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Wisconsin History:
A Historical Review From Native Americans Through WWII

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 1

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Historical Review 1.7   

Native Americans

          Wisconsin has a very intensive and interesting Native American history that dates back over 12,000 years.(1) Early Native American cultures have been divided into five periods, the Paleo-Indian (~13,000-7,900 B.C.), Archaic (~8000-1000 B.C), Early Woodland (~900-300 B.C.), Middle Woodland (~300B.C.-700A.D.), and Late Woodland (700-1300 A.D.) periods. These stages describe the Native American cultures that preceded the common tribes found in the area at the time of European exploration. The first people, the Paleo-Indians, lived in Wisconsin shortly after the glacial ice sheet receded. They hunted, gathered, and fished for their food. Sometime around 6500 B.C., the environment changed gradually to resemble the modern landscape. The Native Americans who lived through this change are known as the Archaic Indians. These people were very nomadic and traveled throughout the area. They hunted and gathered their food and fashioned tools out of rock. The next distinct group, the Early Woodlanders, emerged around 800 B.C. These people were more advanced than the Archaic Indians. The Early Woodland culture created pottery out of clay, stored their food, and built round burial mounds for their dead. This mound building culture carried into the following Middle and Late Woodland periods. The Late Woodland people constructed mounds in the shape of animals, called effigy mounds. Effigy mounds have been found throughout southern Wisconsin. One bird-shaped effigy mound, in Richland County, has a wingspan of one-quarter of a mile.(2) Most of the mounds were built near water and contained human remains. It is unclear whether the animals were intended for something beyond their ceremonial significance. Some have speculated that they represented certain clans or served as maps and astronomical indicators.

          During the last 300 years of the effigy mound culture, a different cultural group entered Wisconsin. This group, the Middle Mississippians, migrated to Wisconsin from the south. They were part of a powerful nation whose main city of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, had a population of 35,000 people and were one of the largest cities in the world.(3) These people had a unique culture and belief system. They developed an extensive trade route that spanned from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast. They created the city of Aztalan (in present-day Jefferson County) and a city located near the modern city of Trempealeau, probably for trading purposes. The Mississippians only occupied the cities for eight generations; both were abandoned by 1200 A.D. Another distinct culture emerged at this time, called the Oneota. These people were similar the Mississippians, but they seldom built burial mounds. The Oneota lived in the southern part of Wisconsin. They farmed and developed a unique pottery technique. Oneota and other Late Woodland cultures created etched pictographs into rock walls. From the pottery, pictograms, and burial mounds, archeologists have been able to study and identify the socio-economic culture of Wisconsin's early Native Americans.

          The Oneota and the Late Woodland tribes gave rise to the modern Wisconsin tribes that existed when the first European explorers arrived. It is estimated that over 20,000 Native Americans lived in Wisconsin in 1600 A.D.(4) The Huron and Ottowa tribes lived east of Lake Huron, the Chippewa lived north of Lake Huron and surrounded Lake Superior, the Potawatomi inhabited western Wisconsin, and the Menominee, Winnebago, Sauk, Fox, and Miami settled throughout the state. All of the tribes save the Huron and the Winnebago were part of the Algonquian language group. The Huron were part of the Iroquois language group, but did not belong to the Iroquois League of Nations (a confederacy of Iroquois tribes in the east). The Winnebago were related to the Sioux of the Great Plains. These tribes, although significantly different, shared many characteristics. They all lived in wigwams and ate a similar diet. They hunted deer, rabbit, and waterfowl and they fished for sturgeon, pike, lake trout, and catfish. They ate nuts and gathered many plants, such as wild rice and berries. They planted crops of corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers to compliment the food they gathered. Tribes of the north had shorter growing seasons and were less dependent on agriculture. These tribes depended on hunting, trapping, and gathering, forcing them to live in smaller clans. Southern tribes, such as the Winnebago and the Menominee, were able to live in larger communities. The arrival of Europeans had many effects on the tribes. Even before there was significant European settlement in Wisconsin, the Native Americans felt the effects of the white man. European settlement on the coast drove many tribes westward. Wisconsin gained many refugee tribes such as the Sauk, Mascouten, Potawatomi, and the Kickapoo. Ojibwe, Ottowa, Fox, and other Iroquois-speaking tribes also encroached on the land. The new arrivals caused many clashes over territory. When the Europeans did arrive in Wisconsin and started the fur trade, they gradually brought many changes. The fur trade ultimately harmed the tribes as competition for furs set tribes against each other. Disease and European encroachment decimated tribes who eventually had to settle on reservations.

  Table 1: Populations of Wisconsin Tribes as of 2001(5)
Population (2001)
 Ho-Chunk (Winnebago)
 Ojibwe (6 reservations)
          Red Cliff
          Bad River
          Lac du Flambeau
          Lac Courte Oreilles
          St. Croix
          Sokagon (Mole Lake)
 Oneida (Originally from New York)
 Mohicans (2 reserv., also from NY)
          Mohican Nation, Stockbridge

Early Explorers

          The first European to set foot in modern-day Wisconsin is unknown, but it is widely believed to be Jean Nicolet. Nicolet, working for the leader of New France, Samuel de Champlain, reached Wisconsin while on an expedition in 1634. Nicolet, along with seven Huron Indians, left Canada and traveled through the Straits of Mackinac to Lake Michigan and came ashore at Green Bay. Their stay was short but it marks the first known European encounter with what would later become Wisconsin.

