The Ho-Chunk were cursed by their own success.
By the time Jean Nicollet arrived as a mid-17th century explorer, the tribe numbered in the thousands, proliferating in what is now Wisconsin.
Called “Winnebago” by their neighboring Ojibwe—a name adopted by the arriving white man—the Ho-Chunk had a feminist streak. Women served as peace-time leaders, calling the shots on farming and mining as the tribe took advantage of lead deposits on their land, according to historian Catherine Coats.
In the late 1820s, a U.S. Army general and businessman named Henry Dodge claimed a rich deposit of Ho-Chunk lead as his own. And what the white man wanted, the white man got. Dodge, who would later become governor and a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, sealed the tribe’s fate. They had to go.
The tribe was first moved to Iowa, then to Minnesota a decade later, arriving in a heavily forested area of central Minnesota, which hardly suited their farmer-hunter subsistence. In 1855, some 2,000 Ho-Chunk were relocated yet again, this time to Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota, next to the burgeoning township of Mankato.
In all their dealings with the white man, this plot of arable land was the Ho-Chunk’s first good deal. Too good. In 1859, one year after Minnesota achieved statehood, the United States cut in half the Ho-Chunk’s land, freeing up the rest for white settlers it hoped to attract.
But this was not enough. By the 1862 elections, while most Americans were consumed with the Civil War, Mankato’s newspapers debated which party would rid them of the Ho-Chunk.
The tribe’s crimes against the white man were rare, and individual—an episode of drunken vandalism; the murder of a white man who wanted the Ho-Chunk removed—but attributed collectively. The Ho-Chunk were viewed as a threat to white lives and livelihoods, and the land beneath their feet was bountiful.
The U.S.-Dakota War broke out that summer. Despite settlers’ fears, the Ho-Chunk remained peaceful. But the war found its own way to Mankato: The day after Christmas that year, 38 Dakota were hanged in a public square.
Among the thousands in the audience that day, some viewed the spectacle through the windows of Mankato’s Masonic Lodge across the street. A week later, a group gathered in secret to form the “Knights of the Forest.” They had a singular goal: “To banish forever from our beautiful state every Indian who now desecrates the soil.”
Two years before the first meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society of white terrorists had sprung up in Minnesota.
The Knights of the Forest’s membership counted some of Mankato’s most prominent citizens. Among them: Charles Chapman, a Harvard-educated East Coast man who served as Blue Earth County’s auditor and official surveyor; and John Meagher and John Porter Sr., who would both be elected to the Minnesota Legislature.
As Knights, each swore to see that this “accursed race of infuriated demons is driven towards the setting sun.” A story published in a Mankato newspaper spoke of their greatest endeavor: an armed band of Knights lying in wait outside the Ho-Chunk reservation, prepared to shoot any member who strayed off the native land. The story does not specify “how many... if any were thus disposed of.”
Whether the Knights grew into rampaging murderers like the Klan or the Texas Rangers remains unknown. Their cause was soon legislated out of existence.
In February 1863, mere weeks after the Knights’ first meeting, Congress passed the Winnebago Removal Act, authored by Minnesota politicians who knew what their constituents wanted. In May, 2,000 Ho-Chunk were forced off their land once more—briefly passing through Mankato, where they inspected the still-standing gallows used on the Dakota—on their way to Crow Creek in South Dakota.
A Ho-Chunk chief named Baptiste Lasalle knew this to be desolate and “damn cold country.” (Many Ho-Chunk soon moved south, to Nebraska, or back to Wisconsin.) Lasalle’s wisdom was formidable. Back in Blue Earth, he’d called upon the U.S. to pay debts owed to the tribe. If the Ho-Chunk were supposed to live like white men, he said, “it takes a great deal of money to do so.”
Hundreds of Ho-Chunk died during and after relocation to South Dakota. Behind them, their property was already being sold to high bidders.
The Knights of the Forest disbanded as quickly and quietly as they had formed, according to Coats, a librarian at St. Cloud State University.
At the time, the city fathers of Mankato considered the short-lived Knights honorable figures of local lore. In 1869, the Knights’ “ritual document,” including its dark oath, was sealed in a time capsule left in the cornerstone of the Mankato Normal School, which later became Mankato State University.
The capsule was ceremonially unsealed in 1968, though the oath was largely ignored. Despite “compelling evidence” revealing an “unexamined history of hate,” Coats writes, few in Minnesota know the first thing about the group.
The Knights of the Forest could never have imagined their brief reign would largely be left out of Minnesota history. They pictured themselves conquering heroes. Surely, only the accursed Ho-Chunk could have seen it otherwise—and even by 1869, they were long gone.