Back to Home

WISCONSIN RIVERWAYS:

KEY TO THE CONTINENT IN THE TIME OF THE FRENCH

by Stephen Chicoine © 2013


Long before Lambeau and the Packers, Wisconsin was the forest primeval and home to the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Menominee peoples. The French from far down the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City engaged in the fur trade from 1608 onward. The first fur traders to Wisconsin were Huron and Ottawa, who were middlemen for the French.

Samuel Champlain heard of the Ho-Chunk in the pays d’en haut (the upper country) and sent Jean Nicolet as his emissary to meet them. In 1634, Nicolet traveled more than a thousand miles up the St. Lawrence River and across the Great Lakes. He met with natives near the site of present-day Green Bay. Champlain died in the following year and for a time there was no official travel into the pays d’en haut.

In 1642, the establishment of a settlement on the island of Montreal, one hundred and fifty miles west of Quebec City, deepened the French involvement in the fur trade. This presence forever changed the way of life of the native peoples, who became dependent upon European trade goods for the necessities of existence 1. The powerful Iroquois Confederation in upstate New York fought for their share of the trade in what is known as the Beaver Wars. In the late 1640s and early 1650s, the Iroquois destroyed the Huron homeland in Ontario, as well as that of the Erie, the Neutrals and the Susquehannock. The result was widespread panic and mass migration of the native peoples. The remnant survivors of these and other nations, including the Potawatomi, Fox, Sac and Kickapoo, fled westward to the far end of the Great Lakes. Many settled in Green Bay, overwhelming the Winnebago and Menominee.

The Iroquois in the mid 1650s targeted the Ottawa for their role as middlemen for the French. The Ottawa repulsed the Iroquois over a two-year period. In the aftermath, an Ottawa flotilla brought furs to Montreal. Two Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, joined the Ottawa when they returned home. The Frenchmen continued on into Green Bay, where they encountered refugees from all the different nations.

The Iroquois next directed their attention to pays d’en haut, the source of the furs. They made a major assault on Green Bay in 1657 with an estimated 1200 warriors. Scouts picked up their approach. Huron and Ottawa warriors on Rock Island at the northern tip of present-day Door County met and decisively defeated the Iroquois invasion.

Radisson and Groseilliers made a second voyage up the St. Lawrence in 1659-1660. This time they followed the southern shore of Lake Superior along what would become the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Apostle Islands of present-day Wisconsin and south into Chequamegon Bay. This region also had attracted a large number of refugees from the various native peoples.

Green Bay and Chequamegon Bay were the two most prominent sheltered bays on the Great Lakes in the Wisconsin region. More importantly, major riverways flowed into each bay from the interior of present-day Wisconsin. In both cases, by crossing a single reasonable portage, travelers could canoe from that bay to the Mississippi River valley. The French in the earliest days were not yet aware of the routes into pays d’en haut.

Radisson and Groseilliers returned to Montreal and brought word of the refugees at Chequamegon Bay. The Jesuits sent Father Rene Menard there in 1661. Menard disappeared – his fate unknown. In 1663, Jesuit Father Claude Jean Allouez traveled to Chequamegon Bay and established Mission La Pointe du Saint Esprit.

The Iroquois assault on Montreal increased in the 1660s to such an extent that the French King finally responded to calls for military assistance. In 1665, the Carignan-Salieres Regiment – a total of 1,200 soldiers – arrived in Canada. In autumn 1666, the regiment with militia and Indian allies invaded Iroquois territory. They burned five villages and vast stores of grain. The Iroquois sued for peace – a peace that was to last for twenty years 2. The campaign opened the pays d’en haut to travel and trade.

Fearless French voyageurs in seek of adventure and fortune streamed into the Great Lakes region to engage in the fur trade. Nicolas Perrot and Toussaint Beaudry formed a trading company in 1667 and began traveling to Wisconsin to establish contacts with the native peoples. They spent the summer of 1667 at Chequamegon Bay and wintered there. In the following summer, they moved on to Green Bay, which would become Perrot’s major base. They returned to Montreal in the fall of 1668 with a huge load of furs.

