English Supremacy in Wisconsin

When France yielded her inchoate rights in the west to England - where all the territory now included in the state of Wisconsin was by right of conquest delivered over as a part of Canada to the English - French trading posts, French forts and French missionary establishments had all disappeared. The fortification at the head of Green Bay had been vacated for some years. It was:

...rotten, the stockade ready to fall and the houses without cover. It was a fit emblem of the decay - of the fast crumbling and perishing state - of French domination in North America. Governor Vaudreuil surrendered Canada to General Amherst, of the British army, on the 9th of September, 1760, and immediately notified the commandant of the fort at Mackinaw, for the information of the people of the northwest, that thereafter they would be amenable to England's authority, under stipulations which guaranteed to them the undisturbed possession of their goods and peltries, and full liberty to continue their trade in the same manner as though they were subjects of Great Britain.

But Wisconsin was at this date a howling wilderness. There was not a single white settler within what are now its limits. The fur trader, however, was still upon the ground. The fur trade of the northwest, long coveted by England, was now to be firmly established with the various tribes under the new order of things. To do this required a military occupation of the country, among other places at "the Bay" - as the post for some time previous to its evacuation by the French was called; for this was the point that commanded the Fox river country and the trade beyond.

Fur Traders

There were, however, no English residents to be protected by English bayonets - no settlers on Wisconsin's soil to need the shielding presence of the red-coats. Military possession signified only protection to English traders. Detroit was the first of the French posts in the west to surrender, then Mackinaw, and finally, in 1761, a small squad of English soldiers were despatched to the head of Green Bay to garrison the deserted post in that vicinity. A captain of the Eighteenth English Regiment was ordered to march from Detroit with a detachment from that and the Sixtieth Regiment, to take possession of and to leave garrison at the posts on Lakes Huron and Michigan. These were Mackinaw, "the Bay," (afterward Fort Edward Augustus) and St. Joseph (upon the river of that name in the present states of Michigan and Indiana). The detachment arrived at Mackinaw on the 28th of September, 1761, where a lieutenant of the Sixtieth Regiment, one sergeant, one corporal, one drummer and twenty-five privates were left to garrison that post, the residue sailing, with a fair wind, for "the Bay," where they arrived on the 12th of October, at the tumble down post, now the city of Fort Howard, Brown county. The captain departed on the 14th, leaving at "the Bay," Lieutenant James Gorrell, of the Royal American, or Sixtieth Regiment, and one sergeant, one corporal and fifteen privates, together with a French interpreter and two English traders.

"There were several Frenchmen," says Gorrell, "who had gone up the river that forms the bay which comes from Lake Winnebago about fourteen leagues up. These traders have gone up as far as the Sioux country, near two hundred leagues from the bay. As they went past this post, notwithstanding these very Frenchmen were employed by the English traders from Montreal, that come to Mackinaw by virtue of General Gage's license, they did all that laid in their power to persuade the Bay Indians to fall on the English on their way; as they heard of our coming, they telling the Indians that the English were weak and that it could be done very readily." But the savages proved too wary and remained at peace with the conquerors.

The garrison in Fort Edward Augustus (the new name of "the Bay") busied themselves during the ensuing winter in repairing the fort, houses and grounds, for the reason that reports were rife of intended Indian attacks upon the fort, but happily they proved groundless.

Some few young men of the different tribes in the vicinity came at various times to know how they would be treated by Gorrell and his men, and they were agreeably surprised to find themselves received with civility, so contrary to the accounts given them by the French, who were still smarting under English chastisement, and anxious for a rupture between the savages and their new masters, which, indeed, was not long postponed. They asked for ammunition, which was given them at diflferent times. Flour was also sent to some of their old men, who, they said, were sick in the woods. Finally a council was held with the Menominees, the Winnebagoes, the Ottawas and the Sacs and Foxes, during the last of May and first of June, 1762, when Lieutenant Gorrell presented to the Menominees and Winnebagoes belts of wampum and strings of the same for the return of prisoners.

He made at the same time a conciliatory speech, which had a most happy effect. The Menominees, upon whose lands Fort Edward Augustus stood, answered in the same spirit. They said they were very poor, having lost three hundred warriors lately with smallpox, as well as most of their chiefs by the late war, in which they had been engaged by the then French commander at "the Bay," against the English. They expressed themselves glad to find that the English were pleased to pardon them, as they did not expect it. They were conscious they did not merit it. They assured Lieutenant Gorrell that he might depend they would adhere to whatever instructions the commanding English officers might give them for the future, as they had always done with regard to the French. They begged that Gorrell would send for a gunsmith to mend their guns, as they were poor and out of order. The French, they said, had always done this for them, and their neighbors at Mackinaw had had this favor granted them. They said, also, that the French commandant always gave them rum as a true token of friendship.

