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Hinterland Dreams: The Political Economy of a Midwestern City

Hinterland Dreams: The Political Economy of a Midwestern City

Автором Eric J. Morser

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Hinterland Dreams: The Political Economy of a Midwestern City

Автором Eric J. Morser

444 pages
6 hours
Nov 29, 2011


In the 1840s, La Crosse, Wisconsin, was barely more than a trading post nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River. But by 1900 the sleepy frontier town had become a thriving city. Hinterland Dreams tracks the growth of this community and shows that government institutions and policies were as important as landscapes and urban boosters in determining the small Midwestern city's success. The businessmen and -women of La Crosse worked hard to attract government support during the nineteenth century. Federal, state, and municipal officials passed laws, issued rulings, provided resources, vested aldermen with financial and regulatory power, and created a lasting legal foundation that transformed the city and its economy. As historian Eric J. Morser demonstrates, the development of La Crosse and other small cities linked rural people to the wider world and provided large cities like Chicago with the lumber and other raw materials needed to grow even larger. He emphasizes the role of these municipalities, as well as their relationship to all levels of government, in the life of an industrializing nation.

Punctuated with intriguing portraits of La Crosse's early citizens, Hinterland Dreams suggests a new way to understand the Midwest's urban past, one that has its roots in the small but vibrant cities that dotted the landscape. By mapping the richly textured political economy of La Crosse before 1900, the book highlights how the American state provided hinterland Midwesterners with potent tools to build cities and help define their region's history in profound and lasting ways.

Nov 29, 2011

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Hinterland Dreams - Eric J. Morser



Series Editors:

Richard R. John, Pamela Walker Laird, and Mark H. Rose

Books in the series American Business, Politics, and Society explore the relationships over time between governmental institutions and the creation and performance of markets, firms, and industries large and small. The central theme of this series is that public policy—understood broadly to embrace not only lawmaking but also the structuring presence of governmental institutions—has been fundamental to the evolution of American business from the colonial era to the present. The series editors are especially interested in publishing books that explore developments that have enduring consequences.

A complete list of books in the series is available from the publisher.


The Political Economy of a Midwestern City

Eric J. Morser



Copyright © 2011 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of review or scholarly citation, none of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher.

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112


Printed in the United States of America

on acid-free paper

2  4  6  8  10  9  7  5  3  1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Morser, Eric J.

Hinterland dreams : the political economy of a midwestern city / Eric J. Morser.

p. cm.— (American business, politics, and society)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8122-4276-8 (hardcover : alk. paper)

1. La Crosse (Wis.)—Politics and government. 2. La Crosse (Wis.)—Commerce. 3. Business and politics—Wisconsin—La Crosse—History. I. Title.

JS990.L3M67 2011



For Mom, Dad, Angela, and Nicholas


Prologue: Professor Turner’s Audience


Chapter One. Red Bird’s Tale

Chapter Two. A Story of Settlement

Chapter Three. Politics and Pine


Chapter Four. Iron Tracks to the City

Chapter Five. The Most Necessary Reformes


Chapter Six. From White Beaver to Working Man

Chapter Seven. Fredericka’s World

Conclusion. A City of Bustling Trade





Professor Turner’s Audience

On six occasions early in 1895, Frederick Jackson Turner trekked to La Crosse, a Mississippi River city located in southwestern Wisconsin, to lecture on the American past.¹ By this time, Turner cut an impressive figure. Just two years before, the young University of Wisconsin professor had made a fateful appearance at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. There he had presented The Significance of the Frontier in American History, a paper that linked western settlement with the continued vibrancy of American democracy, captured the attention of historians near and far, and helped secure his scholarly reputation.² Turner, however, was no ivory-tower intellectual. Instead, he felt an obligation to reach beyond the academy and share his passion for history with the general public. He was well suited to the task. People around the state regarded him as a speaker of the first rank, able to captivate a crowd with his rich voice and finely tuned oratory.³ As a result, Turner’s 1895 appearances in La Crosse attracted local headlines and an audience of curious residents who braved bitterly cold temperatures to fill Library Hall and hear him speak.⁴

As it happened, Turner’s choice of lecture topics—the origin and early history of the United States—was not particularly innovative. What was striking, however, was his emphasis on the central role of the self-reliant frontiersman in the nation’s past. Turner told his audience that the United States owed a great deal to the bold pioneers who had come before. In his final lecture on the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, he held that the frontier was what had made Americans an exceptional people. Time and again, hardy migrants had traveled west and thrived in a desolate environment where government was an evil, individuals were exalted and given free play, and the ideal of society was the self made man.⁵ According to Turner, Andrew Jackson was one of the best of these men. Jackson’s experiences on the lawless frontier had forged him into a true champion of democracy. He led a free rough life and was free from restraint. He was an Indian fighter; it was necessary for him to defend himself and he had very little regard for law and became an extreme individualist who had great regard for the ‘self made man’.⁶ In Turner’s opinion, Jackson and other independent settlers had made the United States a unique nation.

