lipcap, they returned to the house and found the infant, whom they partially scalped. Then they quickly fled the scene, for an alarm had been raised in the town and a crowd of men were on their way to the house. By the time they arrived, Red Bird and his companions were long gone. Remarkably, the infant girl was found alive, and she was brought to the village to recover.
Following these murders at Prairie du Chien, widespread fear arose among white settlers in the region, and a volunteer militia was formed to protect the town against further attack. Meanwhile, Red Bird and his men went north to what is now La Crosse, Wisconsin. In early July, they attacked two keel-boats carrying supplies to Fort Snelling up the Mississippi River, killing two of the crew and wounding four white men. Seven Winnebago also perished in the attack. A series of further attacks and guerrilla actions against the local white population ensued. Red Bird and his followers killed some settlers along the lower Wisconsin River and struck the lead mines near Galena. Several members of other local tribes joined the actions, like the Potawatomi and the Sauk.
On July 5, Lewis Cass, the governor of Michigan Territory, was in Galena, Illinois, where he learned of the ongoing conflict. He ordered Lt. Thomas Martin and Abner Field, who were also in Galena at the time, to gather a militia in Illinois and then join with the volunteers at Prairie du Chien. On July 10, Cass wrote to the Secretary of War to inform him of the activities on the frontier. Col. Snelling arrived at Prairie du Chien on the same day, bringing with him federal troops to reoccupy Fort Crawford. More federal troops were mustered from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 15, and sent towards Wisconsin under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Atkinson. Later, on July 27, Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards issued an order to Gen. James Harrison’s brigade, located on the east side of the Illinois River, to detach one-fourth of the regiments and prepare to meet any attack by the Indians. He also wrote to Col. Thomas M. Neale of the 20th Regiment, located in Sangamon County to recruit 600 volunteers. Groups of militia were organized from the settlers and miners and placed under the command of Gen. Henry Dodge, and formed an auxiliary force to the command of Brig. Gen. Atkinson, who arrived at Fort Crawford on July 29. A month later, his force began its way up the Wisconsin River towards Portage, Wisconsin, in the heart of Indian country, hoping that the show of force would force the Winnebago to surrender.
On September 27, the uprising came to an end before the arrival of the American troops in Indian country when Red Bird, White Cloud and five other leading warriors surrendered in Portage, rather than facing the threat of open warfare with the U. S. military. Red Bird died while in confinement and a few local leaders who had taken part in the actions were executed on December 26. White Cloud and other chiefs and warriors, including Black Hawk, were pardoned by the President and released. An attempt to negotiate a land cession between the United States and the Winnebago at Green Bay in 1828 proved unsuccessful. Later, in August, 1829, in a treaty signed at Prairie du Chien, the Winnebago ceded northern Illinois to the United States for $540,000 to be paid to the tribe in annual instalments of $18,000 over 30 years, and an additional $30,000 worth of goods to be dispensed immediately.
The general sense of unease among the local Native American population was severely increased due to the Winnebago War and the treaty that was forced upon the tribe afterwards. The hostilities, as well as the surmounting immigration of white settlers that ensued, made the possibilities of reaching a peaceful agreement extremely difficult. The resulting tension inevitably led to another armed conflict, the Black Hawk War of 1832, this time with the neighbouring Sauk and Fox, and in which many members of the local tribes who had been involved at the Winnebago War would take part.