To establish a university, you need land. A place to build. For UW–Madison, as for the entirety of the United States, the land was taken from Indigenous peoples.
The land on which the city of Madison and the university stand are part of the ancestral homeland of the Ho-Chunk people. In an 1825 treaty, the United States recognized it as such. But in an 1832 treaty, the U.S. demanded that the Ho-Chunk surrender a huge area of land, including this region. The Treaty of 1832 may be our campus’s most important document: it is the legal basis on which the city and the university could be built and on which non-Ho-Chunk people can now reside.
The Treaty of 1832 took place under duress—what one U.S. official called “the blended grounds of conquest & contract.” A U.S. army occupied large parts of Wisconsin, and the Ho-Chunk had no choice but to sell the land. The treaty demanded that they leave the region, and U.S. authorities repeated this demand in an 1833 meeting with Ho-Chunk leaders just a few miles from here, in today’s city of Middleton. Decades of ethnic cleansing followed, during which the state and federal governments repeatedly sent soldiers to banish the Ho-Chunk from Teejop and the rest of their homeland. But the Ho-Chunk people’s spiritual connection to this land and its waters and to their ancestors could not be broken by treaties and violence. Many Ho-Chunk people refused to leave Wisconsin, and many others quickly returned.
The land the U.S. took from the Ho-Chunk in 1832 was the most important way in which the university benefited from the seizure of Indigenous people’s lands. The university also received the profits from grants of “public lands” that the federal government had seized from Native people in other treaties. For example, under the Morrill Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the University of Wisconsin received 235,530 acres in northern Wisconsin, which it sold for a $303,439 profit. Adjusted for inflation, this represents nearly $5 million that still benefits the university today.
The University of Wisconsin was founded in 1848, in the same year as the State of Wisconsin. Native people remained in Teejop and throughout Wisconsin, but for the first century of the university’s life not one Native person from Wisconsin graduated from the university. Although the university stands on ancestral Ho-Chunk land, it was not until the 1970s that Ho-Chunk students were able to make a place for themselves here.