Life in New York
The Brothertown Indians originated as a group of Christian Indians from New England and Long Island, New York, areas. As a result of the Great Awakening, a religious movement in New England during the 1740s, many Indian people in southern New England converted to Christianity, especially members of Algonkian-speaking tribes including the Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Montauk, Tunxis, Wangunk, and Niantic. As these people tried to live Christian lives in New England, they found it difficult to resist pressures from Whites around them who encouraged them to abuse alcohol, give up farming, and sell their lands.
In the 1770s, Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, both Mohegan, were determined to lead their people and other New England Indians to a home where they could live in peace and lead Christian lives. Occom, a Presbyterian minister, served as a Christian missionary to other Indian tribes as well. Following negotiations with the Oneida tribe in north central New York, Occum and Johnson led a group of New England tribal families to a new home among the Oneida. As Christians, they wanted to live in Brotherhood, and named their new home Brothertown. Another group of Algonkian-speaking people, the Stockbridge, also moved onto lands granted by the Oneida in the 1780s, escaping pressures from incoming settlers.
However, by the early 1800s, the Brothertown, Stockbridge and Oneida began to feel the demands from White settlers for more land. The state of New York began to purchase vast tracts of Oneida land, often through deception, leaving the three tribes with a rapidly shrinking landbase. In the end, they left their New York homelands for less coveted lands in Wisconsin. Moreover, the federal government lent its support to a plan to move all New York Indians to unsettled lands in Wisconsin.
Treaties in Wisconsin
The Brothertown signed five land appropriation treaties with the United States government, the Menominee and Ho-Chunk tribes of Wisconsin. In 1821, a delegation composed of tribal representatives from the Brothertown, Stockbridge, and Oneida traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin and negotiated the purchase of 860,000 acres. In 1822, another delegation acquired an additional 6.72 million acres with both transactions solidified by treaties. The land encompassed almost the entire western shore of Lake Michigan. The Brothertown alone received about 153,000 acres along the southeastern side of the Fox River near present-day Kaukauna and Wrightstown.
Soon afterward the Menominee and Ho-chunk contested the treaties because they felt they had been misled to believe that the New York tribes wanted only to live on the land, not own it. The Menominee and Ho-chunk challenged the treaties so profusely that the United States Senate refused to ratify either treaty. A rancorous, eight-year debate followed with the Menominee and Ho-chunk on one side, and the Oneida, Brothertown, and Stockbridge on the other. The federal government finally mediated the dispute in 1831 and 1832 with a series of three treaties. As part of the compromise, the Brothertown received 23,040 acres along the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in present-day Calumet County.
In the meantime, members from the three New York tribes had already began the trek to Wisconsin. The first Brothertown members arrived at the new settlement in 1831. In the years following, settlers began to pour into Wisconsin, reviving many problems the Brothertown, Oneida, and Stockbridge had encountered in New York. While Wisconsin lands were initially considered undesirable for White settlement, the situation changed when Wisconsin was recognized as possessing fertile farming soil. Based on these findings, the federal government decided to move the tribes further west into Kansas. The Brothertown Indians did not want to leave the lands they had so recently acquired.
In 1834, the Brothertown demanded individual title to their lands, which at the time were owned communally by the tribe. The Brothertown leaders felt that by doing so the federal government could not force them to move as a tribe. In 1837, they again petitioned for titles to individually held lands, and requested United States citizenship. Again the Brothertown believed they could gain stronger claims to their lands as landowning American citizens, thus preventing their removal westward. The United States Congress was amenable to this request for several reasons, primarily to create a lifestyle in which the Indians would become more acculturated or more American. In addition, granting the request ended the federal government's responsibilities to the tribe. In 1839, Congress granted the Brothertown Indians full United States citizenship and title to their farmlands.
The Brothertown succeeded in maintaining their residence in Wisconsin but paid a dear price for their cause. By becoming citizens, the Brothertown relinquished their sovereign nation status and associated rights. They lost recognition of their tribal government and their land was no longer held in trust. Eventually, the federal government granted citizenship to all Indians while allowing them to retain their sovereignty and tribal governments. This established a kind of dual citizenship, but the decision came too late to change the outcome for the Brothertown people.
Nevertheless, the Brothertown felt they had not lost the power to govern themselves and continued to do so until the Civil War. During the 1870s, however, non-Indians began buying up the Brothertown lands, and although the tribal council still met and made decisions for the tribe as a whole, the Brothertown lands on Lake Winnebago continued to fall into non-Indian hands. Many tribal members moved to cities such as Fond du Lac and Oshkosh to find work. Some became tenant farmers or married into other tribes in Wisconsin, particularly the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Oneida.
As time passed, the Brothertown Indians became more scattered, although most continued to live in Wisconsin, particularly in the Lake Winnebago area. Their tribal government slowly faded over time, but tribal members managed to retain a sense of identity. In 1878, Congress passed legislation to sell land from the old Brothertown reservation that had not been allotted to individuals who became citizens in 1839. To do this, a majority of the tribe had to approve the sale, and Congress appointed five trustees among the Brothertown to sell the land after the tribe had approved the sale. In the 1920s, the Brothertown joined the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee in a legal battle over some of their previous land holdings in New York. Although the suit was dismissed, the suit and the demonstrated unity of the Brothertown people helped illustrate the continuity of their tribal identity.
In 1950, the Brothertown again demonstrated their endurance when they participated in an action against the federal government via the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), an agency created to settle outstanding Indian claims against the United States. The Brothertown, along with the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee, took part in this lawsuit to receive reparation for lands the United States had taken without adequate compensation. After many years of litigation, the Emigrant Indians of New York (as they were called by the ICC) received a cash award. As a requirement of the lawsuit the tribes needed to update their membership rolls to determine who was eligible for payment.
Among the Brothertown, this obligation sparked a renewed interest in rejuvenating their tribe. Robert Fowler, a Brothertown tribal member and attorney from Fond du Lac, assembled the tribal roll. In 1978, the United States Department of Interior established guidelines for Indian tribes to regain federal recognition lost for various reasons. The Brothertown felt they had a good claim for recognition since they could provide a current tribal roll established only ten years earlier. Unfortunately, according to the guideline regulations, tribes that had lost federal recognition through congressional legislation could not be reinstated. Based on this provision, the Brothertown so far have been denied federal recognition because they attained citizenship via a congressional act.
Today, there are about 1650 members on the Brothertown tribal rolls. Most still live near Fond du Lac and Lake Winnebago, and still continue the fight for federal recognition. The tribe maintains tribal council meetings which are held regularly. Recently, they have been trying to reestablish a landbase within the boundaries of the old reservation on the east side of Lake Winnebago. Tribal members are particularly interested in gaining title to two Brothertown cemeteries. They hope to place the cemeteries into federal trust, which could also assist them in their claim for federal recognition.