Histories: Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:
"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":
Sub-chapter - The Red Men and the Fur Trade
Development and Decline of the Fur Trade Under the British
-As transcribed from pages 14 - 16
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 it 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 a certificate. 6
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. Therefore, this unrestricted rivalry wrought great havoc, both among the fur-bearing animals and their red hunters. Liquor became the ordinary medium of exchange. The traders' outfits were largely 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 in 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 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 Rogers 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 absenting himself from, nor leaving the said service." 7 This constituted a species of peonage, which, to the honor of the fur trading fraternity, was seldom abused. In truth, the tie that bound master and 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 responsiblility, and the Scotch Highlander's attachment to the head of his clan, and the clan leaders' obligations therefor.
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 twenty years after the American occupation the new company conducted a florishing trade along the old lines. From 1816 to 1824 the United States sought to better the Indians' 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.
Resources for the above information:
6 - Ibid., 268 - 269.
7 - Id., XIX, 343.
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