Relations Between the Indians and French

  Navigate this page...
    • Tribal Movement Westward
    • Forts and Trading Posts
    • Social and Religious Change
    • Fox Wars
    • Related Topics and Resources


The French were the first Europeans with whom Wisconsin Indians made contact. They established the colony of Quebec in Canada in 1608 and quickly developed economic and political relationships with many Indian groups in the St. Lawrence River valley and the Great Lakes. They forged a particularly strong alliance with the Huron, members of an Iroquoian-speaking tribe living along Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. The Huron had a vast trade network in the Great Lakes that included the Indians of present-day Wisconsin. Thus, even before the first Frenchman arrived in the area, Wisconsin Indians had already heard of their arrival in North America and received some trade goods of European manufacture.

It is not known exactly when the first French explorer arrived in Wisconsin. Etienne Brule may have reached northern Wisconsin in the 1620s during his explorations of Lake Superior. The first Frenchman known to have definitely arrived in Wisconsin was Jean Nicolet, who landed near Green Bay in 1634 to make peace between the Huron and "the People by the sea," most likely the Siouan-speaking Ho-chunk. He may have hoped to find the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia. He may even have thought he succeeded, for he wore a robe of Chinese silk and fired pistols upon landing. Nicolet soon found that he was not in Asia and settled for concluding a peace between the Huron, Ho-chunk, and Algonkian-speaking Menominee. There would not be another visit to Wisconsin by the French until 1654 when two fur traders, most likely Medart Chouart (Sieur Des Groseilliers) and his brother-in-law, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, came to trade European goods for furs. The two men subsequently made many other trips, and after 1660 other Frenchmen came to Wisconsin to trade with the Indians for furs, particularly beaver pelts.

Tribal Movement Westward

In the twenty years between the visits of Nicolet and Groseilliers and Radisson, the human landscape of Wisconsin changed dramatically. Beginning in the 1640s, the League of the Iroquois in upstate New York and other Iroquoian-speaking Indians began to raid and attack the Huron and other tribes to gain access to their rich fur-bearing lands. Refugees from the Huron and Algonkian-speaking peoples of southern Michigan such as the Kickapoo, Mascouten, Sauk, Fox, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi began to pour into Wisconsin. The Chequamegon Bay region of northern Wisconsin and Green Bay attracted large numbers of refugee Indians. Many refugee tribes have continued to reside in Wisconsin until the present day. This was a difficult time for all the Indians of Wisconsin, particularly the Ho-chunk and Menominee who had resided in the region prior to the onrush of refugees. Both nations lost many tribal members to introduced European diseases the refugees brought with them and to warfare with the new peoples. Throughout Wisconsin, many Indians died of starvation due to resulting overcrowding.

These poor conditions were noted by French fur traders who came to Wisconsin and by Roman Catholic missionaries who first arrived at Chequamegon Bay in 1665 and established the mission of St. Esprit. A French Jesuit, Father Claude-Jean Allouez, led the effort to establish the mission. Prior to Allouez, another Jesuit--Rene Menard--also attempted to establish a mission at Chequamegon Bay in 1660, but the effort was a failure. Allouez's effort succeeded, and later the Jesuits established other Christian missions in the Green Bay area (St. François Xavier, 1669, moved to nearby DePere in 1671), on the Fox River in modern-day Green Lake County (St. Jacques, 1669), and on the Mississippi River in modern-day Pierce County (St. Michel, 1683). The reports and letters the Jesuit fathers sent back to Quebec and France are some of the most important sources that describe the lives of Wisconsin Indians in the 1600s, particularly during the difficult times of the Iroquois Wars.


Forts and Trading Posts

The grave situation of the Wisconsin Indians slowly improved as the threat of the Iroquois diminished over the course of the seventeenth century, but a final peace treaty between the League of the Iroquois and France and her Indian allies did not come about until 1701. During the fifty years of wars with the Iroquois, the French built forts in North America's interior that served as both military establishments and fur trading posts. In Wisconsin, the French built forts at Green Bay (Fort La Baye, 1670); on the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien (Fort St. Nicholas, 1687); in modern-day Pepin County (Fort St. Antoine, 1686, later called Fort St. Pierre); Pierce County (Fort Beauharnois, 1688, and Fort Le Sueur, 1695); in Trempealeau County (Fort Trempealeau, 1685, later called Fort Linctot). The French also built forts at the headwaters of the St. Croix River (Fort St. Croix, 1683) and in northern Wisconsin on La Pointe Island in Chequamegon Bay (Fort Le Sueur, 1693, later called Fort La Pointe).

The coming of the French led to many changes in traditional American Indian cultures. The French brought European goods which they traded to the Indians for furs. The most important articles they gave the Indians were firearms, which the Indians preferred to using bows and arrows. The French also provided cloth, sewing needles, metal cooking utensils, knives, and axes. In many cases, Indian peoples of Wisconsin abandoned their traditional technologies such as earthen pottery and stone tool manufacture. Earlier scholars believed that European goods rapidly replaced items of Native manufacture, but newer evidence suggests that the process was relatively slow, and that traditional technologies continued to exist side by side with newer European technologies for a considerable time. One article that the French brought, alcohol, had a devastating effect upon many Indian communities. Because they had never had alcoholic beverages before, Indian people had no cultural mores that mitigated against overindulgence. Moreover, the Indians often believed alcohol made them stronger and braver or provided a link to the spirit world. French officials in Quebec banned alcoholic beverages such as brandy in the fur trade, but unscrupulous fur traders continued to dispense alcohol in exchange for furs.


Social and Religious Change

Many young Frenchmen went west to gather furs from the Indians, but the communities they lived in were usually entirely native. As a result, many French fur traders married Indian women. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not use race as the basis for exclusion or inclusion into their societies, and the children of these unions were welcomed into the tribal societies. These intermarriages are one reason that so many Indians in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes have French last names today. Not all children of Indian-White marriages joined their mothers' tribes. Some Indian women raised their children in fur-trading towns such as Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Mackinac Island. While these children were of Indian heritage and usually knew the languages and customs of their mothers' tribes, they did not consider themselves Indians. They thought of themselves as métis, which was a French word meaning "mixed blood." There were métis communities throughout the Great Lakes region during the 1700s and early 1800s.

Jesuit missionaries presented another challenge to Native cultures. The Jesuits brought an entirely new religion that the Indians were not interested in or found difficult to comprehend. Moreover, the Jesuits established rigorous conditions for potential converts. Unlike their Latin-American counterparts who used mass baptisms to convert Indians to Christianity, the Jesuits in North America baptized only those Indians who had been properly instructed and demonstrated an adequate knowledge in Christian theology. For this reason, relatively few conversions occurred at the Wisconsin missions. Even this small progress was lost after 1728 when Jesuits abandoned their missions in Wisconsin with the eruption of the Fox Wars.



Fox Wars

The Fox Wars were the greatest challenge to French power in present-day Wisconsin. The Jesuits first made contact with the Fox in the 1660s and 1670s at their village along the Wolf River in northeast Wisconsin. The Fox disliked the French because they traded with their Indian enemies, particularly the Santee Dakota to the west. The initial violence erupted in 1712 when Foxes who had recently returned to southern Michigan became embroiled in a conflict with tribes who were on good terms with the French. This set off a wave of retaliatory fighting by the Fox in Wisconsin, where the bulk of the tribe continued to reside. They attacked the French and their allies in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest.

The war between the Fox and the French continued until 1716, when a major French expedition failed to dislodge the Fox from their heavily-barricaded village on Lake Butte des Morts. Fighting erupted again in 1728, and the Fox managed to close down the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, the key transportation link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. This phase of the war ended in tragedy for the Fox when the French and their Indian allies surrounded them near the Illinois River in 1730 and killed over five hundred men, women, and children. Tribal members who survived the massacre later managed to find refuge among the Sauk at Green Bay. Both tribes fled to present-day Iowa, where the French made a failed attempt to exterminate the two tribes in 1735. Both sides had grown tired of the fighting, and between 1737 and 1739 the French and the Fox reached a peace settlement.



French and Indian War

Within about fifteen years after the Fox Wars concluded, the British posed a new threat to the French. The two countries fought four wars between 1689 and 1763 for control of North America. The last of these was the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. Indians from Wisconsin fought alongside the French at such famous battles as Braddock's Defeat at Fort Duquesne in 1755 and the massacre at Fort William Henry in 1757. They also made forays against frontier settlements in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. They were even present at the last major battle of the war at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, where the British under General James Wolfe defeated the French under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, in 1759. Sporadic actions continued for another two years, and the French and British signed a treaty of peace in 1763. However, the capture of Quebec by Wolfe effectively ended the tenure of the French as a colonial power in Canada. The British became the dominant power over North America, and over Wisconsin.



Related Topics and Resources
to MPM front page Ameritech Galleries Archives Resources Go to Previous Page Navigation Bar