Letter to Lincoln shows Ho-Chunk diplomacy, integrity

Letter to President Abraham Lincoln from 58 Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) tribal members in 1864.


One hundred and fifty years ago, my Ho-Chunk people wrote to President Abraham Lincoln to tell him of their mistreatment by the federal government. They called for action.

When I came across the letter recently at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., the words on those pages filled me with deep gratitude – and heartache.

I put myself in their place as they told of how they had been “defrauded” by government agents. My people (identified in the letter as Winnebago and led by Chief “Winnoshiek”) had been removed from their homelands in Wisconsin and were living on a reservation in Minnesota. The letter must have been written in the final weeks or months at that location. In fact, it was 150 years ago this week that Lincoln ordered the sale of Ho-Chunk reservation lands in Minnesota, as the tribe was forced further west. The tribe would be moved to South Dakota and then to Nebraska, where a permanent reservation eventually would be established.

Here is an excerpt of that letter in 1864:

Winnebago Agency, Minn.

To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States,

The undersigned members of the Winnebago nation respectfully ask permission to speak a few words to you. We are in great trouble and believe that you have both the power and the will to redress our wrongs when we acquaint you with them: and as all other channels of complaint are closed to us, we earnestly appeal to you for justice.

For several years we have been defrauded of a large part of our annuity goods and possessions; though our Great Father at Washington promises liberally for all our wants, but a small part of the goods ever reach us. We are therefore very destitute of clothing and food – not enough to protect us from the extreme cold of this climate. We must suffer much this winter, as we have no means of supplying our wants. We are not permitted to leave our reservation, which is small and very destitute of game.

We know we have not received more than half the goods you sent us last year. A committee of our young men have visited every lodge on our reservation, and enquired the exact amount of goods received by each member of our tribe. We have added them all together, and find that the goods distributed to us were as follows:

Three point white blankets                      244

Two and half point white blankets          20 ½

Three point indigo blankets                         42 ½

Two and a half point indigo blankets      28 ½

One point indigo blankets                             52

Three point scarlet blankets                         26

Two and a half point scarlet blankets        31

Two point scarlet                                           1 blanket

Three point green blankets                        24

Two and a half point green                        26

The letter goes on to describe the meager yards of cloth and other goods to make garments, and the scarcity of food. They ask for their rightful portions to be distributed.

The tone of the letter is dignified. They give facts and are forthright in their request to Lincoln to uphold the government’s part of the treaty. In this letter, they show their morale character and their remarkable leadership in standing up for their rights. Their manner and integrity make me proud of my Ho-Chunk ancestors and the example they set.

The second signature on the 1864 letter to President Lincoln was “Short Wing.” The first signature says: “Win no shiek (chief) his “+”.  (I apologize for the poor quality of the reproduction. My only copy of the final page was in very fine print. This copy is magnified, but it is difficult to read.)

This week I examined the signatures and cross-referenced them with my family tree. To my amazement, I learned that the second person to sign the letter was my great-great-great grandfather on my father’s mother’s side. His name was Short Wing Winneshiek, also known as Young Winneshiek. The first signature on the letter was “Winnoshiek,” chief of the Winnebago. Although my family tree, researched and verified by the Ho-Chunk Nation, does not list the father of Short Wing Winneshiek, I would guess that he was the son of Chief “Winnoshiek.” I need to research it further to be absolutely sure.

The Ho-Chunk Nation enrollment office developed this family tree for me. The name listed in green ink is my great-great-great grandfather, Short Wing Winneshiek.

The letter to President Lincoln represents a connection to my people’s past and is an account of what they endured so that future generations could thrive. Knowing that my great-great-great grandfather had a hand in addressing the president in this manner makes this document even more precious to me.

Here is a list of the 58 Ho-Chunks who signed the letter. Some of the names are illegible, but I did my best to replicate them with the help of James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection in Springfield.

Win no shiek (chief)

Short Wing

White Cloud

Hay o. mic kaw

Little Thunder

Little Hill

Good Heart



Con nic kaw

Schu me qua kaw

Ho-rah pa kaw

Waw kiz num pinga

Waw nuh kee kaw

Cha-rah wa kaw

Ho chah hah wa kaw

So. o. kaw

Hay nuh honuhmic kaw

Ne shu no kaw

Hay nuh ta ga

Frank Teabo

Martha Boyd

To zi kaw

Wonk pa mick aw

Hegha mic wah he kaw

Roo nah nic kaw

Nah a nic kaw

Wan ze kaw

Wa ra ha kaw

Chomim mah nic kaw

Roo noo wa k.ci’s kaw

John Halton

George Decory

Joe ____

Little Fish

Hay no honk pin kaw

Kah he kaw

Wa kon ja hun kaw

Wind Walker

Ista ka ra jon kaw

Ra ra gap.sap kaw

Wi hah na sa

Linda wan jo kaw


Little Snake

Nuh she nas kaw

We roo kah non kaw

Nah mon cha kaw

Muc su kaw

Black Cloud

Nah hic sa wahe kaw

Wo shuck aw

Wan jo cha cha kaw

Nah he shep kaw

Cha rah we kaw

Wo cha he re kaw

Hay nah ship kaw

Chay nic si kaw

Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.