Wisconsin Frontier by Mark Wyman, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Wisconsin Frontier

Wisconsin Frontier

by Mark Wyman

From 17th-century French coureurs de bois to lumberjacks of the 19th century, Wisconsin’s frontier era saw thousands arriving from Europe and other areas seeking wealth and opportunity. Indians mixed with these newcomers, sometimes helping and sometimes challenging them, often benefiting from their guns and other trade items. This captivating history reveals


From 17th-century French coureurs de bois to lumberjacks of the 19th century, Wisconsin’s frontier era saw thousands arriving from Europe and other areas seeking wealth and opportunity. Indians mixed with these newcomers, sometimes helping and sometimes challenging them, often benefiting from their guns and other trade items. This captivating history reveals the conflicts, the defeats, the victories, and the way the future looked to Wisconsin’s peoples at the beginning of the 20th century.

Indiana University Press

Editorial Reviews

Midwest Book Review

"A handful of black-and-white photographs illustrate this thoroughly accessible history, highly recommended especially for Wisconsin history shelves and public library collections." —Midwest Book Review, April 2011

Western Historical Quarterly

"A highly readable, balanced account of the area that became the state of Wisconsin in 1848... [Wyman] elevates his narrative from a limited state history to a fascinating story of the gains and perils, ebbs and flows that characterize the American frontier saga." —Western Historical Quarterly

Journal of Illinois History

"An informative and readable overview.... [Wyman's] integration of Indian history into the work is well done and commendable." —Journal of Illinois History

Wisconsin Academy Review

"Wyman has a smooth style, with an eye for informative yet catchy quotations. He has compressed volumes of material without losing the 'you-are-there' dynamic that characterizes all good history. This is a book for the general public to which professional historians might well turn to discover an original interpretation.... A well-told, well-documented tale." —Wisconsin Academy Review

Journal of the Early Republic

Wyman relates these oft-told stories with relish and color, and illustrates how the needs and beliefs of the people who participated [in the exploitation of natural resources] often precluded careful thought about the resulting depletion of flora, fauna, and minerals....Wyman presents the frontier as a series of novel challenges for those who sought opportunities there [and] how those experiences changed them.Journal of the Early Republic

From the Publisher
"A handful of black-and-white photographs illustrate this thoroughly accessible history, highly recommended especially for Wisconsin history shelves and public library collections." —Midwest Book Review, April 2011

"A superb history." —

Wyman relates these oft-told stories with relish and color, and illustrates how the needs and beliefs of the people who participated [in the exploitation of natural resources] often precluded careful thought about the resulting depletion of flora, fauna, and minerals....Wyman presents the frontier as a series of novel challenges for those who sought opportunities there [and] how those experiences changed them.Journal of the Early Republic

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
A History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Wisconsin Frontier

By Mark Wyman

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1998 Mark Wyman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-33414-5


The French Open a Frontier

Autumn had begun before the canoes passed up the sault to enter Lac supérieur, the Upper Lake, and October was underway when the weary group of six French traders and a priest, with their Indian escorts, finally crossed the long sandspit angling out from the mainland and entered Chequamegon Bay. It had been a difficult trip, pushing off from Trois Rivières in the company of Indians from the upper country who had come down to Montreal to trade; heading up the Ottawa while dealing with leaking canoes, bad weather, rotten food, and contemptuous tribesmen. But finally they entered the cold waters of the Upper Lake; soon Keweenaw Point was at their backs, and now the long-sought bay the Indians called Chagoüamigong lay before them. For Father Claude Jean Allouez, the picture that unfolded that autumn day of 1665 was almost beyond belief, a missionary's dream.

"It is a beautiful Bay, at the head of which is situated the great village of the savages," he wrote. His initial count was 800 Huron and Ottawa warriors, indicating that the total in that single village may have reached more than 2,000 with women, children, and elderly included. But Father Allouez soon realized also that the Bay "forms a sort of center for all the nations of these regions": in addition to the Hurons and Ottawas, the French priest encountered the Petun or Tobacco Hurons, Potawatomis, Foxes, Chippewas, Illinois, Sacs, Miamis, and eventually the Nipissings who arrived from Lake Nipigon far to the north. Other tribes eventually arrived, providing the missionary with an opportunity few religious leaders would ever encounter again in Wisconsin. As the Jesuit account explained,

It is assuredly a very great consolation to a poor missionary, after a journey of five hundred leagues amid weariness, dangers, famines, and hardships of all sorts, to find himself listened to by so many different peoples, while he proclaims the Gospel and gives out to them the words of salvation, whereof they have never heard mention.

