The Public Domain

The arbitrary assumption of authority over the region now known as the state of Wisconsin, and the several peaceful treaties by which governmental title was gained, as well as the changes in national domination by purchase or warfare, are briefly given in the following paragraphs.

The year 1634 witnessed the arrival of the first European at a point west of Lake Michigan. Jean Nicolet came hither to confirm a state of peace between the French and the Winnebago Indians. This overture was made at Green Bay. In furtherance of the plan the Jesuits attempted to found a mission at La Pointe, in the present county of Aishland, on Lake Superior, in 1660. The French government realized the importance of possessing formal rights over the new northwest, and so, in 1670, Daumontde St. Lusson, with Nicholas Perrot as interpreter, started from Quebec for the purpose of inviting all tribes within a circuit of a hundred leagues of Sault Ste. Marie to meet him in council at that place the following spring. This invitation included the Indians of Wisconsin.

Jean Nicolet
Jean Nicolet meets with Indians, 1634

In accordance with this request, fourteen tribes, including the Winnebagoes and Menominees, assembled at the Sault Ste. Marie, in May, 1671. There St. Lusson planted a cedar post on the top of the hill and loudly proclaimed the entire northwest under the protecting aegis of his royal master, Louis XIV. This act not appearing sufficiently definite, on the 8th of May, 1689, Perrot, then commanding at the post of Nadousioux, near Lake Pepin, west of the Mississippi, commissioned by the Marquis de Denouville to conduct the interests of commerce west of Green Bay, took possession of the counties west of Lake Michigan, as far as the St. Peter river, in the name of France.

For ninety years the ownership and dominion over these lands remained unquestioned. The white men who knew by personal experience of this country were few in numbers and devoted to fur trading or commerce with the Indians. No attention was paid to agriculture, nor did the government offer a suggestion to induce settlement by men of humble birth. A few grants of land were made to French governors, or commanders. Within the limits of this state an extensive grant was made, including the fort at Green Bay, with exclusive right to trade, and other valuable privileges, from the Marquis de Vaudreuil, to whom the king of France confirmed it in January, 1760, at a time when Quebec had been taken by the British, and only Montreal was wanting to complete the conquest of Canada. The grant was not confirmed by the British government.

The victory of English arms in Canada in 1760, terminated French rule in the valley of the St. Lawrence, and the consequent treaty of Paris, concluded February 10, 1763, transferred the master-ship of the vast northwest to the government of Great Britain. The first acts of the new possessors were to protect the eminent domain from those ambitious men who sought to acquire wide estates through manipulation of Indian titles. A royal proclamation was made in 1763, interdicting direct transfer of lands by Indians. This wise policy has since been substantially adhered to by the government of the United States.

For many years maps of the northwest contained what purported to be the boundaries of a grant from the natives of Jonathan Carver, covering a tract nearly one hundred miles square and extending over portions of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. The history of this grant forms one of the most noted pages in annals of congressional legislation. In the face of the proclamation of 1763, and within three years after its promulgation, Jonathan Carver made claim to ownership of this immense tract, through purchase or voluntary grant of the aborigines. He solicited a confirmation of his title at the hands of the king and his council. This was of course denied. After the establishment of American independence the representatives of Carver made application to congress for approval of the claim. This has been repeatedly denied.

The terms of peace between France and England provided for the security of the French settlers then upon the soil. Subsequent Indian outbreaks occurred in the eastern and more southerly sections of the new territory but Wisconsin was not involved in any of those bloody massacres. The expedition of Colonel George Rogers Clark to the Illinois country, in 1778-79, opened the way for the tide of Anglo-American emigration to the Mississippi. At the termination of the Revolutionary war, Great Britain renounced all claim to the lands lying east of the Mississippi river.

As Clark's expedition was undertaken under the auspices of Virginia, that commonwealth laid claim to the so-called "Illinois country." It is a popular statement with some writers that Wisconsin was included in this general term and was therefore once under the government of Virginia, but better authorities maintain that such is not the fact. There were but two settlements then existing in Wisconsin - Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. These places were in the hands of French residents, and, being undisturbed, were really under the authority of Great Britain. They so remained, with the territory now composing this state, under the terms of the definite treaty of peace of 1783, between the English government and the United States, until 1796, at which date Great Britain yielded her domination over the western posts. The several claiming states of the American Union ceded their individual rights to the general government at different periods, ranging from 1783 to 1785, thereby vesting complete title in the United States, so far as they could. A period is now reached where the public domain is held by the United States save only those claims possessed by right of occupation by the Indians, and which could not be gainsaid or ignored by any nominal assumption of rights by the government.

First after the Revolutionary war came the Indian war, wherein General Waaie distinguished himself. Then followed the treaty of August 3, 1795. One of the terms of this treaty was the relinquishment of title by the government to all Indian lands northward of the Ohio river, eastward of the Mississippi, westward and southward of the Great Lakes and the waters united by them, excepting certain reservations. The title to the whole of what is now Wisconsin, subject to certain restrictions, became absolute in the Indian tribes inhabiting it. The Indians acknowledged themselves under the dominion of the United States, and pledged themselves to sell their lands only to the United States. Settlement on their lands was prohibited white men.