Father Jacques Marquette traveled to Chequamegon Bay in 1668. Father Allouez proceeded to Green Bay. He wintered there in 1668-1669, ministering to the numerous tribes. In 1669, Father Allouez set up a mission among the Menominee people near present-day Oconto, Wisconsin. He established Mission St Jacques for the Mascoutin people on the Fox River near present-day Berlin, Wisconsin. In 1671 at the last set of rapids, about five miles upstream from where the Fox River empties into Green Bay, Father Allouez erected a bark chapel and established Mission St Francois Xavier. That site, known as Rapides Des Peres, in modern times became De Pere, a Green Bay suburb 3.

Even with the Iroquois subdued, at least temporarily, there were still troubles. The Meskwaki (or Fox) destroyed the chapel at Rapides Des Pere at the end of 1672. Father Allouez with the assistance of Nicolas Perrot re-built the chapel. And there were the Sioux in the far west, that being present-day Minnesota. They were traditional enemies of the Ojibwe with whom the French were allied. The Dakota (Sioux) drove Father Marquette and his Indian allies from Chequamegon Bay in 1671. Marquette re-settled at Mackinac. The loss of access shifted all of the French efforts in the fur trade to Green Bay 4. The eminent American historian Frederick J. Turner wrote of the Sioux and Iroquois threats,” There was therefore a pressure on both sides of Wisconsin, which tended to mass together the divergent tribes. And Green Bay and the Fox and Wisconsin route was the line of least resistance.” 5

In the summer of 1673, Marquette and Joliet traveled to Green Bay to make their epic journey down the Mississippi River. They were not he first Europeans to travel the river. The Spanish explorer De Soto did so more than a century earlier. However, in traversing the great river from present-day Wisconsin to present-day Arkansas, Marquette and Joliet demonstrated that, in fact, the Gulf of Mexico was accessible from the Great Lakes. Most importantly, Marquette and Joliet discovered the key portages that made the journey possible. These portages allowed the travelers access from one river to another with a minimal amount of carrying their canoes, as well as their baggage and trade goods, on their shoulders across land.

Marquette and Joliet made their way down the western shore of Lake Michigan along the Wisconsin shoreline. They stopped at the Menominee village on the western shore of Green Bay, traveled on down to the southern end of the bay and then inland up the Fox River. They reached the large Mascouten and Miami village near Berlin, Wisconsin, where Allouez had established Mission St Jacques. Miami guides escorted Marquette and Joliet across the Fox-Wisconsin Portage near the present-day city of Portage to the Wisconsin River. The two French explorers traveled down the Wisconsin and into the Mississippi River and down the Mississippi to present-day Arkansas before turning back.

On their return, Marquette and Joliet traveled up the Illinois River. They stayed at a large village of the Kaskaskia, one of the tribes in the Illinois Confederation. A group of Kaskaskia escorted Marquette and Joliet to the Des Plaines River and showed them the way across the Chicago Portage to Lake Michigan. From this point on, the French authorities recognized the delineating portages – the Fox-Wisconsin and the Chicago – the keys to the continent’s interior. Marquette and Joliet’s 1673 expedition opened the interior of the continent to travel and commerce.

Over time, it became apparent that Wisconsin was the gateway by virtue of the much easier portage. The Fox-Wisconsin portage was one-and-a-half miles across a marsh that separated the Fox River and the Wisconsin River. In contrast, the Chicago portage was much more physically daunting. The Chicago portage might not be more than a mile in the wet season. However, no other portage was subject to as much seasonal variation. The portage could be as much as four to nine miles in the dry season 6. Further, the Chicago portage did not end when travelers from Lake Michigan crossed the portage and reached the Des Plaines River. The Des Plaines in times of drought was a succession of pools and might require a portage of twenty or even fifty miles. The great French explorer Robert De La Salle noted that the Des Plaines was often not navigable for canoes and that it might be easier to transport goods to Illinois country by land using horse-drawn wagons 7. One aspect did cause Marquette and Joliet and other travelers returning from the Mississippi Valley to favor the Chicago portage. The current of the Illinois River, against which one paddled when heading to Lake Michigan, offered less resistance than that of the Wisconsin River 8.

