Explorations of Northwestern Wisconsin

It was nearly seven years after Joliet and his companions had floated down the Mississippi below the mouth of the Wisconsin, as is related in the forgoing pages, before the great river was explored above that point. In the early part of 1680, La Salle was upon the Illinois, and being anxious to have the last mentioned stream examined to its confluence with the parent river, and also desirous of having the Upper Mississippi explored above the point where Joliet first floated out upon its broad surface - one Michael Accau was sent on the expedition. With him was also sent Antoine Auguel. The Rev. Father Louis Hennepin, a Recollect friar, volunteered to go with the party and he became its historian, arrogating to himself, however, the chief honors of the enterprise. Accau left La Salle on the 11th of April, 1680, "at two o'clock in the afternoon," says Hennepin.

In 1684, Nicholas Perrot was appointed by De la Barre, the governor of Canada, as commandant for the west, and left Montreal with twenty men. Arriving at Green Bay in Wisconsin, some Indians told him that they had visited countries toward the setting sun, where they obtained the blue and green stones suspended from their ears and noses, and that they saw horses and men like Frenchmen, probably the Spaniards of New Mexico; and others said that they had obtained hatchets from persons who lived in a house that walked on the water, near the mouth of the river of the Assiniboines, alluding to the English establishment at Hudson's Bay.

Proceeding to the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin, thirteen Hurons were met, who were bitterly opposed to the establishment of a post near the Sioux. After the Mississippi was reached a party of Winnebagoes was employed to notify the tribes of northern Iowa that the French had ascended the river and wished to meet them. It was further agreed that prairie fires would be kindled from time to time, so that the Indians could follow the French.

Prairie Fire

After entering Lake Pepin, near its mouth on the east side Perrot found a place suitable for a post, where there was wood. The stockade was built at the foot of a bluff, beyond which was a large prairie. A writer in 1700 who writes of Lake Pepin makes the following statement:

"To the right and left of its shores, there are also prairies. In that on the right on the bank of the lake, there is a fort which was built by Nicholas Perrot, whose name it yet bears." This was the first French post upon the Mississippi.

Perrot in 1685 prevented with much difficulty the capture of his post by an expedition of Foxes and their allies. He passed the winter of 1685-6 there, and then proceeded to Green Bay. A memento of his interest in the mission of St. Francis Xavier is to be seen in the shape of a silver "ostensorium," found not long ago in digging for laying the foundation of a house at Depere, Brown county. In 1688 he again ascended the Mississippi from the mouth of the Wisconsin to the mouth of the St. Peter's, returning to Green Bay by the route pursued on the outward journey. He was never again upon the Mississippi.

In the year 1700, Le Sueur went up the Mississippi river to explore some mines said to exist in what is now Minnesota.

"On the 1st of September he passed the Wisconsin river. It runs into the Mississippi from the northeast. It is nearly one and a half miles wide. At about seventy- five leagues up this river on the right, ascending, there is a portage of more than a league. The half of this portage is shaking ground, and at the end of it is a small river (the Fox) which descends into a bay called Winnebago Bay. It is inhabited by a great number of nations who carry their furs to Canada."

Monsieur Le Sueur came by the Wisconsin river to the Mississippi, for the first time in 1683, on his way to the Sioux country, where he had already passed seven years at diflFerent periods. The Mississippi, opposite the mouth of the Wisconsin, is less than half a mile wide. From the ist of September to the 5th, our voyageur advanced fourteen leagues. He passed the river "Aux Canots," which comes from the northeast, and then the Quincapous, named from a nation which once dwelt upon its banks.

From the 5th to the 9th he made ten and a half leagues and passed the rivers Cachee and Aux Ailes. The same day he perceived canoes filled with savages, descending the river.

Monsieur Le Sueur made, the same day, three leagues, passed a stream on the west and afterward another river on the east, which is navigable at all times, and which the Indians call Red river.

From the 10th to the 14th M. Le Sueur made seventeen and a half leagues, passing the rivers Raisin and Paquilenettes. The same day he left on the east side of the Mississippi a beautiful and large river, which descends from the very far north, and called Bon Lecours (Chippeway), on account of the great quantity of buffalo, elk, bears and deer which are found there. Three leagues up this river there was:

...a mine of lead, and seven leagues above, on the same side, they found another long river, in the vicinity of which there was a copper mine, from which he had taken a lump of sixty pounds in a former voyage. In order to make these mines of any account, peace must be obtained between the Sioux and the Outagamies (Foxes), because the latter, who dwell on the east side of the Mississippi, pass this road continually when going to war against the Sioux. In this region, at one and a half leagues on the northwest side, commenced a lake, which is six leagues long and more than one broad, called Lake Pepin.

