Lake Winnebago is the largest lake that is entirely within the state of Wisconsin. It is also one of the largest inland lakes in the United States. It is part of a large system of lakes within Wisconsin known as Winnebago Pool. With its surface area of 137,700 acres, Lake Winnebago has a rich history to tell.
The French explorers met with the Winnebago Tribe in 1634. Though their Algonquian neighbors called them Winnebago, the tribe called themselves Ho-Chunk. The name Winnebago meant “people of the filthy water.” This name was given to them due to Lake Winnebago having a strong fishy scent during summer.
In 1827, lead miners began gathering in the area. Along with rumors that two Ho-Chunk prisoners were taken to a rival tribe for execution by the Americans, they retaliated. This sparked the Winnebago Uprising.
With most other Native Americans refusing to join the uprising, the uprising ended quickly. The chiefs of the Ho-Chunk tribe surrendered eight of their men who took part of the violence. This included Red Bird, who they believed led the uprising. Red Bird died in prison in 1828.
After the war, the Ho-Chunk decided to surrender the region to the Americans. The Americans established Fort Winnebago and increased their military presence in the region. With the Winnebago Uprising in mind, some officials decided that the Americans and Indians cannot live peacefully together.
Battle of the Bands
After the struggles of the Winnebago war, the native Americans did not simply idle. In April 1832, a band of Native Americans led by "Black Hawk" attacked the settlers. Black Hawk's group was further reinforced by other groups of native Americans known as the "Sauks", the "Meskwakis" and the "Kickapoos" and their army was known as the "British Band"
Why the name "British Band"? Because in 1812, Black Hawk had an alliance with the British, particularly on the war aptly named "War of 1812". This was when the majority of the war consisted of the Europeans fighting Napoleon's forces. Black Hawk's band would raid and flee as the American forces advanced, but when the American forces were out of the fortresses and settlements, the other groups would continue the raid.
Eventually, the American government mobilized a militia to put an end to Black Hawk’s attempts to harass the settlers. The militia was commanded by General Henry Atkinson and attacked Black Hawk’s group in the “Battle of Bad Axe”. The battle was in General Atkinson’s favor, dealing a decisive blow against Black Hawk. Black Hawk was able to escape after the battle, but soon enough, surrendered.
Interestingly, The Lake Winnebago conflicts and escalations are what gave Abraham Lincoln his military service, though he never really stepped into the front lines.
Time passed and the lake’s name remained. Perhaps a reminder of the struggles between the settlers and the natives. Water gives life and livelihood, even more so as a huge body of it. Yet we have to remember that it comes at a price.