Just as the French recognized the riverways into the interior, the Iroquois emerged once again as a threat. In September 1680, a large force of Iroquois appeared on the Illinois River and attacked the great village of the Illinois Confederation near present-day Peoria. Many of the Illinois warriors were away and the Iroquois had numerical superiority, as well as greater firepower. The Iroquois slaughtered men, women and children. The survivors fled south. The Illinois made a heroic stand, but, in the end, were overcome. The Fox-Wisconsin portage seemed much safer than the Chicago portage with the Iroquois in the mix once again.

The Meskwaki (Fox) never accepted French dominance. With the renewal of Iroquois attacks on the French, the Fox made overtures to the Iroquois. French trading with Fox enemies intensified the Fox dislike of the French. Of considerable concern to the Fox was the French supplying their enemies, the Ojibwe, with weapons in exchange for furs. In 1680, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, traveled Lake Superior to Chequamegon Bay and beyond and negotiated a peace between the Ojibwe and Dakota people. Through this effort, the French opened direct trade with the Dakota, also enemies of the Fox. Fox warriors began confronting travelers along the Fox-Wisconsin riverway, exacting a toll from some, attacking others.

The French subsequently took steps to begin a network of forts along the key riverways of what would become Wisconsin and Illinois in the 1680s. The French colonial administration made Nicolas Perrot Commandant of the West in 1685. Perrot operated out of his fortified outpost at the southern end of Green Bay. In the summer of 1685, Perrot built Fort St. Nicholas near the confluence of the Wisconsin River with the Mississippi River – the predecessor of the settlement of Prairie du Chien. Perrot then moved eighty miles upriver on the Mississippi and built Fort Trempealeau north of present-day Lacrosse, Wisconsin. In the following year, Perrot abandoned Fort Trempealeau and built Fort St. Antoine fifty miles upriver where the Chippewa River flows into the Mississippi 9.

The Iroquois onslaught continued in Illinois. Robert de LaSalle built Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock in the heart of the Illinois country in 1682. That fort withstood an Iroquois invasion in 1684. Three years later, a large Iroquois raiding party massacred a Miami village just south of Chicago Portage. Again, traders recognized the relative advantage of the Fox-Wisconsin portage when considering marauding Iroquois coming out of the east 10. Even more exposed to the Iroquois than the Chicago portage was the St. Joseph-Kankakee portage further east in northwestern Indiana, which also led to the Illinois River 11.

The French finally responded to the Iroquois, as they had twenty years earlier. Denonville led a large expedition of French soldiers and militia into Seneca country in the summer of 1687. Nicolas Perrot traveled from Green Bay, bringing with him over five hundred warriors from the pays d’en haut 12. Denonville’s campaign devastated Seneca country. There also were other victories on Lake Erie and in present-day Ontario. The Iroquois did not sue for peace, as they had following the 1666 invasion. As early as November 1687, an Iroquois raiding party killed ten Frenchmen at Montreal. Their greatest blow took place in August 1689 when fifteen hundred Iroquois warriors descended on the French settlement of Lachine on the western end of Montreal Island. They burned the settlement and killed or took captive many of the residents. War between the French and the Iroquois was as never before from 1687 to 1700. Both sides launched one expedition or war party after another and both sides suffered serious losses. Iroquois war parties roamed the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, constantly threatening trade with the pays d’en haut.

Nor were the Iroquois the only problem for the French. While Perrot and his Indian allies were away fighting the Seneca in 1687, the Meskwaki (Fox) destroyed the Jesuit mission and fur trading post at De Pere 13. The loss of furs ruined Perrot financially. Perrot still had the respect of the native peoples of Wisconsin. In 1690, a Miami chief presented Perrot with a gift – a chunk of galena, a lead-bearing mineral 14. He told Perrot of the source and Perrot followed with a visit to what is now known as the Tri-State region, where the state lines of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin meet. Perrot built a post on the east side of the Mississippi River opposite the site of present-day Dubuque, Iowa (named for the Frenchman who exploited the mines after Perrot’s passing). Subsequent maps of the Mississippi River valley marked the location as the “Mines of Nicolas Perrot”. The exploitation of lead in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1820s would replace fur as the most important resource of the region’s economy.