Le Sueur made on this day seven and a half leagues, and passed anfother river called Hiambouxecate Outaba, or the River of Flat Rock.

On the 15th he crossed a small river and saw in the neighborhood several canoes filled with Indians, descending the Mississippi. He supposed they were Sioux but he could not distinguish whether the canoes were large or small.

The party was composed of forty-seven men of different nations who dwell far to the east, about the forty-fourth degree of latitude. Le Sueur, discovering who the chiefs were, said the king whom they had spoken of in Canada, had sent him to take possession of the north of the river and that he wished the nations who dwell on it, as well as those under his protection, to dwell in peace.

He made this day three and three-fourths leagues, and on the 16th of September he "left a large river on the east side, named St. Croix, because a Frenchman of that name was shipwrecked at its mouth. It comes from the north-northwest."

After Le Sueur no attempt was made to visit the Upper Mississippi for over a quarter of a century, for the reason that the governor of Canada had resolved to abandon the country west of Mackinaw, so far as trade was concerned. The first attempt at renewal of the fur trade with the Sioux was in 1727, by the Sieur de Laperriere, who erected on the north side of Lake Pepin a post called Fort Beauhamais.

Rev. Father Louis Ignatius Guignas, missionary of the Society of Jesus, left Montreal on the 16th of June, 1727, to found a mission among the Sioux on the Mississippi. He reached Green Bay on the 8th of August. The record of his journey to and his voyage up the Mississippi as given below, is very brief. It is an extract from a letter to the Marquis de Beauhamais, for whom the fort on the Mississippi, where the mission was located, was named. After describing the journey by lakes and streams, the missionary says:

Forty-eight leagues from the mouth of the Ouisconsin, according to my calculation, ascending the Mississippi, is Lake Pepin, which is nothing else but the river itself, destitute of islands at that point, where it may be half a league wide. The river, in what I traversed of it, is shallow and has shoals in several places, because its bed is a moving sand, like that of the Ouisconsin. On the 7th of September, 1727, at noon, we reached this lake, which had been chosen as the bourne of our voyage. We planted ourselves on the shore, about the middle of the north side, on a low point where the soil is excellent. The wood is very dense there (as Perrot also reported), but it is already thinned in consequence of the rigor and length of the winter, which has been severe for the climate, for we are here on the parallel of 43 degrees, 41. It is true that the difference of the winter is great compared to that at Quebec and Montreal, for all that some poor judges say.

From the day after our landing, we put our axes to the wood; on the fourth day following, the fort was entirely finished. It is a square plat of one hundred feet, surrounded by pickets twelve feet long, with two good bastions. For so small a space, there are large buildings, quite distant and not huddled together, each thirty, thirty-eight and twenty-five feet long by sixteen feet wide. All would go well there if the spot were not inundated, but this year (1728), on the fifteenth of the month of April, we were obliged to camp out and the water ascended to the height of two feet eight inches in the houses, and it was idle to say that it was the quantity of snow that fell this year. The snow in the vicinity had melted long before and there was absolutely only a foot and a half from the 8th of February to the 15th of March; all the rest of the winter you could not use snow shoes. I have great reason to think that this spot is more or less inundated every year; I have always thought so, but they were not obliged to believe me, as old people, who said they had lived there fifteen or twenty years, declared that it was never overflowed. We could not enter our much devastated houses till the 13th of the same month of April, and the disorder is scarcely repaired even now. Before the end of October, all the houses were finished and furnished, and each one found himself tranquilly lodged at home. They then thought only of going out to explore the neighboring hills and rivers, to see those herds of all kinds of deer, of which they tell such stories in Canada. They must have retired or diminished greatly since the time that the old voyageurs left the country; they are no longer in such numbers, and are killed with difficulty.

