La Crosse Occupies Ho-Chunk Land

What is now called La Crosse occupies land that the Ho-Chunk have stewarded since time immemorial. While today the area is full of trees, it was once an open sand prairie that was home to a band of Ho-Chunk. The Ho-Chunk word for the area that the city of La Crosse now occupies is Hįnųkwas.

To learn more about Ho-Chunk history, please consult resources made by Ho-Chunk Tribal members.

A few examples include:


The Invasion of White Colonizers

The first white colonizer to set up camp here with the intention of permanent settlement was Nathan Myrick in 1841. However, this area has seen European colonizers for much longer than that. French fur traders and missionaries have been in the Great Lakes region since the 1600s, and Spanish and British militaries were in this area extensively in the 1700s-1800s, trying to create maps and take claim over the area's resources.

By the 1820s, many illegal squatters had invaded Ho-Chunk land, attracted to the lead and iron resources in southwestern Wisconsin. Thousands of lead miners, today often symbolized and celebrated as Wisconsin's Badgers invaded Ho-Chunk lead mines near what is today Mineral Point, Wisconsin. And these invaders brought with them squatters who looked to build communities and work the land—farmers, tavern owners, bankers, cooks, politicians, brewers, etc. All of these people, who are often considered Wisconsin's founding pioneer families, were violating treaty lines and profiting off of the illegal mining. 

At this time, the Hįnųkwas (area that is now La Crosse) band was led by a man named Waanįk Šuuc who is often referred to as Red Bird. Waanįk Šuuc was popular among his band, which in the 1820s, consisted of eighteen lodges and over 100 men. The Hįnųkwas band was known to be more cautious of the illegal invaders stealing Ho-Chunk land and resources, and in 1827, Waanįk Šuuc led a defense mission that ended in his imprisonment and the 1829 land cession treaty. This conflict is usually called the "Winnebago War," and most histories explaining the conflict paint the white colonizers as the victims. But it is important to see this history from multiple perspectives, and understand the intricate web of events that led to the cession of Ho-Chunk land.

To learn more, watch this Dark La Crosse Stories episode:


The Removal Period

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in an attempt to forcibly and violently remove Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands located east of the Mississippi River to occupied territory west of the river. Beginning in the 1830s through the 1870s, the Federal Government conducted a series of attempts to forcibly remove local Ho-Chunk to reservations in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally to Nebraska.

One of these removals took place in 1848--months before Wisconsin declared statehood. Removing Indigenous peoples from the land was fundamental to platting cities and farms for new colonizers. One of the rendezvous locations of the U.S. Army personnel in charge of the 1848 removal of the Ho-Chunk was located here in La Crosse. They rounded up Ho-Chunk families scattered across their homelands, marched them to La Crosse, where they camped under guard near the steamboat landing that was at the corner of Front and State streets (today's Spence Park, across the street from the Charmant). From here, they were forced onto steamboats whose pilots had been contracted by the U.S. government to transport groups of Ho-Chunk up river to the Long Prairie Reservation in central Minnesota.


Map created by Cole Sutton.

Despite the repeated removals, some non-treaty-abiding Ho-Chunk returned to their homelands. Others were removed eventually to the reservation in Nebraska, where their descendants make up the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska today. The Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin are the descendants of the Ho-Chunk who returned to their homelands after the removals.