          The next European encounter with Wisconsin would not come for another 25 years. Medard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson made two expeditions to Wisconsin, the first between the years of 1654 and 1656, and the second between the years of 1659 and 1660. They became Wisconsin's first European residents and erected the first trading fort in the area.. The first Europeans to cross Wisconsin were Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. Marquette, a Jesuit priest determined to convert the Native Americans, and Jolliet, a priest turned fur trader, were ordered by New France in 1672 to find the "Great River," (known today as the Mississippi). Their expedition, which included Marquette, Jolliet, and five other men, landed in Green Bay in 1673. They traveled up the Fox River to Lake Winnebago. From there, they took the Upper Fox River to a river the Natives called the "Misconsing." They made it to the Mississippi by June. Their exploration was especially significant because it provided the first European accounts of the whole area of Wisconsin. Their expedition marked the beginning of the French claim to the area that would last until the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763. Also, their route on the Fox and Wisconsin (Misconsing) Rivers became very important for future fur traders.

The Fur Trading Era

          The French fur trade brought the first steady European influence to Wisconsin. The first French trading post was actually constructed before Marquette and Jolliet's expedition. Radisson and Groseilliers constructed the first post in 1659, marking the beginning of the French trading era. The numerous lakes and rivers and the willing Native American fur trappers made the area ideal for fur trading. Deer, elk, marten, lynx, bear, and the extremely popular beaver, were trapped and skinned for the fur hungry market in Europe. Very few French people settled in the area because of the harsh weather and the frequent Indian wars, but a number of illegal traders did, usually living among the Natives and taking Indian wives. The fur trade led to many Indian wars as tribes competed for land and control of the trade. The French and British also had many conflicts over control of the fur trade. The British threat intensified when they built a trading fort at Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1724, which took business away from the French. The British built another trading post in Ohio in 1748, angering the French enough to prompt an attack. The French took the fort, temporarily reasserting their dominance. The incident sparked a string of conflicts with the British that ultimately culminated in the French and Indian war (1755-1763). The British won the war and brought an end to the French fur trading empire. In the Treaty of Paris, (the treaty that ended the war) France ceded all of Canada and the land they claimed along the Mississippi to the British.

          The British used Wisconsin as a fur-trading center, just as the French had done. The region remained largely unsettled, except for the Native Americans and the traders. Settlement was actually forbidden beyond the Proclamation Line, a government-drawn line along the Allegheny Mountains created in 1673. It was dangerous for those who did attempt to settle because there was no government in the area; the only fort in the region, Fort Edward Augustus, was only garrisoned between the years of 1761-1763. Although the British did not change much about the area, they did make some changes to the dynamics of the fur trade. Furs were sent to London instead of Paris, English investors replaced the French capitalists, and the trade companies became larger and spread further into the northwest as beaver populations dwindled in Wisconsin. The growth of large trade companies reduced the power of the tribes, causing many Indian uprisings. The British were able to maintain control of the fur trade after the American Revolution, but were finally forced out after the War of 1812.

         By the 1820s, all of the British had been pushed out of the fur trade and the Americans held a monopoly. They had managed this by forbidding trade between Indians and other nations on American territory. Unfortunately for the Americans, by the time they had complete control of the trade it was already in decline. The decimation of the beaver population and the removal of Native Americans to reservations worked in tandem to destroy the fur trade in the Wisconsin area. Traders gradually moved headquarters to the untouched Pacific Northwest where furs were still abundant. For nearly 200 years Wisconsin had served as trading grounds for the French, British, and the Americans. The decline in the fur trade allowed Wisconsin to shift from a frontier civilization to a settled community.

Wisconsin During the American Revolution and the War of 1812

          The American Revolution only affected Wisconsin remotely. The area was not yet a state, and there were not many Americans in the region. The fur trade was interrupted in Wisconsin and other areas south of the Great Lakes when George Rogers Clark led an invasion into Illinois in 1778. Other than that incident, Wisconsin and the fur trade remained under British control throughout the war. American victory in the revolution did not immediately bring change to the region either. Scattered French and British traders remained in the area. All of the trading posts were in American hands by 1796, but the British continued to occupy the area control the trade from Canada. .

           It took another war with England to bring the western border and the fur trade under American control. The continued British occupation of the area enabled them to control Wisconsin and the surrounding area during the War of 1812. Wisconsin was touched by war when the Winnebago Indians fought in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. During this battle, the Americans beat the Indian forces and killed the great Indian warrior, Tecumseh. In June of 1814, the superintendent of Indian affairs, William Clark, marched to Wisconsin with a small force and built Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien, marking the first time an American flag flew over Wisconsin soil. However, the accomplishment was short lived; the British conquered the fort a month later. The Treaty of Ghent, which followed the American victory in the War of 1812, stated that Wisconsin and the Northwest was now part of the United States.

(1)The Wisconsin Cartographers Guild, Wisconsin's Past and Present, A Historical Atlas, ( Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 2.
(2)Patty Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin, Histories of Endurance and Renewal, (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001), 6.
(3)Loew, 7.
(4)Robert C. Nesbitt, Wisconsin, A History, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), 12.
(5)Loew, 24, 40, 56-57, 84.
By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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