The Algonquian words apparently do not carry the negative overtones that have attached to the French word puant and the English word "stinky". The French translated and shortened the name to simply le puants (or le puans), which translates into English as "the Stinkards". Many have concluded that these waters were either the stagnant waters of Green Bay or the aromatic, algae filled waters of the rivers or lakes where the Winnebago lived in the mid-17th century. The earliest reports, however, indicate that this was then understood by both the French and the native Americans to refer to their place of origin, not the place where they then lived. While the names Lac des Puans (for Lake Michigan on a map from 1650) and Le Baye des Puans (on later maps) have led some to conclude this corresponded to the condition of the water; early records of both bodies report them to be clear and fresh. These waters were named in reference to the people living on their shores.
Historians say the Algonquian tribes understood this name to refer to salt-water seas, which do have a distinctive aroma compared with the fresh water lakes. One of the early records of the Jesuits says it reflects their origin from the salt water seas to the north, resulting in the Winnebago also being called "the people of the sea" (though this could be a confusion with a native people who lived on the shores of Hudson Bay, also so called). This understanding particularly interested Jean Nicolet and Champlain, who, no doubt, applied wishful thinking and concluded hopefully that it meant they were from or near the Pacific Ocean and were therefore a possible connection to China.
In recent studies ethnologists say that the Winnebago, like the other Siouan peoples, originated on the east coast of North America. H.R. Holand says they originated in Mexico, where they had contact with the Spanish and gained a knowledge of horses. He cites the records of Jonathan Carver, who lived with the Winnebago in 1766-1768. Contact with the Spanish, however, could have also occurred along the Gulf of Mexico. Others have referred to the perceived connection between the Winnebago and salt water to explain how mid-western tribes had a knowledge of the Pacific Ocean, where the earth is cut off and the sun sets into the sea. Countering this salt-water origin concept, however, is the current Ho-Chunk assertion that their people have always lived in what is now the north central United States.
While the Algonquian term may not have had a negative overtone, both the French and English words do. It is not surprising, then, that the people prefer the name that comes from their own traditions and history. This name, too, has been recorded in a variety of spellings and has been variously translated. Spellings include: Hocak, Ho-Chunk, Hotanke, Houchugarra, Hotcangara, Ochungaraw, Ochungarah, Hochungra, Hochungara, and Ochangara. Translations include: "the fish eaters," "the trout people," "the big fish people, "the big speech people," "the people of the big voice," "the people of the parent speech," and "the people of the original language." Current elders say it means, "the people of the big voice" or "the people of the sacred language.
Although their Siouan language indicates either contact or common origin with the other peoples of this language group, the oral traditions of the Ho-Chunk speak of no other homeland other than what is now large portions of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These traditions suggest that they were a very populous people and the dominant group in Wisconsin in the century before Nicolet's visit. While their language was Siouan, their culture was very similar to the Algonquian peoples. Current elders suggest that their pre-history is connected to the mound builders of the region. The oral history also indicates that in the mid-16th century, the influx of Ojibwa peoples in the northern portion of their range caused some movement to the south and some friction with the Illiniwek, as well as a division of the people as the Chiwere group (Iowa, Missouri, Ponca, and Oto tribes) moved west because the reduced range made it difficult to sustain such a large population.
Because Nicolet reported a gathering of approximately 5,000 warriors as the Ho-Chunk entertained him, estimates of population range from 8,000 to more than 20,000 in 1634. Between that time and the first return of French trappers and traders in the late 1650s, the population was reduced drastically, with some reporting it dropped below a total of only 500 people. The result of this was the loss of dominance in the region, which enabled the influx of numerous Algonquian tribes as they were fleeing the problems caused by the Iroquois in the Beaver Wars.
The reasons given for this drop in population vary, but three causes are repeatedly referred to, and it is likely that all three played a part. The first is the loss of several hundred warriors in a storm on a lake in the course of a military effort. One says it happened on Lake Michigan after repulsing the first attack by Potawatomi from what is now Door County, Wisconsin. Another says the number was 600. Another says it was 500 lost in a storm on Lake Winnebago during a failed campaign against the Fox, while still another says it was in a battle against the Sauk. R. David Edmunds opines that such a loss could not by itself result in the near decimation of the whole people and offers that two other causes should also be included. The Winnebago during this time apparently also suffered greatly from a disease, perhaps one of the European plagues like smallpox (although the Winnebago say it resulted in the victims turning yellow, which is not a trait of smallpox). Finally, it appears that a sizeable contingent of their historic enemies, the Illinois, came on a mission of mercy to help the Winnebago at time of suffering and famine - what one might expect after the loss of 600 men who were also their hunters. Perhaps remembering former hostilities, however, the Winnebago repaid the kindness by adding their benefactors to their diet. The Illinois were enraged, and in the ensuing retaliation they almost totally wiped out the Winnebago.
After peace was established between the French and Iroquois in 1701, many of the Algonquian people returned to their homelands, and the Ho-Chunk once again had access to their traditional lands. After 1741, while some remained in the Green Bay area, most moved inland.
From a low of perhaps less than 500, the population of the people gradually recovered, aided by intermarriage with neighboring tribes and even with some of the French traders. A count from 1736 gives a population of 700. In 1806, they numbered 2,900 or more. A census in 1846 reported 4,400, but in 1848 the number given is only 2,500. With other native Americans, the Ho-Chunk were affected by the smallpox epidemics of 1757-58 and 1836, in the latter of which one of four died. Today the total population of Ho-Chunk people is about 12,000.
Through a series of moves imposed by the U.S. government in the 19th century, the tribe was moved to reservations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and finally in Nebraska. Through these moves, many tribe members returned to previous homes, especially to Wisconsin despite repeated roundups and removals. The U.S. government finally allowed the Wisconsin Winnebago to homestead land there. The Nebraska tribe members are today the separate Winnebago tribe.
The tribe has been purchasing land in the Chicago suburb of Lynwood, Illinois, to construct its largest casino and resort yet. The current status of this project is pending the US Department of the Interior to place the land into a federal trust.
The Omaha also have a reservation in Thurston County. Together, both tribes cover the whole land area of Thurston County. The Winnebago tribe operates the WinnaVegas Casino in the Iowa portion of the reservation. This land was west of the Missouri River, but the United States Army Corps of Engineers changed the course of the Missouri River, and the reservation land was divided into Iowa and Nebraska. So, although Iowa is east of the Missouri River, the tribe successfully argued that this land belonged to them under the terms of a predated deed. This land has a postal address of Sloan, Iowa, since rural addresses are normally covered by the nearest post office.