Oneida History

Life in New York

The Wisconsin Oneida are an Iroquoian-speaking Indian tribe currently residing on a reservation in northeastern Wisconsin near Green Bay. They originally came from upstate New York. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora make up the Six Nations League of the Iroquois. The Oneida refer to themselves as Oneyoteaka -- "People of the Standing Stone." According to Oneida traditions, there was always a large, red boulder near the main Oneida village in New York. The Oneida Creek and Oneida Lake area in north central New York state were the principal areas of the Oneida homeland.

During the early 1800s, the state of New York and White land speculators forced the Oneida to sell large portions of their lands. From the American Revolution onward, the tribe's homeland in New York shrunk from about six million acres to 4,500 acres by 1839. In addition, the Stockbridge and the Brothertown relocated onto Oneida lands.

In 1816, Eleazar Williams, an Episcopalian Mohawk preacher who spoke fluent Oneida, arrived among the Oneida. At the time, two groups of Oneida existed: the Christian Party and Pagan Party. Williams reinvigorated members of the Oneida Christian Party, who had converted to Christianity during the 1700s. Williams also converted members of the Oneida Pagan Party, which clung to Iroquois traditional religion. The Pagan Party became known as the Second Christian Party. Despite their common Christian faith, differences still remained between the two and the tribe was not united.

Treaties in Wisconsin

Williams and Jedidiah Morse, a White missionary, believed the Oneida and the other Iroquois nations would continue to suffer White encroachment in New York. They launched a plan approved by the federal government to relocate all New York Indians the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. Many Stockbridge and Brothertown favored removal westward as well. A delegation led by Eleazar Williams arrived in Green Bay in 1821 and negotiated with the Menominee and Ho-Chunk for about 860,000 acres. The next year, another delegation negotiated a second treaty for an additional 6.72 million acres on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

Shortly thereafter, the Menominee and Ho-Chunk argued that none of their chiefs had been present at the 1821 or 1822 treaties and that the interpreter at the 1822 Treaty had misinformed them of the New York Indians' intent. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk contended they only intended to allow the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown to live on the land but not own it. This set off an eight-year debate over the two treaties with the Menominee and Ho-Chunk on one side, and the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown on the other side. The federal government mediated the conflict and negotiated a series of three compromise treaties in 1831 and 1832. The Menominee agreed to give up 500,000 acres of land to the Oneida. The federal government reduced this cession to only 65,400 acres in 1838. This constitutes the current boundaries of the Wisconsin Oneida reservation.

While the controversy over the 1821 and 1822 treaties continued, some of the Oneida began to move to Wisconsin. Many of the first arrivals were members of the Episcopalian First Christian Party and were later joined by members of the newly formed Methodist Orchard Party. By 1838, 654 Oneida lived on the new reservation. A small group of Oneida remained on the reservation in New York, while others later moved to Ontario, Canada. The Oneida emigrants hoped that by removing to Wisconsin, they could avoid the pressures of White settlement they suffered in New York. Unfortunately, they were mistaken.

Life in Wisconsin

The federal government opened Wisconsin for settlement in by incoming Euro-Americans in 1834, and soon pioneers flooded the region. In 1845, the Wisconsin territorial governor Henry Dodge asked the Oneida to trade their Wisconsin lands for land west of the Mississippi. Some Oneida were willing to move farther west, but Orchard Party leader Jacob Cornelius refused to negotiate any new removal, and the Oneida stayed in Wisconsin. During the 1800s, the Oneida generally farmed and raised animals. They lived in log cabins, but by the 1840s they began to build frame houses. Both the Episcopalian and Methodist Oneida had their own churches and schools. During the Civil War, the Oneida supported the United States, and over 100 Oneida men served in the Union Army.

During the 1850s, stands of white pine on the reservation attracted the attention of lumber companies. Reservation land was owned communally, although individuals staked out their own parcels for farming. Many Whites and even some tribal members felt it would be best for the Oneida to own their land individually, so they could sell the pine on their lands and also sell any lands not allotted to Oneida members. Chiefs such as Jacob Cornelius and Daniel Bread of the First Christian Party favored allotment. Cornelius Hill and others feared the Oneida would lose their reservation lands to non-Indians.

Government Policies

The Oneida did not relinquish any lands until 1887 when Congress passed the Dawes Act. This act mandated that all Indian reservation lands be allotted to individual Indians who, after a period of 25 years, could sell or lease their land as they wished. The federal government allotted Oneida lands in the 1890s, but when the 25-year trust period expired, much of the land was bought by non-Indians. By 1920, only a few hundred acres remained in the possession of Oneida tribal members. The remainder of the 65,400 acres was owned by Whites.

In 1934, the federal government, under the leadership of commissioner of Indian affairs John Collier, reversed the allotment policy under the Indian Reorganization Act. In 1936, the Oneida wrote a new constitution and reorganized their tribal government. The following year they bought back 1,270 acres of land.

Current Issues

As lands passed back into the hands of the Oneida, they were put into federal trust and became exempt from local taxes. The reservation falls within the boundaries of the Brown and Outagamie counties, both of which wanted to continue taxing the repurchased Oneida lands. The two counties, the City of Green Bay, the Town of Hobart, and the Fort Howard Paper Corporation filed a legal suit in 1985 that challenged the very existence of the Oneida reservation. Fortunately for the Oneida, this case was thrown out of court in 1990, and the reservation continues to exist today. Moreover, the revenues generated by casino gaming have allowed the tribe to buy back a considerable amount land since 1988.