Oneida Treaties and Treaty Rights

The Oneida are unique among Wisconsin Indian tribes in terms of their treaty history, which dates back to the post-Revolutionary period before the establishment of the federal government.

They are also one of the few tribes to have made treaties with an individual state --  in this case, New York. The federal constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, in theory, ended the practice of states negotiating treaties, but in its early years, the United States government had difficulties enforcing its will and the practice of state-tribal treaties continued. In 1790, the Non-Intercourse Act came into effect to officially terminate state-negotiated treaties but several states disregarded federal governmental authority.

Peace Treaties with the United States

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the first treaty between the Oneida and the United States, was signed under the Articles of Confederation in 1784 which established peace between the United Nations and the Six Nations of the League of the Iroquois (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). Since the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Onondaga fought alongside the British during the American Revolution, animosity towards the United States remained after the war. On the other hand, the Oneida and Tuscarora fought alongside the Americans, and consequently were promised that they would retain possession of their lands. A 1789 treaty between the U.S. and Six Nations reinforced the pledge, and in addition ended any claims the Six Nations had to the Ohio River valley. In exchange, they received $3,000 worth of gifts.

Land Cession Treaties with New York State

The peace treaties and pledges did not stop New York State from purchasing 100 square miles from the Oneida in 1785 to make room for New York’s rapidly increasing White population. Three years later, New York made another treaty with the Oneida and gained title to much of the tribe's land through deception. State treaty commissioners claimed that they only wanted to lease the land when, in fact, the treaty recorded the purchase of the land for New York.

In another treaty in 1794, the federal government recognized former treaties New York had made with Iroquois nations, but guaranteed that they would not allow any further land cessions to New York. The United States gave the treaty signatories $10,000 worth of goods. During that same year, the U.S. made another treaty with the Oneida, Tuscarora, and Stockbridge tribes, thanking them for their service during the American Revolution and presenting them with $5,000 for their services.

Again New York disregarded federal legislation that forbade state treaties and found tribal leaders willing to negotiate land cession treaties, concluding another series of treaties with Iroquois tribes, including the Oneida, in 1795. The federal government declared the treaties illegal, but was unable to hold the state accountable for its actions. New York continued to make further land cession treaties with the Oneida in 1805, 1807, and 1809. By the War of 1812, the Oneida had little land left, and many tribal members believed it would be better for the tribe to move west and away from White settlers in New York.

Division and Movement

The Oneida Nation was divided in regards to a movement westward with most opposed the relocation. In the end, the majority moved to Wisconsin under the leadership of the Mohawk preacher Eleazar Williams, who had support of the federal government to move the Oneida and other New York tribes west. The Wisconsin emigrants began efforts to acquire lands in 1821 with a delegation to Green Bay. Within a few years more Oneida left New York for Ontario, Canada leaving a small group in New York. These three communities have maintained separate identities in the ensuing years, continuing into the present.

Land Appropriation Treaties

Representatives from the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown tribes began negotiations at Green Bay, and the consequent treaty resulted in a cession of about 860,000 acres from the Menominee and Ho-Chunk nations to the New York Indians. The next year, another treaty was settled for an additional 6.72 million acres on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk immediately protested the two treaties because they said the New York Indians had deceived them. They believed the 1821 and 1822 treaties only allowed the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown to live upon their lands, not to own them. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk raised so many objections to the two treaties that the United States Senate refused to ratify them. The United States government finally brokered a series of three treaties in 1831 and 1832 between the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown. These treaties set aside about 500,000 acres for the Oneida near Green Bay.

Land Cession Treaty

Shortly after negotiations concluded, the federal government wished to move all Indians in the east to lands west of the Mississippi, and in 1838, it asked the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown land in Kansas to voluntarily leave. The Wisconsin Oneida agreed to a treaty stipulation relinquishing a large portion of the reservation granted to them in the 1831-1832 treaties. The provision ensured that Oneida people who wanted to leave New York emigrated to the vast lands of Kansas rather than Wisconsin and the federal government set aside $400,000 for Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown Indians in Wisconsin or New York who were willing to go to Kansas. A month later, the Oneida signed a modified treaty designating 100 acres for each of the 654 Oneidas living in Wisconsin, thus reducing their Wisconsin reservation down to 64,500 acres. They received $33,500 as payment.

Despite the diminishing land base, New York Oneida continued to move to Wisconsin, while few went to Kansas. In 1845, Henry Dodge, the governor of Wisconsin Territory, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Wisconsin Oneida to sell their reservation lands and move to Kansas. Thus, the 1838 Treaty was the last the Oneida signed with the United States.

Treaty Rights

The reservation boundary set by the 1838 Treaty has become the basis for a recent controversy concerning Oneida treaty rights. The Oneida reservation bordered the Fort Howard military reservation built at Green Bay in 1816. The land was later sold to settlers. In 1994, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources cited Oneida fishermen for illegally netting fish in Duck Creek. The state of Wisconsin contended that the old fort's reservation included both banks of Duck Creek, concluding that if the Oneida fished in the creek, they were subject to state laws and regulations. The case went before the Brown County Circuit Court, and the judge ruled that the Oneida indeed partially controlled the creek, therefore Wisconsin could not regulate Oneida activities on their side of the creek, including fishing methods. The state of Wisconsin appealed the ruling, but the state’s Third District Court of Appeals in Wausau upheld it in July 1997.