History: 1923 Wood Co., Wisconsin's Fur Trade

Poster: History Buffs


----Source: History of Wood County, Wisconsin compiled by George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and others : illustrated. H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1923, CHAPTER IV.

----1923 History of Wood Co., Wisconsin's Fur Trade




Along with the shifting of tribal homes, the causes of which have been dealt with in the preceding chapter, there grew up changes in the method of handling the fur trade. The Indian hunters no longer made yearly pilgrimages to Montreal to exchange their gathered peltry for the white man's goods. Instead, the white men came to them offering their wares, and with tribal consent built in their country at convenient places little log forts, where an officer and a few soldiers kept order over the motley crowd of traders and coureurs des bois that enriched themselves by the wilderness traffic. Most of the traders were licensed by the government and subjected to strict rules for the conduct of their trade. The illegal trader, however, flourished and followed his Indian customers into the depths of the forest, beyond the reach of the order of regulations enforced by the commandants at the wayside post. These unlicensed traders carried to the red men the alcoholic liquors the white man had taught him to love; and in disregard of the regulations of the French government, the Indian grew more and more debauched and degraded by his association with the whites. Radisson, who had explored the western forests for the French, deserted to the English government, and in 1670 aided in forming the Hudson's Bay Company, that greatest of all fur trade monopolies, which, after nearly 250 years, is still the greatest fur company in the world. Its traders early penetrated to the north shore of Lake Superior and drew away many Indians who had previously contributed to the wealth of Canada. The English also attempted to secure the northwest fur trade by the route of the Great Lakes. Utilizing the Iroquois as middlemen, the tribes of Wisconsin were tempted to carry their wares to white men who paid a larger price for furs and gave better goods in return than those of the French merchants.

Thus, through illegal traders and foreign rivals, the French fur trade was, by the close of the seventeenth century, so demoralized that the Canadian authorities, spurred thereunto by the missionaries, determined upon drastic measures. All licenses for traders were revoked, and in 1696 a decree went forth that all the Northwest posts should be evacuated, and that missionaries should be the only white men allowed in the Ottawa country. It was thought that the old' custom of yearly caravans would be revived, thus, governmental control could be exercised over the trade and the aborigines protected. These measures were only partially successful. Coureurs des bois refused to obey the summons to return to New France, and shamelessly brought in English goods; soldiers deserted from the garrisons before evacuation, married among the Indian tribes and introduced the white man's arts. Albany and Hudson Bay traders vigorously pressed their advantage, and the Canadian authorities feared that the whole of the Northwest trade would slip from their control.

This danger of disintegration was checked by two events that occurred in the first year of the eighteenth century, by which the French recovered their morale and resumed operations in the Northwest. The first of these was the founding of. Detroit, a post whose position barred the English from the upper lakes. The second was the peace with the Iroquois, which was signed at Montreal after a great ceremony and an exchange of prisoners among all the warring tribes. The license for the fur trade was then restored, the coureur des bois called in by proclaiming pardons for past offenses, and the policy of control by posts and garrisons was re-established throughout the Northwest.

The establishment of Detroit caused new changes in the Indian geography of Wisconsin. The Miami and Mascoutten entirely withdrew from this region and moved eastward toward the new post. The Potawatomi progressed southward around the bend of Lake Michigan, while the Winnebago filled in the vacant territory near Lake Winnebago and along the Rock River Valley. In 1706 a large portion of the Fox and Sauk tribes deserted Wisconsin and settled in the vicinity of Detroit, whither the Ottawa and Huron from the neighborhood Mackinac had preceded them. This new accumulation of savage peoples did not long dwell in harmony. In 1712 a fierce inter-tribal quarrel broke out, in which the commandant of Detroit took sides against the Wisconsin tribesmen. Many of the Sauk, Foxes and Kickapoo were slain, the remainder fled back to their former homes in Wisconsin, where the remnant of these tribes waged barbaric warfare against the French for over 30 years. This hostility closed the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to French traders, rendered their lives insecure on all the western highways and greatly diminished French influence in the far Northwest.