The Wisconsin fur trade became further complicated in 1696 when King Louis XIV of France, tired of unlicensed trading by coureur de bois, revoked fur-trading privileges and closed down the forts/trading posts in the West. Meanwhile, the losses imposed on the Iroquois by repeated expeditions by French soldiers and militia and their Indian allies eventually forced the Iroquois to parley. The outcome was the Great Peace Council of 1701 at Montreal. Forty native nations, including those of the Iroquois Confederation, were party to the treaty signed.

That same summer, Cadillac set forth into the west and established Fort Ponchartrain on the site of present-day Detroit. This military post on the river that connected Lake Erie with Lake Huron, became the official French base to control the coureur de bois and also to protect the fur trade and pays d’en haut from the English and Iroquois. The Montreal treaty allowed for the settlement at Detroit to be safe from the ravages of the Iroquois for the next sixteen years.

With the Iroquois situation, at least temporarily, resolved, the French turned to the matter of continued Meskwaki attacks along the strategic Fox-Wisconsin riverway through their territory. During the winter of 1706-1707, a French expedition entered Green Bay and moved up the Fox River. They attacked and killed many Fox on the north shore of Lake Winnebago near present-day Neenah. The military approach, rather than resolving the issue, only deepened Fox hatred for the French.

When Du Lhut traveled to Chequamegon Bay in 1680, Ojibwe guides took him southward up the Bois Brule River. They introduced Du Lhut to a short portage between the Bois Brule River and the St. Croix River near present-day Solon Springs, Wisconsin. The St. Croix flowed southward into the Mississippi River at present-day Prescott, Wisconsin, south of Hudson. The route became critical to commerce through Wisconsin by allowing travelers to circumvent the hostile Fox. French authorities in Quebec City, recognizing the likelihood of war with the Fox, had sent Pierre Charles le Sueur in 1693 to build a fort to protect the Bois Brule portage.

In 1712, the Fox took the offensive. They attacked and laid siege to the French fort at Detroit. The French Indian allies, led by the Illinois, relieved the siege and saved the French. The close relationship between the French and the Illinois led to war between the Fox and the Illinois. This impacted the safety across the Chicago portage, further enhancing the importance of the Bois Brule portage.

There followed a series of French expeditions into Wisconsin in an attempt to crush the Fox and re-open the strategic Fox-Wisconsin portage. In 1716, a French army, supported by Indian allies, laid siege to the important Fox village on Little Lake Buttes des Morts, just north of Neenah. This led to a temporary peace, but war began again in the 1720s. When efforts to subdue the Fox failed, the French resorted to genocide. The conflict raged across Wisconsin for years, draining French resources and slowly eliminating the brave Meskwaki people. There were a number of major French expeditions into the Fox homeland from 1724 until the final campaign of 1733. The French eventually forced the few remaining Fox into submission, but not before the French Indian allies were pleading with them to show some mercy. The damage to the French position in the West was considerable.

The British defeated the French in 1763 and assumed control of Quebec and the Great Lakes region. Thus ended one hundred and thirty years of French involvement in Wisconsin. The American Revolution, twenty years later, led to Wisconsin becoming a territory and then a state of the United States.

The success of the New York State’s Erie Canal, completed in 1825, caused everyone to consider the improvement of waterways for commerce. Efforts began in the 1830s to deepen and widen the Fox-Wisconsin route into a commercial thoroughfare that would allow steamboats and barges to move wheat, corn and cattle to Green Bay and on to markets in the eastern United States. This required far more than digging a canal across the mile-and-a-half of marsh that constituted the actual portage. The Wisconsin was shallow with shifting sand bars and the Fox had rapids, which would require locks.

Private investors failed in every attempt to construct a canal along the old Fox-Wisconsin riverway. There was never enough money and there were always formidable technical challenges. One group after another abandoned the project after beginning with high hopes. Major floods in 1838 and 1845 damaged what progress had been made. In 1848, the United States Congress offered the new state of Wisconsin sections of land along the Fox River to aid in the construction of the canal and associated locks. The effort gained momentum, but it too was eventually abandoned and the banks crumbled and what little there was of the canal fell into decay. Extensive flooding in 1851 wiped out what remained. The Army Corps of Engineers became involved in 1874 and considerable activity led to modest success. The first steamboat passed through the new waterway in 1876 with much celebration. Steamboats and barges did move down the constructed waterway. However, this was twenty-eight years after the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal established Chicago as the boomtown of the Midwest. Also, by 1876, the railroads were replacing canals as the main thoroughfares.

There was still the matter of the natural processes of the river. The record-breaking flood of 1880 destroyed much of Portage and the region around it. The 1881 flood was nearly as high. There was extensive flooding in 1905. All of these previous floods paled in comparison to the devastating flood of 1911 15. The commercial canal never became a reality. The noted Wisconsin historian Reuben Gold Thwaites wrote in 1900, “ … although much money has been spent on these schemes, from that day to this, the Fox-Wisconsin route is still impracticable … almost wholly abandoned.” 16

The Chicago portage had the advantage of being located closer to the Great Lakes than the much further inland Fox-Wisconsin portage. The Fox-Wisconsin Portage was over one hundred and sixty miles (by river) from Green Bay. The Chicago portage also was at the extreme southern tip of the Great Lakes and, as such, served as a vantage point from east and west.

In any case, Chicago had a population of 350 in 1833. The land immediately west of the settlement on Lake Michigan was a dismal swamp. This was the Chicago portage across Mud Lake that was the reason for the settlement’s existence. Construction commenced in 1832 on a canal across the swamp to connect the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. Twelve years later in 1848, the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened, allowing shipping to pass through Chicago from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The first railroad reached Chicago in that same year. Over thirty rail lines entered Chicago by 1860, by which time Chicago was the transportation hub of the nation, as well as an important manufacturing center 17. The Americans realized the dreams of the French to connect the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, the Fox-Wisconsin portage and the Bois Brule portage are recreational sites, visited by canoeists and hikers and the occasional historian. Three hundred years ago, they were the key to the continent. The Portage Canal in Portage, Wisconsin is on the National Register of Historic Places.



1 Kellogg, Louise Phelps, “France and the Mississippi Valley: A Resume”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 1 (June 1931), p. 7. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, “The Commerce of the Forest”, in Stories of the Badger State, American Book Company, New York, 1900, p. 81.

2 Verney, J., The Good Regiment: The Carignan Salieres Regiment in Canada, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

3 Kellogg, Louise Phelps, “The Story of Wisconsin, 1634-1848”, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 2, no. 4 (June 1919), p. 423.

4 Gilman, Rhoda, “The Fur Trade in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1630-1850”, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 58, no. 1 (Autumn 1974), p. 5.

5 Turner, Frederick J., “Character and Influence of the Fur Trade in Wisconsin”, annual address before the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, January 3, 1889, Proceedings of the Annual Business Meeting (Madison, 1889).

6 Hulbert, Archer B., Portage Paths, The Keys of the Continent (The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, 1903), p. 181.

7 Quaife, Milo M., Chicago and the Old Northwest 1673-1835, University of Chicago Press, 1913, pp. 10-11, p. 17.

8 Dopp, Mary, “Geographical Influences in the Development of Wisconsin. Chapter II. The Fur Trade”, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 45, no. 7 (1913), p. 494.

9 Trewartha, Glenn, “French Settlement in the Driftless Hill Land”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 28, no. 3 (September 1938), pp. 185-187.

10 Dopp, p. 494.

11 Baker, George A., The St. Joseph-Kankakee Portage (The Society, South Bend, 1899), pp. 2-3.

12 Butler, James D., “First French Footprints Beyond the Lakes”, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, vol. 5 (1882), p. 122.

13 Dopp, p. 493. Trewartha, p. 191.

14 Thwaites, Reuben Gold, “Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever (or Galena) River Region”, Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 13 (Madison, 1895), p. 273.

15 Jones, James E., History of Columbia County, Wisconsin (Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1914), pp. 91-100.

16 Thwaites, Reuben Gold, Stories of the Badger State (American Book Company, New York, 1900), p. 123.

17 Lamb, John, A Corridor in Time: I&M Canal, 1836-1986 (Lewis University, Romeoville, 1987), pp. 10-13.