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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":

Chapter 10:

Remains of a French Post Near Trempealeau

-As transcribed from pages 218 - 222


I - Archaeological Sketch by Eben D. Pierce.

In the early '80s Dr. Lyman C. Draper, then secretary of the State Historical Society, received a request from the French Academy of History for information regarding the location of Perrot's post, as indicated on Franquelin's map of 1688, a few miles above the mouth of Black River on the east bank of the Mississippi.  Doctor Draper sought the assistance of A. W. Newman, of Trempealeau, later justice of Wisconsin Supreme Court, who was much interested in local history.  He enlisted the services of Judge B. F. Heuston, then at work on a history of Trempealeau, who took up the work with enthusiasm and carefully searched the riverside of the bluffs for some mark of the ancient fort.  He made several journeys to Trempealeau Bay in the vain effort to find some trace of the early post, as the bay would seem to have afforded an excellent site for wintering quarters.

Meanwhile, some of the workmen engaged in grading the Chicago, Burlington & Northern Railway along the river discovered, about two miles above the village, the remains of fireplaces or hearths.  Judge Heuston, hearing of these finds, decided to visit the place and investigate.  He selected George H. Squier to assist him and accompanied by Antoine Grignon and W. A. Finkelnburg, of Winona, they went to the place where the fireplaces had been uncovered and began excavations.  The next spring, Judge Newman having communicated these facts tot he State Historical Society, Reuben G. Thwaites, then the newly-elected secretary of the Society, came to Trempealeau and on April 18, accompanied by W. A. Finkelnburg and the local historians, made a historical pilgrimage to the site of the post that had been found, and continued the excavations.

The first fireplace had already been laid bare, and Mr. Squier had succeeded in tracing by a line of charcoal the former wall of the building.  The dimensions of the building were about 20 by 30 feet; the fireplace was 2½ feet in depth and 4 feet long with enclosing walls at back and sides.  The chimney had undoubtedly been a wooden structure made of small logs with clay daubing, as there was not enough stone found to indicate a stone chimney.

A blacksmith's forge was also unearthed, together with some scrap iron, and a pile of charcoal which had evidently been used in a smelter.  A pile of slag, some 16 feet in diameter, was found, showing that the occupants of the post had attempted smelting.  The slag consisted of a mixture of iron ore and limestone.  The remains of the smelting furnace were also found.  Other relics discovered included some hand-wrought nails, buffalo bones, an old-fashioned flintlock pistol, a gun barrel, and an auger.  The pistol was of excellent make, which led Mr. Squier to believe that the explorers had excavated the officers' quarters.  Seven of the original buildings were unearthed in all; one was left undisturbed.

James Reed, the first settler in this county, said that when he first came to Trempealeau in 1840, he had noticed the elevated foundations at this place, where part of the fireplace protruded above the sod, but as the region abounded in Indian mounds of various types, he had attached no especial significance to this particular elevation.  There was, however, a lingering tradition among the Indians of the locality concerning a French fort near the sacred Trempealeau Mountain.

In the summer of 1912 George H. Squier, Antoine Grignon, and the writer did some excavating at this site.  By a cross-sectional excavation we were able to pick up the charcoal line of the main building and follow it several feet, and from this it was possible to verify Mr. Squier's early estimate of its dimensions.  We also found, besides charcoal, numerous bones, among which were the jawbone of a beaver, the toe bones and claw of a bear, and some large bones either of elk or buffalo.

The place was well selected for wintering quarters.  It lay near the head of a slough which, setting back from the Mississippi, afforded a quiet harbor free from the menace of floating ice.  Springs exist in the side of Brady's and Sullivan's peaks a quarter of a mile away, but the river water was drinkable, and there was an abundance of firewood.  The bluffs protected the post from the cold north and east winds.

II.  Additional Archealogical Details:  by George H. Squier.

It is now nearly 30 years since the French post at Trempealeau was first discovered, and those who had part in that discovery have nearly all passed away.  As it chanced the writer was the first to uncover any portion of the remains, and it was also his fortune that this first site explored was that of the most important and best constructed  of the group and afforded a key to the construction plan and the identity of the remains.  To the brief account given in the tenth volume of the Wisconsin Historical Collections, the writer is the only one alive who is able to add from first-hand knowledge, details that were noted but not recorded at the time the post was first laid bare.

In describing the remains one basic fact must be borne in mind, namely, that they show two distinct periods of occupancy, the earlier of which was probably that of Perrot, the latter with little doubt represented by Linctot.  Most of the descriptions, therefore, must apply to the latter rather than to the earlier post.  The only portion of the remains which can confidently be ascribed to the earlier period is the lower of two hearths occupying the same site.  If there were any other remains of this earlier period, they were indistinguishably mingled with the latter, hence we may conjecture that Perrot's accommodations were cruder than those of Linctot.  So far as the character of the construction could be judge from the remains, it by no means equaled the average squatter's cabin in solidity and permanence, and there was nothing whatever to indicate any attempt at defensive construction.