In the course of these Fox wars the first military invasion occurred when, in 1716, Sieur Louvigny led a considerable army of Canadian soldiers, accompanied by a miscellaneous host of traders, voyageurs and Indians through Green Bay to the Fox forts at Little Butte des Morts. The Foxes withstood for a time a considerable siege, which ended in a compromise with the invading forces. The succeeding year a French post was built on the site of Fort Howard, that was maintained until the fall of French sovereignty in the New World. In 1718, in order to develop the copper mines that were thought to exist on the shores of Lake Superior, an official post was built at Chequamegon. From 1727 to 1750, in order to exploit the fur trade among the Sioux, French posts were erected upon the upper Mississippi. Chequamegon and the Mississippi posts were abandoned during the French and Indian War. In 1743 a French post was erected on the Mississippi, near the lead mines, where a beginning was made in developing this industry. Thus, the French found copper, lead and furs in Wisconsin, the most valuable of which was peltry.

After the Fox wars the fur trade grew with startling rapidity, and the only rivals to the Canadian traders were the French merchants from Louisiana, whose northern boundary lay between the Rock and Wisconsin Rivers. In 1752 the Green Bay post was leased to a relative of the reigning governor, who exploited it so dishonestly that the Marquis de Montcalm declared, "Never have theft and license gone so far." The yearly harvest of Wisconsin furs amounted to 500 to  600 packs valued at a quarter of a million dollars.

Peculation and dishonesty led to the downfall of New France. Unprotected by rapacious officials, the lilies of France fell before the cross of St. George and St. Andrew, and the British replaced the French, not only on the St. Lawrence, but along the Great Lakes and in the eastern part of the Mississippi Valley. The change from French to British sovereignty in Wisconsin was not accompanied by any marked upheaval in the little hamlets and among the Indian villages of the western wilderness. Most of the French traders transferred their allegiance to the new sovereign with only mild regrets. The earliest British officers were conciliatory in attitude, and the Indians docilely exchanged their French medals and flags for those of England. The British traders employed the same voyageurs and coureurs des bois as had served the traffic under the French regime. The language most in use in Wisconsin's forests continued to be French. Beyond the bounds of Wisconsin there was much discontent, which culminated in the revolt known as Pontiac's conspiracy. In this uprising Wisconsin tribesmen, almost alone among those of the Northwest, refused to participate. Possibly the old grievances against the French, repressed since the Fox wars, still rankled, and made Wisconsin Indians more favorable to their new British masters. Be that as lit may, the garrison at Green Bay was escorted by friendly and protecting tribesmen to Mackinac, and there aided in rescuing the captured British officers from the hands of the hostile Chippewa and Ottawa. When Sir William Johnson met the Indian chiefs at Niagara in 1764 he signalized the loyalty of the Wisconsin Menominee by presenting to their chief a medal and certificate.

With the withdrawal in 1763 of the garrison from Green Bay, Wisconsin's. British post was permanently abandoned. Thenceforward the metropolis of the fur trade was at Mackinac, where each summer a great mart was held. Traders brought from Canada an abundance of goods for forest traffic, and exchanged them for the peltry that had been gathered during the previous winter and spring at dozens of small posts throughout the West. With the growth of the trade subsidiary marts were established, and the one in Wisconsin at Prairie du Chien became next in importance to that at Mackinac.

The first years of the British trade in Wisconsin were years of unregulated and fierce competition between rival traders and rival companies. Slight restraints: were imposed by the post officers, who in most cases participated in the profits. of the traffic. This unrestricted rivalry wrought great havoc, both among the fur bearing animals and their red hunters. Liquor became the ordinary medium of exchange. The trader's outfits were ordinarily composed of kegs of beverages, and so fierce were the drunken orgies of the Indians that it seemed that they would soon exterminate themselves. The traders in like manner grew demoralized and employed all kinds of subterfuges to secure the advantage. Even murder and robbery went unpunished and the law of force and cunning ruled the forests. Excess of competition finally suggested its own remedy. In 1778 a representative group of Canadian merchants made at Mackinac a temporary combination to control the trade. Two years later the agreement was renewed, and became, in 1783, the basis of the North West Fur Company, a powerful organization of Scotch merchants who controlled the Canadian trade for the third of a century. About the same time the Mackinac Company was formed, whose operations lay farther south than those of the North West Company. In 1786 the Mackinac Company had a post opposite the mouth of the Missouri and was competing for the trade of Spanish Louisiana.