After beating the field for some time, all reassembled at the fort, and thought only of enjoying the fruits of their labors. On the 4th of the month of November we did not forget that it was the General's birthday. Mass was said for him in the morning and they were well disposed to celebrate the day in the evening, but the tardiness of the pyrotechnists and the inconstancy of the weather, caused them to postpone the celebration to the 14th of the same month, when they let off some very fine rockets and made the air ring with a hundred shouts of Vive le Roi, and Vive Charles de Beauharnais, It was on this occasion that wine of the Sioux was broached; it was par excellence, although there are no vines here finer than in Canada. What contributed much to the amusement was the terror of some cabins of Indians, who were, at the time, around the fort. When these poor people saw the fireworks in the air, and the stars fall from heaven, the women and children began to take flight, and the most courageous of the men to cry mercy and implore us very earnestly to stop the surprising play of the wonderful medicine.

As soon as we arrived among them, they assembled in a few days around the French fort to the number of ninety-five cabins, which might make in all, one hundred and fifty men, for there are at most two men in their portable cabins of dressed skins, and in many there is only one. This is all that we have seen, except a band of about sixty men, who came on the 26th of February, who were of those nations called Sioux of the Prairies.

At the end of November the Indians set out for their winter quarters; they do not, indeed, go far, and we saw some of them all through the winter; but from the 2nd of the month of April last, when some cabins repassed here to go in search of them, we sought them in vain, during a week, for more than sixty leagues up the Mississippi. We arrived yesterday without any tidings of them. Although I said above that the Sioux were alarmed at the rockets, which they took for new phenomena, it must not be supposed from that they are less intelligent than other Indians we know. They seem to be more so, at least they are much gayer and open, apparently, and far more dexterous thieves, great dancers and great medicine men. The men are almost all large and well made, but the women are very ugly and disgusting which, however, does not check debauchery among them, and is, perhaps, an effect of it.

The subsequent events of this region are of great interest, but we are especially in the dark as to the movements of the party at Fort Beauharnais. In spite of Guignas' opinion of the Foxes, they continued to be hostile, and in 1728, the year of this letter, De Ligneris marched against them. The traders had previously withdrawn, to a great extent, from Fort Beauharnais, and Father Guignas, in attempting to reach the Illinois country, fell into the hands of the Mascoutins and Kickapoos, who sided with the Foxes and remained a prisoner for five months, narrowly escaping a death by torture at the stake. His captors then took him to the Illinois country, and left him there on parole till November, 1729, when they led him back to their town. Nothing has yet appeared to show whether he then returned to the fort, or whether he made his way to some other French post. In 1736 he again appears on Lake Pepin with M. de St. Pierre, perhaps the same to whom Washington, at a later date, presented Dinwiddie's letter. Nothing is known of his later history.

French traders reached this point at intervals for a number of years thereafter - probably until near the commencement of the war between France and Great Britain in 1755, after which the Mississippi seems to have been virtually abandoned by the French. Jonathan Carver was the first to ascend the Mississippi after the country had passed under the control of the English. He visited this region with a view of ascertaining favorable situations for new settlements. He left Mackinaw in 1766, pursuing his journey by way of Green Bay and the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to the mouth of the last named, where near by he found the Indian village called by the French 'La Prairies les Chiens,' signifying 'Dog Plains,' now written Prairie du Chien.

On the 1st of November I arrived at Lake Pepin, which is rather an extended part of the river Mississippi, that the French have thus denominated, about two hundred miles from the Ouisconsin. The Mississippi below this lake flows with a gentle current, but the breadth of it is very uncertain, in some places it being upwards of a mile, in others not more than a quarter. This river has a range of mountains on each side throughout the whole of the way, which in particular parts approach near to it, in others, lie at greater distance.

About sixty miles below this lake is a mountain remarkably situated, for it stands by itself exactly in the middle of the river and looks as if it had slidden from the adjacent shore into the stream. It cannot be termed an island, as it rises immediately from the brink of the water to a considerable height. Both the Indians and the French call it the Mountain in the River. (Trempealeau.)

