An Incident at Reedsburg

By Bill Schuette

  Re-enactment of Removal filmed at North Freedom

Re-enactment of Removal filmed at North Freedom

    It was the day after Christmas in 1873 and the citizens of Reedsburg were not in a festive mood. A crowd of angry townspeople had gathered at the railroad depot to protest the forced deportation of a well-known family from the area. The family consisted of the wife, children and grand-children of A-Ha-Cho-Ka, or Blue Wing, chief of the local Winnebago tribe (now known as the Ho-Chunk), who’s village was located near the town. A squad of U.S. soldiers, led by Captain Hunt, who had been sent down from Sparta, were attempting to carry out an order to relocate the Indians to a reservation in Nebraska. Things were not at all going well.

Two days before Christmas as dawn broke across the cold bleak landscape, Captain S.A. Hunt, an official Government agent charged with the task of removing the remainder of the Indians from Southern Wisconsin, and Sheriff Pool, crossed the Wisconsin River Bridge at Portage, leading a detachment of 51 U.S. troops. They were headed in the direction of the Baraboo River, near Crawford Bridge.

At about the same time, representatives of area Winnebago tribes had gathered in the hills near Portage and were in the midst of an annual pow-wow and celebration. A feast of dog meat and venison was prepared. Decked out in war paint and feathers, the Indian braves danced a dance of war. They were determined to resist yet another removal of their families from ancestral hunting grounds and homes. A council of war discussed how they might withstand this onslaught of the “pale-faced ambassadors.”

During the height of the Winnebago celebrations, soldiers descended from the hills and upon the unsuspecting Indians, taking them by complete surprise. The entire band of 100, along with their chief, was surrounded and taken captive. Suffice to say, the Indians refused to acquiesce and follow their predecessors to reservations out west. However, bowing to threats from the soldiers, they were lined up with their families and possessions, and marched to the Portage railroad depot. There they were loaded onto the cars, along with 42 ponies and adequate provisions for the journey and sent to Sparta, the gathering point for all Winnebago captured by Capt. Hunt.

The days that followed were fraught with gloom and sadness, as Sheriff Pool and his hired men gathered the wives and children of braves who had not attended the pow-wow. Several days later, two or three dozen departed for Sparta to join their husbands and fathers.

When the residents of Reedsburg found out what had happened, they were outraged. Blue Wing and his family had eagerly welcomed by early white settlers into Sauk County. His greatest qualities, according to his contemporaries, were his good nature, kindness and integrity. He always dealt fairly with his white neighbors, and was often invited to spend the night with settlers when he came to visit. He was a citizen of the United States and a landowner.

Sunday Chief, the head of another Winnebago family, had served his country in the army and been honorably discharged. That should have exempted him and his family from the forced exodus. Several citizens hurriedly fired off a letter to Capt. Hunt, imploring him to rectify the injustice, and immediately return Sunday Chief and his family to their home.

  Winnebago camp in Sauk Co.

Winnebago camp in Sauk Co.

At about that same time, soldiers were rounding up other Indian families in the Reedsburg area and placing them in confinement. Among them were Blue Wing’s wife, children and grandchildren.

An article in the Reedsburg Free Press, dated January 2, 1874, decried the outrage: “Our people were ‘mad’ when it was first known, and as the day progressed they got ‘madder and madder,’ and about six o’clock in the evening a writ of habeas corpus—an order issued to release a party from unlawful restraint—was sworn out before Esq. Hunt, Court Commissioner, and placed in the hands of Deputy Sheriff H.D. Buel, who proceeded to the Reedsburg depot, accompanied by quite a large number of our usually quiet but now thoroughly aroused citizens, determined to see the writ obeyed.”

The 100th anniversary booklet Reedsburg Remembers, written in 1948, recounts the day’s events as follows: “Horace J. Smith, who was a silent listener to the parley and touched by the streaming tears of the Indian women, at once collected six or eight sturdy companions, and with them went to the depot, where the Indians were gathered in charge of the officers waiting for the train. Smith told the agents that he and his squad had come to see to it that the Indians were not put aboard the cars. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he further stated that an outrage was being committed, and that if any further attempt was made to take the Indians there would be trouble galore in which he and his group would take an active part.”

Again from the Free Press we learn that, “At first the officer having the Indians in charge, declined to pay any attention to the writ, but seeing the determined front of the crowd, he thought better of it, and released the persons demanded, who were taken before Esq. Hunt, and after a fair hearing, they were discharged.”

The Free Press correspondent continues, “The officer proceeded west on the Saturday evening train, with his squad and the balance of his prisoners, telegraphing ahead that the citizens of Reedsburg had wrestled a number of them Indians from him by force of arms; which was a most untruthful and unjust report.”  

The heroic actions of Reedsburg’s citizens that day helped, in part, to convince the U.S. Government to abandon its inhuman policy of Indian relocation.

One hundred and forty-plus years have come and gone since then. Memories of those heart-rending events have all but faded with the passage of time. However, it is important that we should remember those gallant Reedsburg pioneers, and the brave Native Americans who stood up for their American rights as citizens, and thwarted the illegal and ill-informed actions of a few who were guided by unjust laws.