Lieutenant Gorrell had much the same understanding with the Winnebagoes, Ottawas, and Sacs and Foxes. From this time until March 1, 1763, nothing of moment happened at Fort Edward Augustus, except the arrival of several English and French traders, some of whom went up the country and also sent up a large part of their goods. On the day mentioned twelve Sioux warriors came to the post. They seemed very friendly to the English.

Fort Edward Augustus

"This nation," says Gorrell, "is always at war with the Chippewas. They told me with warmth that if ever the Chippewas or any other Indians wished to obstruct the passage of the traders coming up, to send them a belt and they would come and cut them off the face of the earth." The Sioux then gave the commandant a letter written in French, and two belts of wamptun from their head chief, in which he expressed great joy on hearing of the English at the Bay, and a desire to make peace with them and to have English traders sent among them.

In June some Ottawas and Frenchmen came to the post and delivered to Gorrell instructions from Captain Etherington, commanding at Mackinaw, informing him that Mackinaw had been surprised by the Chippewas and taken, one lieutenant and twenty privates having been killed, and all the rest of the garrison taken prisoners, but that friendly Ottawas had taken Captain Etherington, Lieutenant Leslie and eleven men out of their hands with the promise to reinstate them. Gorrell was ordered to set out with all his garrison and traders to Etherington's relief. It was thus that they first got word of the beginning of Pontiac's war and of the fall of Mackinaw. Gorrell complied with the orders from his superior officer. He set off on the 17th of June, 1763, but was hindered by contrary winds. He did not get off until the 21st, when he set sail with a part of the three tribes - Menominees, Winnebagoes, and Sacs and Foxes. They found Etherington held a prisoner about thirty miles above Mackinaw and they all in due time reached Montrael in safety. Thus actual occupation of Wisconsin by an English armed force was at an end.

By the treaty of peace between England and France, in 1763, that part of French territory lying west of Lake Michigan, was ceded, along with the residue of Canada, to the English. It was thus that Wisconsin, although no longer under direct military control of the conquerors, became actual British soil, with no counter claimants, save the savages who resided within its limits. The expectation of Captain Etherington that Fort Edward Augustus would soon be occupied was not realized. Instead thereof, the Indians were placed under control of the post at Mackinaw, which was soon re-garrisoned. No sooner, however, had the soldiers under Gorrell left "the Bay," than French traders seized upon the occasion to again make it headquarters for traffic in furs to the westward of Lake Michigan. Not that alone, for a few determined to make it their permanent home.

By the year 1766 there were some families living in the decayed Fort Edward Augustus, as well as opposite thereto, on the east side of Fox river, where they cultivated the soil in a small way and in an extremely primitive manner. Of these French Canadians no one can be exactly considered the pioneer - no individual one is entitled to the renown of having first led the way, becoming thus the first settler of the state, much less the father and founder of Wisconsin. It was simply that "the Bay," being after Pontiac's war occupied by Canadian French fur traders, their station finally ripened into a permanent settlement - the first in Wisconsin, and the leading spirits of which were the two Langlades, Augustin and Charles, father and son. It had all the characteristics of a French settlement. Its growth was very slow; its industries few and simple. Besides the employments of trading and transporting goods and peltries, the inhabitants engaged in hunting and trapping.

The cultivation of the soil was only an incidental matter, though gradually a few persons turned their chief attention to agriculture. At length wheat enough was raised to supply the community with bread, while other grains were cultivated to some extent, and a few domestic animals were raised. Mechanical trades were almost unknown. A smith to mend firearms and to make and repair traps was all that was necessary. The implements of husbandry were rude and few. If a respectable house was to be erected, workmen were sent for to Canada. The people had the free exercise of their religious belief, which was Catholic. There were no schools nearer than Mackinaw for many years, though private instruction was occasionally given in families. Nor were there any physicians or lawyers. The settlers were allowed to govern themselves by custom and the "Laws of Paris." Many of them formed matrimonial alliances with the Indians, in consequence of which a mixed lineage became so prevalent that the community in course of years, numbered but few persons of white blood. Such was the settlement at the head of Green Bay, and so it continued until American influence became paramount, everything, even the occupation of the land, being subordinate to the Indian trade, which, directly or indirectly, furnished employment for every member of the community and in which all its interests centered.