One day I walked some miles below Lake Pepin, to take a view of the adjacent country. I had not proceeded far before I came to a fine, level, open plain, on which I perceived at a little distance, a partial elevation that had the appearance of an entrenchment. On a nearer inspection I had greater reason to suppose that it had really been intended for this many centuries ago. Notwithstanding it was now covered with grass, I could plainly discern that it had once been a breastwork of about four feet in height, extending the best part of a mile and sufficiently capacious to cover five thousand men. Its form was somewhat circular and its flanks reached to the river. Though much defaced by time, every angle was distinguishable and appeared as regular and fashioned with as much military skill as if planned by Vauban himself. The ditch was not visible, but I thought on examining more curiously, that I could perceive there certainly had been one. From its situation also, I am convinced that it must have been designed for this purpose. It fronted the country and the rear was covered by the river; nor was there any rising ground for a considerable way that commanded it; a few straggling oaks were alone to be seen near it. In many places small tracks were worn across it by the feet of the elks and deer, and from the depths of the bed of earth by which it was covered, I was able to draw certain conclusions of its great antiquity. I examined all the angles and every part with great attention, and have often blamed myself since for not encamping on the spot and drawing an exact plan of it. To show that this description is not the offspring of a heated imagination, or the chimerical tale of a mistaken traveler, I find on inquiry since my return that M. St. Pierre and several traders have, at different times, taken notice of similar appearances, on which they have formed the same conjectures, but without examining them so minutely as I did.

No other explorer has given an account of the Mississippi river above the Wisconsin in the years which follow Carver's visit, down to the time of the taking possession of the country by the United States, but the general government soon determined to be placed in possession of facts concerning the Upper Mississippi compatible with exercising jurisdiction over it.

In the year 1805, Major Z. M. Pike, of the Sixth Infantry, U. S. A., was delegated by his official superiors to "trace the Mississippi to its source." He set out from St. Louis in August of that year, with a party consisting of three officers and seventeen men. He was accompanied by Lieutenant James Wilkinson and Dr. John H. Robinson. The record left by this officer is so circumstantial and so easy of access withal, that the account of the exploration of the Mississippi in this Arolume may properly end here with a reference to that journal. Since the beginning of the present century, the student of history will find few obstacles in the prosecution of his work.

The political epochs of Wisconsin are those periods of distinct jurisdiction over this region from the passage of the ordinance of 1787 to the time of the erection of a state, and are as follows:

The northwest territory proper (1787-1800), had jurisdiction over all the lands referred to in the ordinance of 1787. In this tract Wisconsin was included. Ohio was set out as a state in 1802.

Indiana territory was formed July 4, 1800, with Vincennes as its capital, and Wisconsin was under that political division.

Michigan territory was formed June 30, 1805. It was bounded on the south by a line drawn east from the south bend of Lake Michigan, on the west by the center of Lake Michigan. It did not include Wisconsin. The upper peninsula was annexed in 1836. The state of Michigan was formed January 26, 1837, with its present boundaries.

Illinois territory was formed March 2, 181.0. It included all of the Indiana territory west of the Wabash river and Vincennes and a line running due north to the territorial line. All of Wisconsin was included therein, except what lay east of the line drawn north from Vincennes.

Indiana was admitted as a state April 19, 1816, including all of the territory of Indiana territory, except a narrow strip east of the line of Vincennes, and west of Michigan territory, her western boundary.

Illinois was admitted as a state April 11, 1818. All of Wisconsin was added to Michigan territory, Illinois extending northward only to 42 degrees, 30'.

The counties of Michilimackinac, in the present state of Michigan, and Brown and Crawford - being all of now Wisconsin - were formed in October, 1818. Iowa - as much as was then ceded to the United States - was attached, for judicial and political purposes, June 30, 1834.

Wisconsin territory was formed April 20, 1836. The state of Wisconsin was created May 29, 1848.

Wisconsin territory originally embraced the area of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and a part of Dakota. The counties were Brown, Milwaukee, Iowa, Crawford, Dubuque and Des Moines, with a portion of Chippewa and Michilimackinac. The jurisdiction of Michigan territory over the new territory ceased on July 4, 1836.

April 30, 1836, President Jackson commissioned Henry Dodge governor of Wisconsin. The remaining officers were: John S. Horner, secretary; Charles Dunn, chief justice; David Irvin and William C. Frazer, associate judges; W. W. Chapman, attorney; Francis Gehon, marshal.

The census taken in 1836 gave Des Moines county 6,257; Iowa county, 5,234; Dubuque county, 4,274; Milwaukee county, 2,893; Brown county, 2,706; Crawford county, 850, making a total in Wisconsin proper, 11,683, and in the entire region, 22,214. Under this appointment Brown and Milwaukee counties each received two councilmen and six representatives, while Crawford received two representatives but no councilmen. The members chosen were: to the council, Henry S. Baird and John Arndt, from Brown; Gilbert Knapp and Alanson Sweet, from Milwaukee; E. Brigham, J. B. Terry and J. R. Vineyard, from Iowa ; to the house, Ebenezer Childs, A. G. Ellis and A. J. Irwin, from Brown ; W. B. Sheldon, M. W. Cornwall and Charles Durkee, from Milwaukee; James H. Lockwood and James B. Dallam, from Crawford ; William Boyles, G. F. Smith, D. M. Parkinson, T. McKnight, T. Shanley and J. P. Cox, from Iowa county. Belmont, in the present La Fayette county, was chosen as the seat of government. October 26, 1836, was the time of the first session. Henry S. Baird was elected president of the council.

The judicial districts were: First, Crawford and Iowa, Chief Justice Dunn; second, west of the Mississippi river. Judge Irvin; third. Brown and Milwaukee, Judge Frazer.

Madison was chosen as the permanent capital, the seat being temporarily removed to Burlington, Iowa. At the first session the counties of Walworth, Racine, Jefferson, Dane, Portage, Dodge, Washington, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Manitowoc, Marquette Rock, Green and Grant were defined and established.

George W. Jones of Sinsinawa Mound, was elected delegate to congress.

The first session of the supreme court was held at Belmont, December 8, 1836. Charles Dunn, chief justice; David Irvin, associate; John Catlin, clerk; Henry S. Baird, attorney general.

The second session of the first legislature was held at Burlington, now the county seat of Des Moines county, Iowa. Among the resolutions passed was one asking congress to appropriate twenty thousand dollars and two townships of land for a university of Wisconsin. The land, forty-six thousand and eighty acres, was subsequently granted, but the money was not. The state buildings were put under contract in April, 1838. The only change thus far in territorial officers was that of William B. Slaughter, for J. S. Homer, secretary, which was made February 16, 1837. June 19, 1838, Edward James was commissioned marshal, and July 5, Moses M. Strong was appointed United States attorney.

July 3, 1838, the region west of the Mississippi was set off as a separate territory and named Iowa. The population of the eastern or Wisconsin counties at that time was 18,149.

The first session of the supreme court at Madison after the reorganization of the territory was held on the third Monday of July, 1838. In September of that year, James Duane Doty was elected delegate to congress from Wisconsin. On the 8th of November, Andrew G. Miller was appointed associate judge of the supreme court, to succeed Judge Frazer, who died at Milwaukee, October 18th.

On the 26th of November, 1838, the legislature met for the first time in Madison, being the first session under the reorganized condition of affairs, but the second legislature in reality.

March 8, 1839, Henry Dodge was recommissioned governor by the president of the United States. James Duane Doty was reelected delegate to congress, taking his seat December 8, 1840. Francis J. Dunn succeeded Mr. Slaughter as secretary of the territory, January 25, 1841, but was himself succeeded, April 23d following, by A. P. Field. On the 15th of March, Daniel Hugunin was commissioned marshal, and April 27th, T. W. Sutherland was appointed attorney. September 13th, Governor Dodge was removed by President Tyler and James Duane Doty appointed in his place. Henry Dodge was thereupon elected to congress to fill that vacancy, taking his seat December 7, 1841. October 30, 1843, George Floyd was appointed secretary of the territory. On the 21st of June, 1844, N. P. Tallmadge received the appointment of governor, and August 31, Charles M. Prevost that of marshal. April 8, 1845, President Polk reinstated Henry Dodge in the gubernatorial office. The official changes this year were: March 14, John B. Rockwell as marshal; July 14, W. P. Lynde, as attorney; Morgan L. Martin as delegate to congress to succeed Henry Dodge. January 22, 1846, A. Hyatt Smith became attorney and John Catlin was named as secretary, February 24th. John H. Tweedy was elected delegate, September 6, 1847.

September 27, 1847, Governor Dodge issued a proclamation for a special session of the legislature to commence on the i8th of the ensuing month, to take action concerning the admission of Wisconsin to the Union as a state. The constitutional convention met at Madison, December 15, 1847. The constitution then provided was ratified by the people on the second Monday of March, 1848. On the 29th of May, 1848, Wisconsin became a state.


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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