The several treaties with the Indians, by which the domain of Wisconsin was transferred to the government are cited here: The treaty made at St. Louis, November 3, 1804, between the Sacs and Foxes and the United States, William Henry Harrison, commissioner, ceded a large tract both east and west of the Mississippi, and included the lead region of Wisconsin. The validity of this treaty was questioned by certain Sac bands and became the cause of the Black Hawk war in 1832. The treaty at Portage des Sioux, now St. Charles, Missouri, between certain Sacs and the government, September 13, 1815, that of September 14, 1815, by certain Foxes, and that of May 13, 1816, at St. Louis, were pledges of peace, not affecting land titles, excepting those involved in the treaty of 1804.

The Winnebagoes of the Wisconsin river signed a treaty at St. Louis, June 3, 1816, confirming all previous Indian cessions, and affirming their own independence. This act was followed by the Menominees, March 30, 1817, August 19, 1825, the several tribes in Wisconsin defined the boundaries of their respective lands, by council at Prairie du Chien. The Chippewas held a meeting on the St. Louis river, Minnesota, August 5, 1826, and specified their boundaries and also ratified previous treaties. The Chippewas, Menominees and Winnebagoes again defined their boundaries by council at Butte des Morts, August 1, 1827. The treaties of August 25, 1828, at Green Bay, and July 29, 1829, at Prairie du Chien, determined disputed points in the lead mine cession.

An important treaty was made at Green Bay, February 8, 1831, between the Menominees and the United States. The vast territory, the eastern division of which was bounded by the Milwaukee river, the shore of Lake Michigan, Green Bay, Fox river and Lake Winnebago; the western division by the Wisconsin and Chippewa rivers on the west, on the north by the Fox river, on the east by Green Bay, and on the north by the highlands through which flow the streams into Lake Superior, all came within the range of this treaty. The eastern division, estimated at two and a half millions of acres, was ceded to the United States. The tribe was to occupy a large tract lying north of Fox river and east of Wolf river. Their territory further west was reserved for their hunting grounds, until such time as the government should desire to purchase it.

Another portion, amounting to four millions of acres, lying between Green Bay on the east and Wolf river on the west, was also ceded to the United States, besides a strip of country three miles wide, from near the portage of the Wisconsin and Fox rivers north, on each side of the Wisconsin river, and forty-eight miles long, still leaving the tribe in possession of a country about one hundred and twenty miles long and eighty broad. The treaty provided for two New York tribes, granting them two townships on the east side of Lake Winnebago. The treaty of September 15, 1832, at Fort Armstrong, ceded all the Winnebago territory lying south and east of the Wisconsin, and Fox river of Green Bay. The Indians were excluded from that tract after June 1, 1833. The treaty of October 27, 1832, at Green Bay, ceded to the New York Indians certain lands on Fox river. The treaty at Chicago, September 26, 1833, by the Chippewas, Ottawas and Pottawattomies, completed the United States title to the lands in southern Wisconsin.

On the 3rd of September, 1836, the Menominees ceded lands lying west of Green Bay, and a strip on the Upper Wisconsin, the quantity being estimated at four millions of acres in the Green Bay tract, and nearly one hundred and eighty-five thousand acres on the Wisconsin. July 29, 1837, Fort Snelling, the Chippewas ceded all their lands lying south of the divide between the waters of Lake Superior and those of the Mississippi. The Sioux nation of the Mississippi relinquished their claim to all their lands east of the Mississippi and the islands in that river, while on a visit to Washington, September 29, 1837. The Winnebagoes gave up their rights, November I, 1837, at Washington, and agreed to leave the lands east of the Mississippi within eight months, retiring to their reservation west of the great river.

The Oneidas, or New York Indians, at Green Bay, ceded their lands granted them in 183 1 and 1832, excepting sixty-two thousand acres, February 3, 1838, at Washington. The Stockbridge and Munsee tribes of New York Indians ceded the east half of the tract of forty thousand and eighty acres which had been laid off for their use on the east side of Lake Winnebago, September 3, 1839. The Chippewas, by treaty at La Pointe, October 4, 1842, ceded all their lands in northern and northwestern Wisconsin. The Menominees ceded all lands in the state, wherevr situated, October 18, 1848. A supplementary treaty was made, November 24, 1848, with the Stockbridges, the tribe to sell the town of land on the east side of Lake Winnebago; another supplementary treaty. May 12, 1854, the tribe receiving a tract lying on Wolf river, being townships 28, 29 and 30, of ranges 13, 14, 15 and 16. The Chippewas of Lake Superior ceded their joint interest with the Chippewas of the Mississippi in lands lying in Wisconsin and Minnesota, September 30, 1854. On the 5th of February, 1856, certain small grants were made by the Stockbridge and Munsee tribes, at Stockbridge, for which they received a tract near the southern boundary of the Menominee river, the Menominees ceding two townships for them. Thus ended the Indian title to all lands in Wisconsin, excepting some minor local grants, and the title to the vast domain became vested in the general government.

The original settlements of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien were made on lands, part of which were granted by the paternal governments to the first settlers. The question of title based on these claims came before congress, in 1820, by the revival of a similar case raised to cover claims at Detroit, in 1805, and resulted in the establishment of some seventy-five titles at Prairie du Chien and Green Bay.

The ordinance of 1787 provided that congress might establish one or two states of that territory lying north of a line drawn east and west through the southerly bend of Lake Michigan. In spite of this plain fact, Illinois was defined in its present northern line, and the Lake Superior region was added to Michigan, as the "Upper Peninsula." Efforts were made by Wisconsin at an early date to recover what was justly her right, but those efforts proved unavailing.


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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