Of the hearths other than the largest one, which was the first to be uncovered, it is believed there were five, two of which were removed in grading the railway.  In comparison with the first, these five were much inferior in construction, the hearthstones being very irregular in form with no indications of backs or chimneys.  As this would indicate that the smoke escaped through the roof, it would point to structures very little removed from Indian tepees slightly modified for white occupancy.  Their true positions with reference to Number 1 and to each other were not determined, but their distribution was rather irregular.

In front of the supposed officers' quarters were two constructions representing the industrial equipment of the post.  One of these was the blacksmith's forge.  The excavations about this were conducted by the owner of a private museum at St. Paul, Minn., assisted by Antoine Grignon.  As was to be expected, this furnished the greater portion of the metal relics.  Among them I remember a pistol, an auger, a staple, some nails, and several bits of scrap iron.  The other construction, which was explored by myself, undoubtedly represented an attempt to reduce our local iron ores by the open-hearth process.  There were the remains of a large pile of charcoal several feet in diameter, and a considerable pile of the resultant slag, unfused fragments of the ore and limestone intimately commingled.  That this ore, a residual from the decay of limestone and usually associated with flint, is not now very abundant about the Trempealeau bluffs is believed to be in part due to the fact that it was largely gathered up by the occupants of this post, since it occurs in considerable abundance in many other Mississippi River bluffs.

It seems probably that Linctot's occupancy was something more than temporary, and represented a tentative attempt to establish a permanent post, which, however, was soon abandoned.  There are evidences that the French scoured the region for a considerable distance around the post - an ax of the period having been recovered from a shallow pond three miles eastward.

The relation these remains bear to Indian antiquities is worthy of notice.  A considerable group of mounds occurs only a few rods west of the site, and a single mound appears on the rather prominent stony point in front of the post.  There are some peculiar features, not found elsewhere in this region, in the manner of disposal and burning of the skeletons covered by this mound; while conspicuously different from the usual Indian methods they are much like primitive methods practiced in Europe.  It seems reasonable to suppose that the French were in some way concerned in these burials.  It may be noted that the lower of the two hearths on the supposed site of the officers' quarters was itself built over an Indian bake hole in which ashes and bones were found.

Before the uncovering of the site there was nothing in any way resembling a tumulus.  Indeed, the surface was more even than it is now, for in the process of excavation the dirt was heaped up in places.  At the largest hearth the clay with which the chimney had been plastered formed a covering a few inches thick over the natural surface, but the rise was so small and the slope so gentle that it was scarcely recognizable.  The one feature noted by James Reed and Antoine Grignon, which led to the final discovery of the place was that the sides and back of the hearth, formed of small flat stones, projected an inch or two above the surface.  The construction was so rude, however, that Judge Heuston, W. A. Finkelnburg, and Antoine Grignon, who preceded me to the place, after examining some of the top stones concluded that it was not artificial and went on to the bay.  Coming up after they had left, there seemed to me something in the arrangement not quite natural, and working around carefully with a garden trowel I quickly exposed the outlines, and by the time they returned from the bay the hearth was fully exposed.  The hearth proper was about 2 by 4 feet in dimensions, while the outside dimensions of the chimney were probably about twice as large.  The sides and back were built of small flat stones laid in clay in a height somewhere between one and two feet, above which the chimney construction must have been of small logs plastered with clay, in which a considerable amount of grass was mixed for better binding.  The hearths themselves were of such flat stones as could be found in the vicinity, the best of them being used in this hearth at the officers' quarters.  With the possible exception of some slight trimming of the edges no tool work had been given them.  But this and the underlying hearth were covered by several inches of ashes with which were mingled numerous fragments of bones of birds and small animals.  The larger bones were thrown out back of the hearth which was evidently at the western end of the principal building.

It is probable that the stone construction did not extend much more than a foot above the hearth and that these stones were mostly in place when the remains were discovered.  Very few stones were found mingled with the debris around the hearth, which could hardly have been the case had any considerable height of such construction fallen down.  It is probable that the log enclosure was built up from the ground of sufficient size to permit a protective interlining, which  at the bottom was of stones laid in clay.  After the supply of stones gave out the construction was continued of clay alone as high as needed.  Used in this way the stones were added as fillers, much as we do in concrete constructions, with little effort to arrange them in orderly sequence.

According to cross-sectional excavations made in the summer of 1912 the dimensions of this building were 20 by 30 feet; but these figures are to be looked upon as merely a conjectural estimate.  There was nothing whatever to determine the position of the south wall, and the evidence concerning the location of the east wall was very slight.  The distance from the northwest corner to the south side of the hearth was about 10 feet.  Five or six feet should be allowed for a door, which there is reason to believe existed on the west side south of the hearth, so that an estimate of 20 feet for the width of the building can not be regarded as excessive.  As far as traced, the north wall was a straight, even, sharply-defined line of charcoal, perhaps ten inches wide.  Nothing which could be regarded as its counterpart was found on the east side. 

(See Wisconsin Historical Society, Proceedings, 1915, pp. 111-123.)





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