We will never know exactly who attended Turner’s La Crosse lectures in that icy winter of 1895. Yet many of the people in Library Hall would have found his frontier tales appealing at a time when industrialization and urbanization seemed to have rendered the bold western pioneer a quaint shadow of a more adventurous past.⁷ Many, in fact, at a time when their city’s lumber industry was in decline and most of its founders had either moved or died, had increasingly embraced their own city’s settlers as self-reliant pioneers who had built a vibrant community in the untamed wilderness. In 1890, for example, John Levy, a renowned resident who had been one of La Crosse’s earliest arrivals, encouraged other old-timers to commemorate olden days and the log cabin. There were no mansions then; no lock and no hinge. When a pioneer wanted to hang his door he got a boot leg and cut a piece of leather out of it. He used a string to lock it.⁸ Local journalists often got in on this act of storytelling. In 1894, the La Crosse Press declared that residents owed their present happiness to the hardscrabble pioneer, the hardy son of toil, with his family on a rude wagon drawn by ‘horned horses’ following the trails to the interior, there to set up housekeeping in a shanty or a rude log hut. Although such sturdy folk had little capital but energy and hard work, they had shaped a backwater outpost into a thriving metropolis in the wilderness.⁹ In other instances, La Crossers searched for pioneering inspiration from beyond the grave in the 1890s. Time and again, newspapermen penned moving obituaries of their city’s first arrivals that reminded readers of their frontier spirit. In 1897, for example, newspapers in town celebrated Abner Gile, whom many credited with helping to build the city’s lumber industry at midcentury, as one of the foremost of our successful pioneers. He comes of the stock that made the beginnings of New England.¹⁰ When Frederick Jackson Turner visited La Crosse in 1895 and described self-reliant pioneers making a nation, he would have buttressed what many in La Crosse already believed about their own city’s history.¹¹

La Crosse residents have not been the only people fascinated with why frontier cities took root and eventually prospered in the nineteenth-century Midwest. This question, in fact, has long intrigued American historians, from Richard Wade to William Cronon, who move beyond Turner’s oversimplified explanation of self-reliant white settlers building communities in an uncivilized land and offer fresh answers about the causes of western urbanization.¹² Although these scholars explore a wide range of midwestern places and times, they typically agree that two overriding factors ultimately shaped frontier cities in the nineteenth century: geographic location and local entrepreneurs.¹³ Chicago and other cities in the region were successful, the story goes, because they were situated at the confluence of rivers and railroad lines and enjoyed easy access to the rich farmlands and resources of the North American interior. These cities each also benefited from an ambitious band of boosters who took control of civic affairs, tapped the wealth of the surrounding hinterland, invested in local infrastructure, waged economic warfare on urban rivals, and eventually secured their community’s commercial welfare. Together, Wade, Cronon, and others paint a gripping portrait of geographic and commercial forces determining western urbanization and, by extension, commerce along the nation’s expanding borderland in the nineteenth century.

Yet this compelling historical picture has its flaws. First, although it sheds critical light on how geographical and economic imperatives shaped midwestern urbanization, it pays little attention to the broader political context within which the region’s urban places took root and evolved before 1900. Largely missing is any comprehensive discussion of the political economy of the nation or the region and how government institutions and policies influenced Midwestern city builders. Second, this picture tends to emphasize the commercial importance of middle western metropolises such as Chicago and St. Louis at the expense of smaller cities like La Crosse. Too often, historians either overlook the region’s hinterland communities or portray their inhabitants as economically hapless and increasingly subject to the whims of business leaders in larger cities as the nineteenth century wore on. Wade, Cronon, and other historians, then, contribute a great deal to our fundamental understanding of the nineteenth-century urban Middle West. Yet they also leave unanswered important questions about the lasting impact of politics and small cities on the region’s history.