When the settlers, who at first held the soil in common, began to establish individual rights, they did so by apportioning to each a tract abutting upon Fox river, extending inland a considerable distance. So, when these were subdivided, the result was long, narrow strips, each with a water front. Nearly twenty years subsequent to the time when the Green Bay settlement began to assume a permanency, some French Canadians located on the east shore of the Mississippi, within what are now the boundaries of Wisconsin. There is no positive evidence of any permanent settlers being there before the year 1783. It was in that year that four men permanently occupied the open tract upon which is now situated the city of Prairie du Chien. Quite a number soon after followed and located there.

Here, as at the settlement at the Bay, no one could claim precedence, as being the first to "settle" on the prairie. Those who remained were first traders, then settlers, or, rather, they became permanent traders. They usually passed the winter months at the Indian village, and during the summer transported their furs to Mackinaw, returning with their canoes laden with goods for the next season's trade, and with a supply of provisions. In the winter, Prairie du Chien was half deserted, while in summer its numbers were swelled, not only by the return of its own people but also by traders from other quarters, and by throngs of Indian visitors. Little value was placed upon the soil by the inhabitants, though they found leisure to cultivate small portions of the prairie in a rude way, and occasionally a voyageur, weary of his roving life, or unable longer to endure its hardships, settled there and devoted himself exclusively to farming. The traders located there were generally men of considerable wealth, for it required means to carry on their business, provide stocks of goods and provisions for long periods, and transport them hundreds of miles by oarsmen constantly employed for that purpose.

The voyageurs constituted a different class. They were generally very poor and dependent upon their small wages, which barely sufficed to supply them with the simplest necessaries of life. Although there was no administration of law, the will of their employers, enforced by possession of their subsistence was very nearly absolute over them, and the distinctions of master and servant were strongly marked. The houses of the wealthy, though constructed of logs, sometimes clapboarded, yet rude and unattractive in external appearance, were comfortably, neatly and even elegantly furnished. Those of the poorer classes were very inferior structures, often without floors, and with straw for a covering, while the furniture consisted of a few rude kitchen utensils, benches and other domestic articles equally meager.

A sort of middle class eventually sprang up in the small farmers scattered about the prairie, who were somewhat less dependent upon the will and caprice of the traders. They were enabled to live better than the voyageurs, whose diet consisted chiefly of corn soup. But their implements for work were very primitive, their carts and plows being made of wood, to which the oxen were attached by rawhide thongs. Coffee mills were at first used for grinding grain. These were superseded by mills turned by hand power, the buhrs being cut from native granite boulders.

Amid these conditions, apparently favorable to the development of lawlessness and violence, these people, surrounded by savage life, were remarkably docile, having a disposition submissive to any authority assumed over them. Violent crimes were extremely rare, even when drinking and carousing were indulged in. Upon their wintering grounds the traders practiced many devices to overreach one another, but on their return they met and settled all difficulties over the "flowing bowl." Beyond these tricks of trade they genially manifested a commendable spirit of honor, and when their word was pledged it might be safely relied upon.

Morality was at rather low ebb, as they were destitute of both schools and spiritual teachers. Their amusements were limited to rude dances, foot and horse racing and other similar sports, aided with a free use of intoxicating liquors. Whatever semblance of law was adhered to, was derived from the "Laws of Paris," which England permitted Canada to be governed by. They were without administrative officers, or other constitutional authorities, but permitted the most learned man among them to exercise the powers of civil magistrate. Affairs thus continued until finally, as adopted citizens of the United States, they were brought within its jurisdiction. The settlements of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien were the only ones in Wisconsin, so long as English supremacy lasted. A number of French Canadian traders, it is true, located at the mouth of Milwaukee in 1795. But their establishments were not of that permanent character to entitle them to be designated a settlement. So, too, the location at the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers in 1793, of Lawrence Barth, who was engaged in the carrying trade.

After Pontiac's war, the Hudson's Bay Company, which had been chartered by parliament as early as 1670, began to exercise exclusive privileges in the fur trade in this region, continuing in full sway until 1783, when the Northwest Fur Company was organized at Quebec, and established its posts at different points on the upper lakes and throughout the interior. The result of this was a relentless feud between the two companies, which lasted many years. The fur trade, before Canada was wrested from France, had long been coveted by the English. Many years prior to that event the Iroquois had been encouraged by them to cut off communication with the northwest. When that failed they endeavored through the intermediate tribes to persuade the Indians to carry their peltries to the British frontier, and the disorders that at times confronted the French in this region were in some degree due to their overtures.