This multitude gathered around Chequamegon Bay represented tribal groups drawn from an enormous swath of the continent, as the turmoil of the eastern fur trade and ongoing Indian wars scattered Indians toward Lake Superior: they came from the St. Lawrence River country far to the east; from the shores of Lake Huron; from the Nipigon country to the north of the lake; from both the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and even from the fertile prairies of Illinois and Iowa in the Mississippi Valley. They represented eastern tribes of the Algonquian language grouping as well as Iroquoian groups.

This coming together of tribes from distant regions, along with Frenchmen paddling westward from their base along the St. Lawrence, helped mark the French expeditions of the seventeenth century as the real beginning of the frontier era in Wisconsin, the start of Wisconsin's frontier story. Soon there would be many more Frenchmen, some working for the government, some for the Roman Catholic Church, others traveling independently and leaving few records. And because these men — Indians and whites — were pushing westward, wars and diplomacy conducted in far-off regions would cast a shadow over events around the Great Lakes, and soon British, and eventually Americans, would arrive as well.

These people from outside would change Wisconsin, and would in turn be changed by it. Indians would initially benefit by sales of their furs and other items of less value to them than the wonderful iron knives and kettles which the Europeans brought; but eventually their way of life would be transformed as well. Such was the reality of European and American settlement across North America.

The focus of this story is therefore on the events, changes, and transformations that took place on the Wisconsin and Great Lakes frontier. Frontier is a term which has been used in a variety of ways, usually referring to the contact area between settlement and wilderness, or between a more complex, technologically developed society and a less developed one. The term is elastic, however, and also means the adaptations and adjustments which take place among those coming to reside in such an area. Issues identified with the frontier era elsewhere would be confronted in Wisconsin: Indians would be subdued, removed, or assimilated; land would be parceled out and distributed to incoming men, women, and families; local governments would be installed and the sovereignty of an outside regime established; distant political and religious leaders would seek to guide the new societies forming in the wilderness. And throughout this process, exploitation would proceed of what has been called the "primary windfalls of the frontier" — in Wisconsin, furs, minerals, wild game and fish, timber, virgin soil. The natural world itself would be sharply modified. All this was part of Wisconsin's frontier story that began with the arrival of the French in the early seventeenth century. It was a story that would not be finished until the frontier era closed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Roots of the French Thrust Inland

Incidents involving the French at Chequamegon Bay and elsewhere were not the first seeds, not the true embryonic beginnings of Wisconsin's frontier story, however. Nor does that saga properly commence with the French settlement at Quebec in 1608 that eventually dispatched men westward to Wisconsin. Much earlier lies this genesis, generations before in the murky past of Europe's late Middle Ages, as adventurers and scholars and fishermen began to question the truths about the world handed to them from earlier generations.

These challenges to tradition finally brought Columbus westward in 1492, and, five years later, John Cabot — coasting along Newfoundland as he sought a route for his English sponsors to reach Japan and its spices. Two ships from a Portuguese expedition to eastern Canada's rocky coasts in 1501 returned to Lisbon with fifty-seven Indians; another Portuguese mariner entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1520, and the Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano — sailing for France — went along the East Coast as far north as Newfoundland in 1524. And so while the Spanish were exploring and exploiting the Caribbean, knowledge of the north coast grew and began to appear on European maps and publications.

But others came without government sanction: European fishermen who began working the codfish-rich Grand Banks, at least by 1504 and probably earlier. Reports of their activities were numerous during the century, and when England's Sir Humphrey Gilbert dropped anchor in the harbor at St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1583 he discovered sailors from thirty-six Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English ships partying together in blissful ignorance of — or disdain for — their own nations' maritime competition. In another twenty-five years the number of European fishing ships coming to summer around the Grand Banks would reach a thousand. They left few records; they were after fish, not glory.

