Perhaps no topic proves as complex for students of history as the story of race relations. We recently completed the 10th edition of the Falls History Project, plunging into a local story that is seemingly unnoticed. Specifically, we explored a tragic moment in Ho-chunk history and the surprising involvement of Jacob Spaulding and other Euro-Americans in that story. Here’s some background.
When easterners first ventured into the Black River Valley in 1819, they encountered the Ho-chunk people, a tribe that at one time laid claim to the northern third of Illinois and the southern third of Wisconsin. Like other tribes of the region, the Ho-chunk people were forced to deal with a succession of powerful European political entities, first the French, then the British, and ultimately the upstart Americans who broke from British rule. They first signed a treaty of “peace and friendship” with the US Government in 1816. As was often the case, negotiation with the government led to both inter and intra-tribal factionalizing – a very confusing scenario that, in the case of the Ho-Chunk, forever changed their history. Encroachment by white settlers on Ho-chunk land began in earnest in the 1820s with the advent of lead-mining south of Prairie du Chien. Land cession treaties signed in 1829 and 1832 ultimately led to the attempt to move the Ho-chunk people to an area west of the Mississippi in Iowa (the so-called “Neutral Ground”). Meanwhile, the government continued to press the tribe to cede their remaining lands in Wisconsin, pressure that eventually led to the Treaty of 1837.
According to anthropologist and historian Nancy Lurie, the tribe refused to sell more land and in the summer of 1837 accepted an invitation to send a delegation to Washington to meet with representatives of President Van Buren. Because they were determined to keep their land, the tribe sent a delegation of 20 men who had no authority to sign a treaty of cession. Upon their arrival in Washington, they were immediately pressured into ceding their remaining Wisconsin land. According to later accounts, they believed they would not be allowed to return home if they did not sign the treaty. Further, they finally signed the document with the assurance that they would have “eight years” before having to leave Wisconsin, when in reality the treaty read “eight months,” a deliberate deception later admitted by the interpreter. The disastrous Treaty of 1837 led to a permanent split in the Ho-chunk tribe. The “treaty-abiding faction” believed it would be best to move and “make the best of a bad bargain.” The “non-abiding faction” led by Yellow Thunder Dandy, and Big Hawk, refused to leave and for the next 37 years fought a series of removals.
The land cession of 1837 opened the door for further white incursions into this region of the state, and it was at that moment that Jacob Spaulding, along with a party of second-wave New Englanders, left Prairie du Chien and headed north on the Mississippi to LaCrosse. From there, it was a 40 mile northwestern journey on the black-colored tributary that brought them into the area later known as Black River Falls. These “Yankees,” of course, encountered Ho-chunk people who referred to this place as Niosawani’eeja, literally “where the water disappears.” Not surprisingly, early encounters were tension-filled, each group wary of what to expect from the other. It was at the falls that Spaulding and his companions built a saw mill and began to envision their future as lumber barons. For the next 37 years, Spaulding left his mark on the city and surrounding region in a myriad of ways.
Among his many legacies, Spaulding’s evolving relationship with Ho-chunk people proved enticing to me, and surprising in light of this horrible story of removal. Spaulding spent the last five years of his life speaking out against the removal of the Ho-chunk from Wisconsin, and working to secure land for a reservation or homesteads. This story, I believe, challenges our perception of period and indicates to me just how complex race relations have been throughout our history. In a community of pronounced cultural mix, Spaulding’s story adds a layer to our understanding. I tried to address this in a piece I wrote on Spaulding’s funeral, an event that inspired my imagination. Here is a link if you want to know more about what happened back there: