The French in Wisconsin
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Samuel de Champlain, who first arrived in Quebec in 1603, was the province’s most famous and effective leader, despite an obsession with the legendary route to the Great Khan. After arriving and hearing of the “People of the Stinking Waters” (the Winnebago), which he surmised to mean an ocean-dwelling people, he dispatched the first Europeans from Acadia to explore the wild western frontier.
Though there is speculative evidence that Étienne Brulé, Champlain’s first explorer, may have poked around Wisconsin as early as 1620—the same year many assume the pilgrims founded the new colonies—most historians credit Jean Nicolet with being the first European to turn up in Green Bay, landing at Red Banks in 1634. Garbed in Chinese damask and using thunderstick histrionics to impress the natives (the Potawatomi he met immediately dubbed him Thunder Beaver), Nicolet efficiently and diplomatically forged immediate ties with the Indians, who guided him throughout the region to meet other tribes.
As before, Nicolet couldn’t rouse the wilted interest of the French royalty—all it wanted to see was bags of Chinese silk—and the country once again let the matter drop. Legitimate French fur traders were scooped by Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, two pesky coureurs-de-bois (renegade trappers) who couldn’t be bothered to get licensed by the crown. They delved farther into Wisconsin than any had before but had nowhere to trade their furs after being blacklisted by the ruling powers in New France. This led them to England, which gave them a charter to establish the Hudson’s Bay Company north of New France—one reason for the later conflict between France and Britain. In 1666, these two were followed by Nicholas Perrot, who extended Nicolet’s explorations and consequently opened the French fur trade with natives in Wisconsin.
The seasoned Father Claude Allouez simultaneously founded the first mission at La Pointe in the Apostle Islands and founded St. Francois Xavier, Wisconsin’s first permanent European settlement, at De Pere, south of Green Bay.
The most famous Jesuit explorer was Father Jacques Marquette, who, along with Louis Jolliet, was sent by La Salle in 1673 to discern whether the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. The first Europeans to cross Wisconsin, they made it to the Mississippi on June 17, 1673, and went as far south as Arkansas, where they saw Indians with European goods, confirming both a route to the Gulf and the presence of the Spanish. The French hesitated in buttressing their western frontier—and it wound up costing them dearly.
Conflict with the British and British Rule
The fate of New France and, thus, Wisconsin was determined not in the New World but on the European continent, as Louis XIV, who had reigned during a zenith of French power, frittered away French influence bit by bit in frivolous, distracting battles.
The French never fully used the western edges of the Great Lakes and James II’s rise to the throne in England marked the end of France’s never-exactly-halcyon days in the Great Lakes. James forced Louis into wild strategies to protect French interests in the New World—strategies that did lead to further exploration of the hinterlands but also drove France to overextend itself and, eventually, collapse in the region.
At the behest of the Jesuits, who hoped to corral some recalcitrant Indian tribes, Louis closed trade completely in the Great Lakes interiors, thus cutting off possible ties to the English or the Spanish. Louis correctly reckoned that whoever the Indians sided with would end up controlling the new lands. This naturally drained royal coffers and he decided instead to keep the Indians, the English, and the Spanish in check by exploring as far inland as possible and trying to establish a line of garrisons from Montreal all the way to New Orleans.
Louis succeeded in this second plan but in the process alienated the uneasy Indians who had sworn loyalty to France and, worse, aroused the ire of France’s bitterest enemies—the Iroquois and the Fox Indians. Wars with the Fox, which raged 1701–1738, sapped the determination of the French temporarily, but they had enough pluck—and military might—to string forts along the Mississippi to look for inroads into territories already held by the British in the Ohio River Valley. By 1750, British colonists in the western Great Lakes outnumbered French 20 to 1, and many Indians, discovering that the English made higher-quality goods more cheaply, switched to the British side.
The French and Indian War (1755–1763) was a thorough thrashing of the French by the British and greatly determined European spheres of influence in North America.
Under the British, little changed in daily life. (The English never even had an official presence in present-day Wisconsin.) One Englishman of note, however, was Jonathan Carver, a roguish explorer who roamed the state 1766–1768 and returned to England to publish fanciful, lively, and mostly untrue accounts of the new lands west of the inland seas.
The French had been content simply to trade and had never made overtures for the land itself. But the British who did come—many barely able to conceal their scorn for the less-than-noble savages—began parceling up property and immediately incited unrest. Pontiac, an Ottawa chieftain, led a revolt against the British at Muscoda.
Additionally, the British monarchy’s finances were in disarray from the lengthy conflicts with the French in North America and with other enemies in European theaters. And then the monarchy decreed that the colonies could foot their own bill for these new lands and instituted the Stamp Act.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition