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Early Exploration, the War of 1812, and the First U.S. Gov. Initiatives

During the War of 1812, the only battle fought in Wisconsin was in Prairie du Chien, in 1814. Made fifty-six years later, this birds eye drawing depicts the city's street names and street layouts, houses, trees, the Mississippi River, bridge and pier.

This week’s A Northwoods Moment in History is in response to two WXPR listeners who submitted questions to our new Curious Northseries.

An anonymous listener from Lake Tomahawk asked: Did the French and British occupy Wisconsin? What happened in the war of 1812 in the state?

In addition, Jane Nicholson from Manitowish Waters asked: What were the first initiatives of the US government in our area? Who was sent here and for what purposes/initiatives?

To answer those questions and more, here's Gary Entz.

The first Europeans arrived in the Northwoods when Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France, sent Etienne Brule in 1622 and Jean Nicolet in 1634 to explore the shores of Lakes Superior and Michigan.  These first explorers did not establish any forts, but they did return evidence of bountiful furs to New France.  Twenty years after Nicolet’s visit the first fur traders arrived, and the first French fort was built near present-day Ashland sometime around 1660.  Other forts were established along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, but it is important to remember that these were not forts of military occupation.  The French never occupied Wisconsin, and the forts were little more than trading outposts to aid in directing valuable furs back to New France.

When the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 all of France’s territorial claims in North America passed over to the British.  European fur traders in Wisconsin now started delivering their pelts to the Hudson Bay Company but beyond that little changed in the Northwoods.  The British government had its hands full with revolutionary-minded colonists in the east and never even considered sending an occupying force to Wisconsin.

The same was true after the American Revolution ended in 1783.  The new American government was more concerned with settlers moving over the Appalachian Mountains and organizing new territories along the Ohio River Valley than it was with the distant Northwoods.  In fact, even as American fur trappers began to arrive, British fur traders continued to maintain a presence and relationship with the area’s First Nations.

The War of 1812 changed all of that.  Indigenous peoples from the Ohio River Valley were upset at the aggressiveness of the new United States in taking land, and consequently many rallied behind the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and joined with the British in the war against the Americans.  In Wisconsin the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Potawatomi joined Tecumseh’s cause.  The Ojibwe did side with the British but largely stayed out of the fighting.  Nevertheless, the Americans responded in 1814 by sending William Clark and a regiment of 60 U.S. soldiers to Wisconsin.  They built Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien, and in August they battled a British force of 150 soldiers and 400 Indigenous warriors in the only conflict to take place in the state.  The British took the fort on August 20 and renamed it Fort McKay but had to give it up in December after they formally lost the war.

After the war ended, the U.S. government wanted to force the British to respect American jurisdiction in Wisconsin, so in the first real initiative of the U.S. government in the region three military outposts were constructed.  Fort Howard at Green Bay, Fort Winnebago at Portage, and Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien.  It was from these outposts that treaties with Northwoods tribes ceding timber and mineral rights were negotiated in the 1830s and 1840s.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

Do you have a question about history in the Northwoods? Submit it to our Curious North series below.


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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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