The French, after Canada had surrendered, while outwardly preserving an appearance of submission to the conquerors, regarded them with hatred and readily employed every possible means to hinder the Indians from entering into friendly relations with them. Some of them, generally traders or voyageurs, preceded the English soldiery on their way to the west, endeavoring to persuade the savages to waylay and cut off the feeble detachments. They endeavored also to prevent English traders from venturing beyond Mackinaw, circulating tales among them of meditated attacks on the part of the Indians. But the judicious and friendly conduct of Gorrell and his little garrison at Fort Edward Augustus soon brought about a friendly alliance with all the bay tribes and several beyond that vicinity. They were the more readily disposed to receive the English traders, as they gave them much better terms than the French. The difficulties and dangers in the way of the new fur traders were, however, by no means overcome by the removal of their apprehensions of Indian hostility.

Their lack of acquaintance with the language and manners of the western tribes was a serious impediment, yet, upon the whole, the English made substantial progress in establishing their trade with the western Indians. The influx of English traders before Pontiac's war threatened to destroy the principal means of subsistence of the Canadian French, and when Gorrell evacuated his post at the head of Green Bay, some of the more enterprising of the last mentioned seated themselves promptly in and around the deserted fort.

Immediately after the return of peace, no traders were permitted to visit Wisconsin from Mackinaw. The traffic at the Bay was in the hands of local traders, who avoided British posts with the design of transferring their trade to the French province of Louisiana. As soon as this policy became manifest, communication was at once opened and as early as 1766, both English and French traders were permitted to traffic at the Bay and farther west.

The expected reoccupation of Wisconsin by the military under a British command was indefinitely postponed, as Mackinaw had been garrisoned and was found sufficient to regulate the fur trade. The English, although commanding the market for furs, found the French voyageurs, clerks and interpreters indispensably necessary to their trade. This brought about a reconciliation. The English carried their operations no further than the frontier posts, the French retaining their favorite field - the Indian country. In this way all jealousy was overcome, the tranquility of the Indian was assured, and the necessity of a garrison at the Bay avoided.

Vague and conflicting claims of some of the British colonies in North America, to the northwest, including what is now Wisconsin, under their charters from the British crown, were all set at rest, so far as the mother country was concerned, before the declaration of American independence, by the passage by the British parliament, in 1774, of the "Quebec act," by which the whole region northwest of the Ohio river and extending to the westward so as to include the whole country lying to the westward of Lake Michigan, was made a part of the province of Quebec.

Under French domination no grants of land in Wisconsin were made to any one by the government, except that in October, 1759, the Marquis of Vaudreuil bestowed upon M. Rigaud an extensive territory, including the fort at the head of Green Bay, with the exclusive right to trade, and other valuable privileges. This grant was sold to William Gould and Madame Vaudreuil, to whom it was confirmed by the French king in January, 1760, at a very critical period when Quebec had been taken by the British, and Montreal only was wanting to complete the conquest of Canada. The English government wisely refused to perfect that title of the claimants and they lost their lands and privileges. By the terms of the treaty of Paris, of February 10, 1763, all the possessions in, and all the claims of the French nation to the northwest, were ceded to Great Britain.

Among the first acts of the new masters of the country was one to protect the eminent domain of the government and the restrictions of all attempts on the part of individuals to acquire Indian titles to land. Nor does it appear that any such effort had been made by any one while the country constituted a part of New France. By a proclamation of the king of England in 1763, all private persons were interdicted the liberty of purchasing lands of the Indians. In face of this proclamation and within three years after its promulgation, under a purchase, as claimed, of the Indians, Jonathan Carver laid claim to nearly one hundred square miles of land, situated in what is now northern Wisconsin, and in the present state of Minnesota. A ratification of his title was actually solicited from the king and council but was not conceded. The representatives of Carver, after a change of government had brought these lands within the jurisdiction of the United States, asked congress for a confirmation of this title, which was refused. Many of the early maps of the country contain delineations of the so-called "Carver's grant."

By the treaty of 1783 with Great Britain, the country east of the Mississippi, including all within the boundaries of the present state of Wisconsin, became the territory of the United States. Possession, however, was arbitrarily continued by the British, of all the northwest, until after the treaty of 1795. During the next summer the ports in the west, none of which were in what is now Wisconsin, were delivered into the keeping of the United States. Thus the supremacy over this region, both military and civil, of Great Britain, was, after an actual continuance of thirty-five years, brought to an end. But the authority of the United States over the settlements of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, was, for several years after, only constructive. The people remained a law unto themselves.


Information gathered and adapted from History of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, Past and Present
Carl Zillier, Editor
Pubished by The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912, Chicago, IL

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