Tales of the new world of eastern Canada were already in the air, therefore, when an official French explorer, Jacques Cartier, began investigating the northern route into the interior in 1534. In his next voyage of 1535-36, Cartier went up the St. Lawrence as far as the rapids at Montreal, then spent the winter downstream at Quebec; he came back again in 1541-42. In these voyages — where he met Indians, heard stories of abounding wealth, and learned of threats from other European powers — Cartier became aware of the possibilities of that inland river highway that in short decades would become France's great axis of penetration into the continent: up the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley.

While official French explorers were noting geographic, topographic, and religious features of inland North America, fishermen along the coasts made a significant contribution of their own to future developments: they discovered they could trade knives and trinkets for Indian furs — furs which would bring immense profits back in Europe. This stimulated the search for peltry that would eventually lure thousands of Frenchmen up the St. Lawrence like a surging tide, and would draw Englishmen, Dutchmen, and profit-seekers of other nations to the interior regions as well. The Indians' eagerness to participate in the fur trade was evident by July 1534, when Carrier's ship, tacking along the shores of the Gaspé Peninsula, was suddenly surrounded by Micmacs in forty or more canoes, waving pelts on sticks and shouting wildly to attract attention. Cartier was chary of their intentions, but the Micmacs rowed determinedly after the Frenchmen like eager merchants. Trading finally got underway the following day, and furs from the Indians were exchanged for such French items as a red cap for their chief and knives and other cutlery for the rest. Some of the Micmac women sold the furs off their very backs and went away naked. If the Europeans had now learned something about the local residents they encountered along these coasts, the Indians also received a lesson about Europeans: the visitors would trade metal goods and other exotic items for furs. It was a good bargain for both sides: the Micmacs, who had acquired the pelts easily, and the Europeans, who had an abundance of metal items to carry along as they crossed the Atlantic to the fishing regions.

The potential for wealth of another kind also drew the Europeans on, and this quickly steered them in the direction of the Great Lakes. Copper, traded by Indians throughout the continent and noticed by early explorers, impressed the Frenchmen with the possibilities inland. Cartier encountered Indians with copper ornaments during his second journey; asked about their source, these Hurons could only point to the west. The general direction to Lake Superior had been given and the French would soon follow it.

They had yet another goal, common to all European explorers. This was a route to Asia, and like Columbus earlier, Cabot in his 1497-98 expedition up the northern coast had sought a route to Cathay and thought he had found it. Others had the same objective as they struggled into the North American interior, and the dream was still alive when missionaries reached Chequamegon Bay. Father Allouez heard the Sioux at the head of Lake Superior describe a land "farther toward the setting Sun," where dwelt the Karezi nations —" beyond whom, they maintain, the earth is cut off, and nothing is to be seen but a great Lake whose waters are ill-smelling, for so they designate the Sea." Hopes remained when Father Claude Dablon, who came after Allouez, wanted to go to Hudson's Bay to see whether "a passage could be made by this route to the Japan Sea." Father Jacques Marquette, passing on some late 1660s tales told to him by the Illinois about the Mississippi and the tribes living along it, could not believe "that that great River discharges its waters in Virginia, and we think rather that it has its mouth in California." His hopes for a continental water connection were also stimulated by news of the Assiniboines, northwest of Lake Superior: "I heard that there was in their Country a great River leading to the Western Sea; and a Savage told me that, being at its mouth, he had seen Frenchmen and four large Canoes with sails."

Pressure to find the Northwest Passage was so great, and the failures so frequent, that some began to despair. One frustrated visitor was René Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, who left a name on one of the many obstacles encountered in that search. Years later, people were still talking about his problems getting men to accompany him beyond the St. Lawrence rapids above Montreal — a boiling stretch of water ever after called la Chine, China. Francis Parkman quoted a respected French source who affirmed that the name was attached to the rapids in derision after some of La Salle's men returned there from one of his ventures inland. A Swedish naturalist visiting a century later heard another origin for the name:

When the unfortunate M. Salée [La Salle] was here, ... he was very intent upon discovering a shorter road to China by means of the St. Lawrence River. He talked of nothing at that time but this new short way to China. But as his project of undertaking the journey in order to make this discovery was stopped by an accident which happened to him here, and he did not at that time come any nearer China, this place got its name, as it were, by way of a joke.