The Spanish strove unsuccessfully to bar the British traders from the trans  Mississippi. The lower Missouri trade they succeeded possessing, but the waters of the upper Mississippi and the Minnesota (then called the St. Peter's) were practically in the hands of the Scotch from Canada, all supplied by means of the Fox  Wisconsin waterway.

The headquarters of the North West Company lay on the northwest shore of Lake Superior; two subsidiary posts in Wisconsin at Fond du Lac of the great Lake and at Madelaine Island served the interior forts along the southern shore of Lake Superior. Around these posts small communities gradually grew up, composed chiefly of retired voyageurs and engagees no longer able to endure the hardships of forest wintering. These occupied themselves with a primitive type of agriculture and supplied the products to the active traders. The most important of these settlements was at Green Bay, where, before the close of the French regime, a few families had settled. Thither, after Pontiac's conspiracy, the Langlades removed from Mackinac, and by their superior education and ability became the recognized leaders of the little community. Charles Langlade, called the "Father of Wisconsin," had been an officer in the French-Canadian army. Under the British he held a commission in the Indian Department, and his influence over both the white and the red men of Wisconsin was unbounded. It was Langlade, who, during the American Revolution, rallied the Wisconsin Indians for participation in the defense of Canada and in the invasion of Burgoyne. It was due to his loyalty to the British that George Robert Clark's agents had so little success in detaching Wisconsin Indians for the American alliance. It was Langlade who was depended upon to protect the Wisconsin settlements against the dangers from the Spanish of Louisiana; and upon his death, in 1801, the French-Canadian settlements mourned a protector and a leader. His leadership fell into the hands of his descendants and relatives, the Grignons and Gautiers, who were allied to the better families of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. The patriarchal condition of society in Wisconsin lasted until the coming of the Americans, who, with their democracy and energy, broke down the class system founded on the fur trade hierarchy, and introduced the elements of modern life into the trading posts and settlements that grew up during the fur trade regime. In the fur trade the bourgeois, or master trader, was all powerful, his will and the exigencies of the traffic were the sole source of authority. To make this more binding, each voyageur and engagee was obliged before leaving the main trading post, to sign a contract by which he bound himself in consideration of a small wage and certain supplies "to serve, obey, and faithfully execute all that the said Sieurs, his Bourgeois * * * * * shall lawfully and honestly order him to do; without trading on his own account, nor leaving the said service." This constituted a species of peonage, which to the honor of the fur trading community, was seldom abused. In truth, the tie that bound master to man was not purely economic; it was composed of personal elements of loyalty and attachment. It was compounded from two loyalties-the French system of subordination and responsibility, and the Scotch Highlander's attachment to the head of his clan, and the clan leader's obligations therefore.  

Many of the prominent traders of Wisconsin were Scotchmen, and in the War of 1812 they commanded retinues of voyageurs and Indians, who successively captured Mackinac and Prairie du Chien and drove every American from the vicinity. These traders fondly hoped and loudly boasted that new boundaries would be drawn and the territory, now Wisconsin, would become a fur trading preserve. Disappointed in that hope, they planned to adjust the exigencies of the forest trade to the demands of the American system. The Mackinac Company was dissolved and in its stead was organized the American Fur Company, many of whose operators were the Scotch-Canadians who had been partners in the British concern. For 20 years after the American occupation the new company conducted a flourishing trade along the old lines. From 1816 to 1824 the United States sought to better the Indian's condition by the so called factory system, government posts operated not for profit, but for benevolence toward its Indian wards. The factory system failed because of the powerful opposition of the American Fur Company, and because the factors were unacquainted with the conditions of Indian trade.

Gradually the fur trade, which for two hundred years had ruled Wisconsin, declined. The local traders, deeply in debt to Astor's monopoly, the American Fur Company, mortgaged their lands and lost them. Of recent years a new commerce in furs has sprung up and grows increasingly valuable. But the fur trade as a regime passed from Wisconsin with the coming of the Americans and the development of modern industries.  


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