Origin and History
The Winnebago people (literally “people of the dirty waters”) are a Siouan-speaking group of Native Americans. Their native name is Ho-Chunk (or Hoocạk), which has been variously translated as ‘Sacred Voice’ or ‘People of the Big Voice’ as it has been considered that they originated the Siouan language family. They inhabited the Door Peninsula and the eastern shores of Green Bay on Lake Michigan, reaching beyond Lake Winnebago to the Wisconsin River and to the Rock River in Illinois.
The first direct contact the Winnebago people had with the French was in 1634, when Champlain sent Jean Nicolet to make peace with them and the nations to the east of them. The French called the Winnebago the “Puants” (stinkards). At that time, their population was estimated at between 8,000 and 20,000 by the French.
The Winnebago at first spurned the idea of trading with the French and had killed Odawa envoys. This led to frequent attacks against the Winnebago by the Odawa compelling them to gather together in a single settlement. Clustered in one village they were much affected by epidemics.
The Meskwaki entered present-day Wisconsin from Michigan between 1634 and 1650. This resulted in frequent raids between the two peoples. One Winnebago war party of 500 men was sent against the Meskwaki across Green Bay or Lake Winnebago but they were all lost when a ‘tempest’ arose. The frequent raids even dispersed all the game and they were affected by famine. The Illinois took pity and brought them food but during the feast the Winnebago killed them. The Winnebago withdrew to an island, probably Doty Island on the north end of Lake Winnebago. In the following winter the Illinois attacked over the iced lake but found they had left the previous day for a winter hunt. The Winnebago were pursued by the Illinois who caught them and killed and captured as many as they could.
In 1665 Nicolas Perrot was sent as the French agent in the western Great Lakes. By this time the population had fallen according to the French to 150 warriors some 450 to 600 people in all. At this point their homeland had been overrun with refugee Algonquin speakers and Wyandot people. The Winnebago were finally obliged to maintain friendly relations with their former enemies and intermarried with them to recoup their population loss. There were no ‘pure Winnebago’ because of this extensive intermarriage mainly with the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Menominee, Sauk, and the Meskwaki. At the same time, they adopted many Algonquin traits.
As the threats of raids on them decreased the Winnebago dispersed to occupy a territory bounded in the east and south by Lake Winnebago and the Rock River, and on the west by the eastern watershed of the Mississippi River and extending north to the Prairie du Chien. Large villages gave way to much smaller widely scattered settlements with a few villages in the Lake Winnebago area.
Although neutral in the First Fox War and initially supporting the Meskwaki (Fox) in the Second Fox War, in the fall of 1729 the Winnebago joined the Odawa and Ojibwe on an attack on a Meskwaki village killing around a 100. In October the Winnebago massacred a new Meskwaki village on an island in Little Lake Butte des Morts (near present-day Neenah, Wisconsin). In February 1730 the Meskwaki retaliated and besieged a Winnebago village. After two days the Winnebago asked for a truce explaining they were forced to join the Odawa and Menominee, and surrendered four Menominee present in the village. However, the Winnebago refused to hand over those who had attacked one of their hunting parties. Firing recommenced. Pierre Paul, Sieur de Marin headed an expedition with 9 soldiers and around 36 Menominee warriors to aid the Winnebago. Marin failed to break through into the Winnebago village and subsequently repulsed two Meskwaki attacks. Finally, Marin succeeded in crossing the lake to the Winnebago village during the night. The siege continued for over a month until on March 25, the Meskwaki withdrew for lack of supplies.
By 1736, the Winnebago people numbered some 700.
In 1744 (King George’s War), Winnebago and other warriors from western nations travelled to Montréal as allies of the French to attack the British.
In 1752 the Winnebago were part of an alliance that launched attacks on the Illinois. Travelling by canoe down the Mississippi and they destroyed the Michigamea village near Cahokia, killing over 80 warriors.
In July and August 1754 Winnebago emissaries were amongst 1,200 attendees at conference brought together by the Odawa at Michilimackinac to discuss the impending conflict between France and Great Britain and cleared the way to go to war together against the British.
Role during the War
In 1755 a few Winnebago warriors were among the 637 Native American warriors that took part in the Ambush on the Monongahela, where they attacked along the flanks of the British column, winning the day.
