Second of a two-part series
For tribal elders, this migration was unpleasant but nothing new. More than a century later, local historian Percival Narveson termed “this uneasy procession” to be “the most colorful and spectacular sight ever witnessed” in what became western Houston County.
In the summer of 1848, about 2,500 Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Indians, 90 soldiers, about 180 civilians, 1,600 ponies, several hundred cattle, 166 covered Army wagons, 500 tents and two cannon drawn by oxen left Fort Atkinson (in Iowa) toward Winona. The prehistoric Winona-Fort Atkinson Trail took this three-mile-long procession through what later became Spring Grove, Black Hammer, Yucatan and Houston Townships. The tribe was being relocated 300 miles north.
When first encountered by French explorers in the 1600s, the Winnebagos lived near Green Bay. By the early 1830s, they had moved west to the Mississippi River due to pressure from more aggressive tribes and encroachment from white settlers. Soon after, in 1837, they ceded the last of their Wisconsin land to the United States government and agreed to resettle in the Neutral Grounds – set aside as common hunting grounds for several tribes.
By 1842, most of the reluctant Winnebagos were settled in that tract just west of the Mississippi River – mostly in what is now northeast Iowa but also extending into what is now Houston and Fillmore Counties of Minnesota. At that time, the area was all in Iowa Territory before Minnesota Territory was created in March of 1849.
Fort Atkinson was built (1840-42) to protect the Winnebagos in the Neutral Grounds until a more permanent home could be located. Native American cultures were unfamiliar with the concept of geographic boundaries. This would be a recuring problem.
Fort records reveal many attempts to settle boundary disputes and conflicts between wandering Winnebagos and nearby white settlers. Fur traders supplied the Indians with whiskey, and white settlers continued to covet reservation land.
So, three years after the fort was completed, it was decided to relocate the tribe again in what is now central Minnesota, where the more peaceful Winnebagos would not only be separated from settlers but also be a buffer between two warring tribes, the Sioux and the Chippewa.
In 1846, the Winnebagos ceded their claim to the Neutral Grounds and agreed to occupy more than 800,000 acres north of the Minnesota River – the Long Prairie Reservation. The plan called for an overland journey to Winona, where steamboats would take them to Fort Snelling before traveling overland to the new reservation.
The Winnebagos came to protest the danger of being a buffer between the Sioux and the Chippewa. Before the June, 1848 removal and during the 300-mile route, it was difficult to prevent the Indians from wandering away.
There were many delays, including an Indian burial, thought to have taken place in what is now in Section 16 of Highland Township.
A trusted Winnebago chief named Little Hill confided to Captain Morgan that Chief Wabasha’s band of Sioux planned to join the Winnebagos in overwhelming the whites when the cavalcade reached Wabasha’s territory. So Morgan called a 10-day halt while secretly sending news of the threat to both Fort Snelling up north and Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wis. Messengers returned with word that reinforcements from both installations would be waiting at Winona.
Upon reaching Wabasha’s village at Winona, the two tribes intermingled. Morgan had correctly heeded the warning from Little Hill. When an Indian war party advanced toward the boat landing, they backed down when faced with the unexpected military reinforcements.
To the jeering of the rebellious bands, Chief Little Hill and his band were the first to take the steamboat voyage. By the time the boat returned from Fort Snelling, about 1,700 more had come to terms.
However, not all of the Winnebagoes were persuaded to go. Some escaped into Wisconsin; others returned back south toward Iowa. Complaints from settlers led to federal officials attempting to round up these scattered bands.
Those making it to the Long Prairie area were soon dissatisfied and later moved to a reservation near Mankato and then to South Dakota and finally to Nebraska.
However, some Winnebagos were back near the Root River and its tributaries when white settlers arrived in 1852-53.