Champlain and the West

The search for the Northwest Passage, like the hunt for wealth and the efforts to bring Christianity to the Indians, was pushed most forcefully by another Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain. In his voyages beginning in 1603, Champlain demonstrated a curiosity about the unknown that is always present with great explorers. He carefully questioned the denizens of each new area he entered, and from their stories and drawings began to produce reports and maps for his royal sponsors. This curiosity, combined with Champlain's other aspirations for the New World, would ultimately lead the French under his direction to reach Wisconsin in 1634 in an official expedition, and earlier in at least one unofficial visit.

Thus Champlain, at the site of Montreal, wondered what lay in the world above the rapids: "When we saw we could do no more, we returned to our long-boat, where we questioned the savages we had with us about the end of the river, which I made them draw by hand, and [show] whence was its source." And again, in his 1615 expedition, the French explorer gave an Ottawa chief a hatchet, after which "I asked him about his country, which he drew for me with charcoal on a piece of tree-bark."

Champlain's interest in the West was whetted by a foot-long piece of copper given to him by Indians, and by the copper bracelets they wore; he questioned them "whether they had knowledge of any mines?" Hurons, he was told, reported a mine of pure copper "toward the north." The copper mines along Lake Superior were gaining notoriety.

The French also discovered they were in the midst of the natives' ongoing wars, and that they would be sought as allies by one side or the other for battles stretching far into the future. It was an activity that would remain throughout the frontier era, and Champlain encountered it dramatically in 1609 when he yielded to Huron and Algonquin requests that his men join them to fight the Mohawks, one of the Iroquois cultures. It was the Iroquois' first battle against anyone carrying firearms, and after losing three members, with more slain during their escape, the Iroquois began to realize the enormity of the changes brought by these Europeans. Tribal alliances with the newcomers now became crucial. Similarly, alliances with Indians would be an on-going goal of European diplomacy as European kingdoms sought entry into the wealthy lands of the North American interior.

This fact led the Europeans to the Hurons, middlemen in the developing interior fur trade, dealing with the French, the Dutch, and occasionally the English. In 1635 a French missionary described the Hurons as people "who have not a single beaver, going elsewhere to buy the skins they bring to the storehouse." The fur trade center in Champlain's time was Quebec, where the first large fur shipment from the pays d'en haut — the "upper country" — arrived in 1633 in the canoes of the Ottawa. Trade fairs moved up river to Trois Rivières in 1634, then in 1642 to Montreal. That city remained a major rendezvous point for years as the Indians arrived with furs in vast canoe flotillas and the French presented an intoxicating array of goods, ranging from the always-popular knives and hatchets to agricultural produce and even cakes. Since each side grew to covet the other's items so strongly, neither could afford to alienate those with whom they traded, at least in the early decades when alternate sources were unknown.

The First European Visitors

Many eager young Frenchmen got caught up in the search for furs, and some combined this with a religious quest to carry Christ to the interior peoples. One of these adventurers was a protegé of Champlain, Etienne Brûlé.

Traditional accounts have given little importance to Brûlé in the exploration of Wisconsin and the region, but more recent studies have concluded that he may have earned the title "Columbus of the Great Lakes." Brûlé emigrated from France in 1608 to Champlain's new Quebec settlement, and in 1610 was sent to live with Algonquian Indians along the Ottawa River that angles down to the St. Lawrence just above Montreal. In July 1615, Champlain and Brûlé went together up the Ottawa River in two canoes with ten Indians and a white servant, taking what would become the French bypass into the upper lakes — paddling into a branch of the Mattawa, portaging into Lake Nipissing, then connecting to the French flowing southwest into Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.


Excerpted from The Wisconsin Frontier by Mark Wyman. Copyright © 1998 Mark Wyman. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Wyman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Illinois State University. He is author of several books, including Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880–1930 and Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West.

Indiana University Press

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