By July 28, 1757, 48 Winnebago warriors from the Green Bay area formed part of Marin's Brigade during the French expedition against Fort William Henry. The siege of Fort William Henry started on August 4 and lasted until August 9 during which time Native Americans were deployed as an observation screen in woods around the perimeter of the cleared land. Following this they are likely to have suffered an outbreak of smallpox. In addition, the British naval blockade of Canada had affected the supply of French trade goods.
1n 1761 a small detachment of the 80th Foot arrived at Green Bay to take over the fort following the defeat of the French in 1760.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Winnebago dress known to the author, although they were present in gatherings observed by recorders. They are likely to have followed the general fashion of the region. Bougainville stated in June 1757 that he saw, ‘... no difference in their dress, ornaments, dances and songs of these different nations. They are naked save for a breechclout, and painted black, red, blue, etc. Their heads are shaved and feather ornament them. In their lengthened ear [lobes] are rings of brass wire. They have beaver skins for covering, and carry lances, arrows and quivers made of buffalo skin.’ However, he was able to distinguish between the music of the Winnebago and the Odawa (an Algonquin speaking nation). The following is surmised:
Winnebago men may have shaved their head leaving a patch with a long braid or braids at the crown of the head. Paul Radin recorded in the early 1920s that men formerly wore their hair in two braids, with the parting painted with various colours according to the individual. However, he did state that the some seem to have worn the Meskwaki and Sauk styles. This latter is likely to have been worn in the 18th century and the braid style adopted from Plains Indian fashion as part of the nation was displaced west in the 19th century. Bougainville certainly did not spot any differences between the Winnebago and other nations. Radin did not think that they wore clan styles as found among the Siouan speaking Iowa and Osage.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences.
A circular roach of red dyed deer hair sewed around a woven base secured with a bone spreader may have been worn. It is fixed to the head by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a bone or wood socket into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Tattoo and Paint
Tattooing of the face and body is likely to have been practised by Winnebago men as an alternative to painting. Tattoos were in the form of linear patterns and also some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure ingrained with powdered charcoal.
It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.
Ears and Nose
Winnebago men are likely to have pierced ears. However, there is no evidence that they detached the helix of the ear as did those men of nations to the east of them. Even so, some may have. Earrings were made of silver, brass and sometimes tin. These could have pendant solid silver ball and cones or thin sheets of brass cut into triangles for example.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass beads were likely to have been worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells and silver disc. Latterly, as allies of the French silver officer’s gorgets may have been issued to war leaders.
Silver bracelets and armbands were probably worn.
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Winnebago men was the breechclout. Pierre Pouchot, writing at the time of the French and Indian War: ‘The men... wear a breach-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell of cloth, which they pass between their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometimes this cloth is embroidered. When they travel, to avoid being chafed by the cloth, they put it on simply as an apron before them.’
Winnebago men are likely to have followed the fashion for half leggings, fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, broaches and braid. Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin could be worn.
Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of the skins of animals, woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave of or of deerskin decorated with quilled bands. One preference was for the skin of polecat.
Winnebago moccasins were made one piece of smoked buckskin with a single seam over the instep and a cuff. Paul Radin writing around 1920 states that there was a marked difference between those of men and women.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermilion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
Blankets and Robes
Trade blankets, usually of blue or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with bands of ribbon, and skin robes were worn for warmth.
Winnebago warriors are likely to have hung from the belt holding the breechclout their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which could be the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel.
By the beginning of the Seven Years War the standard trade musket that armed the Winnebago was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal either obtained in trade. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of the deerskin probably with a rounded bottom, from animal skins with the hair left on, otter or badger for example, or perhaps of woven hemp fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads. Straps were likely to have been made of woven buffalo hair. A knife was carried in a sheaf (which, rarely may have been decorated with quillwork) hung around the neck.
It is also possible that some Winnebago warriors carried bows and arrows as their principal arm at the time of the French and Indian War.
A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt on the hip.
Hamilton, Edward (trans. and ed.) Adventures in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, pp.118, 120, 151.
Hughes, Ben, The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier, Yardley: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2014, p.97, 101.
Lurie, Nancy O., Winnebago: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp.690-707.
McDonnell, Michael A, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2015, pp.165-167.
Radin, Paul, The Winnebago Tribe, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970, pp. 60-61.
White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p.198.
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of this article