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(reposted from my tumblr account with minor format adjustments)

I’ve been doing some heavy-duty learning about indigenous history in the Great Lakes from 1600-1800 lately, and in the process I’ve learned a lot about how crappy basically everything students are taught about indigenous Wisconsin history is. This is especially true for the maps created about the area. I’m a map amateur, and if you want some really good stuff on issues of indigenous mapping, you should go check out doveilmiosoldi’s maps tag. But there are some things specific to the Great Lakes and WI in particular that I’d like to point out.

The maps

Map #1, portraying the land in 1830, is a typical example of the sort of map you’d see indicating “traditional lands of Wisconsin Indian tribes.” The layout–Ojibwe in the north, Menominee northeast, Potawatomi east, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) southwest-central, and a teeny bit of Dakota (Sioux) territory (sometimes left out) in the west–is basically the standard narrative that most people take for granted as what tribes “traditionally” lived in Wisconsin before Europeans came in large numbers.

Wisconsin land cessions   Current Wisconsin Indian land holdings

As you can see, it closely resembles the second map, which shows which tribes ceded what land to the United States. It also roughly resembles the locations of those tribes’ current land holdings (map 3). These two facts are the reason why I think that map #1 has become the standard narrative of pre-Eurosettlement Wisconsin.

Great Lakes tribes circa 1600Great Lakes tribes circa 1760

Map 4 and map 5 depict the larger Great Lakes area somewhat earlier, 4 being roughly 1600 and 5 being 1760. The first Europeans to visit Wisconsin didn’t arrive until the 1630s, so the first map is largely speculative. There are some notable differences: the Menominee are further north, the Ho-Chunk further east, a whole other tribe the Iowa in the west and Illinois in the south, while the Potawatomi are over in Michigan and the Ojibwe north of Lake Superior.

By 1760, the Great Lakes looks more familiar to the maps from the 1800s. The Menominee, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Potawatomi are in roughly the same spot as in the early 1800s. The Ho-Chunk are in a smaller territory but the same area. But this map shows a large part of southwestern Wisconsin taken up by the Sauk and Fox, who are barely a blip on the radar of the other maps–in map 2, there’s a strange dotted line indicating Sauk and Fox in 1804, but in map 4 of 1600, the Sauk and Fox are located way over in eastern Michigan!

Add to this a few other things: the numerous landmarks named after the Fox in northeastern Wisconsin (notably the Fox River) in what most maps have as Menominee territory, the fact that the first European contact at Green Bay in the mid-1600s was with Ho-Chunk and Miami people (who by all other accounts are located southeast of Lake Michigan), and the Ojibwe and Odawa that seem to be spread out everywhere in the ceded territory map.

This confused me for a long time. So what the heck is going on?

Wisconsin in the 1600s: a crash course

The big thing about Wisconsin indigenous history that nobody seems to know is this: starting in the 1640s, the Six Nations (the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee) began massive attacks on the people located to the west of them, penetrating into Michigan, southern Ontario, and the Ohio River Valley. This wreaked absolute havoc on the people living there: Iroquoian groups like the Erie, Neutral, and Susquehannock were demolished and survivors adopted into the Six Nations. Basically everyone else, notably the Odawa, Wyandot, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois, fled west as fast as they could.

So by the mid-1600s, Wisconsin was basically one enormous refugee camp. The Ho-Chunk and Menominee, who had lived in Wisconsin before the refugees came, found themselves swamped and vastly reduced (also the Sauk and Fox seem to have migrated west to Wisconsin before the massive exodus but they were a larger tribe). Things such as tribal territory boundaries became more or less nonexistent. Around modern Green Bay and in numerous other locations, enormous intertribal villages existed; there was basically nowhere you could point to where there was only a single ethnic group living.

Note that this was the atmosphere in Wisconsin at the time when Europeans first arrived. They figured out what was going on to some extent, but remained largely clueless about the fact that these people were pretty much all trauma survivors outside their traditional territory. You can imagine how accurate that kind of mapping is going to be.

A short interlude on “territory” in the Great Lakes

It may help to explain that indigenous “territory” in the Great Lakes area did not refer to a strictly set bounded area like national borders did for Europeans. A nation’s territory referred to the land where they had villages and hunting grounds and within which people generally had the same language and customs; generally speaking there was no central authority for a single nation’s territory.

There definitely were boundaries, points at which a nation recognized that the territory wasn’t their but someone else’s, but they tended to be fluid. In addition, it was accepted by Great Lakes nations that in times of bad hunting or agriculture, one could go outside one’s territory to find food; however, after the fur trade began, those who hunted had to turn the skins of the animals over to the nation whose territory they had hunted them in.

These customs, in conjunction with the intertribal nature of the refugees in the 1600s, meant that certain areas may have been shared in common between tribes or fluctuated depending on which villages were where at what time. The area of modern Chicago, for instance, is within the reaches of both Potawatomi and Miami territory, but by the mid to late 1700s the Miami largely resided southwest of there, and though they still considered it within their traditional lands and could hunt there, they generally did not live there.

Wisconsin after the 1600s

By about 1700, the Six Nations made peace with the refugee tribes, allowing many of them to return to their pre-refugee homelands. The Miami and Illinois largely returned south to Illinois and Ohio country, the Odawa moved back a bit east to reside in Michigan, and the Potawatomi spread out in a large U shape along the east and west sides of Lake Michigan. The Ojibwe largely remained along the shores of Lake Superior, the Sauk and Fox (and Kickapoo) stayed in the central-southwest, and the Menominee and Ho-Chunk began to expand back into their lands.

A few things happened that altered this, most notably the Fox Wars in the mid-1700s, in which the French pursued a genocidal campaign against the Fox, driving them west of the Mississippi, which is why by the 1800s, only a small amount of Fox people still resided in western Wisconsin. The fur trade picked up substantially during this time, and gaining access to trade items or obtaining a position as a mediating tribe became a major priority.

All in all, the tribal territories established in the mid-1700s remained largely intact until the time when treaties were made. The area between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay remained fairly mixed in terms of tribal affiliation until the mid-1800s when indigenous people were forced onto reservations, and the Odawa resided in northern and eastern Wisconsin until the same time, when they generally either returned to Odawa treaty lands in Michigan or joined up with Ojibwe reservations. There was a great deal of mixing between Ojibwe, Odawa, Menominee, Metis and French people in northeastern Wisconsin in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and when treaties were made people tended to join up with whoever they were related to or whatever was closest. Also in the 1830s the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown Indians were relocated to various portions of Wisconsin.

Okay, so what does this have to do with maps again?

Basically my point in this post is, the narrative of the four tribes of Wisconsin (Ojibwe, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and Potawatomi) is extremely flawed, even if it does seem obvious and compelling because of current Wisconsin indigenous residents, and it glosses over a massive amount of history.

In terms of maps, my point is that you cannot just stick tribal names on a map of Wisconsin and have it be anything approaching accurate, because before the 1830s, Wisconsin was so mixed in terms of tribal affiliation that in many ways one’s ethnic affiliation was of little importance in comparison to one’s village or relatives.