Hinterland Dreams, in fact, demonstrates that government institutions and policies combined with small cities to play a critical role in the Midwest’s commercial history before 1900. Time and again, lawmakers, judges, and executives defined the rules of the game that determined how smaller cities like La Crosse emerged and helped transform them into dynamic engines of enterprise in the nineteenth century.¹⁴ From the beginning, the federal government built military outposts that shattered indigenous resistance in southwestern Wisconsin and made Indians dependent on American traders for their welfare, financed explorers who advertised the commercial possibilities of the region, and paved the way for white settlement of La Crosse and other western cities. At the same time, state-level agents invested in transportation projects that drew settlers to the middle western frontier and built a legal system that helped lumbermen flourish in places such as southwestern Wisconsin. The state’s lawmakers also granted municipal leaders in La Crosse potent new regulatory and financial tools that helped them cast their city’s history. Aldermen used these powers to fund and control railroad corporations that ran trains in town as well as to build and police urban railways, electrical lights, and the local telephone system. Finally, lawmakers and judges enabled organized workers and women in town to participate in La Crosse’s commercial growth in new ways and to help redefine its political economy. Ultimately, the city’s development is a tale of federal, state, and local officials forging La Crosse into a whirring engine of commercial energy before 1900.¹⁵

La Crosse offers an intriguing case in which to explore how the state shaped midwestern urbanization and empowered residents of smaller cities to mold the region’s commercial history. Its story, in fact, shares much in common with those of Galena, Illinois, Dubuque, Iowa, and other similar middle western communities. For one thing, La Crosse, like these other cities, developed in the middle of the nineteenth century when a cohort of American and European migrants arrived to take advantage of its location and access to natural resources. In the 1850s, these migrants laid the foundation to remake their small trading post into an important merchant city. They forged river and overland connections to merchants in nearby communities, attracted settlers and industries, and transformed the city into a regional entrepôt. As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century, La Crosse, like many comparable midwestern places, had become a bustling industrial city with a diverse economy. La Crosse was not perfectly representative. Like any city, it had its quirks of fate and geography that made it a distinct place with a special local history. But it shared enough in common with other cities that understanding the dynamics of its commercial past can help us grasp the origin and evolution of other urban places across the nineteenth-century Middle West.

La Crosse also presents an intriguing site for study because business and political decisions made in the city often had an unforeseen and lasting impact on the thousands of people who lived in the community’s metaphorical shadow. In focusing on the region’s metropolises, historians have overlooked how political choices made in smaller cities like La Crosse extended across the region. By the 1850s, La Crosse had emerged as a transportation entrepôt that linked rural midwesterners to a wider world. Farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa felt the city’s impact even if they lived tens or hundreds of miles away. Many shipped their produce to La Crosse and similar places and sold it in bustling urban markets. The city’s residents also influenced the choices of merchants and manufacturers in neighboring cities and towns. Its sawyers and millers helped stock the lumberyards of St. Louis, while its Common Council’s effort to finance private railroads sent shock waves through nearby communities that were also competing for the iron horse. La Crosse’s history is not simply an isolated narrative of one group of ordinary Americans building a single frontier city in the nineteenth century. It is also a saga of how it and similar cities emerged as economic polestars at the center of their own hinterlands, in which the most basic economic and political choices often rippled far and wide across the countryside.

Each chapter in Hinterland Dreams opens with an individual story that illustrates how the overlapping levels of the American state shaped the economic world within which La Crosse and other smaller midwestern cities took root and how they helped define the region’s commercial history before 1900. Part I investigates how federal and state institutions and policies paved the way for the settlement of La Crosse and helped city residents transform a small frontier outpost into a bustling city on the make. Chapter 1 begins with the story of a bloody raid led by Red Bird, a Ho-Chunk Indian who struggled to survive in the 1820s as Americans tried to assert martial control over southwestern Wisconsin. It describes how the federal government militarized the region, waged war on the Ho-Chunk and other Indians, funded scientific explorations, and, in so doing, cleared the way for La Crosse to become a prosperous city well before most people in the East or Europe ever dreamed of trekking to and settling an unknown country. Chapter 2 explores how federal and state officials made choices that helped Nathan Myrick, La Crosse’s Anglo-American founder, make his way to Wisconsin in the 1840s. At every critical step of his journey from New York to Wisconsin, Myrick took advantage of state and federal decisions that allowed him to traverse the continent, trade with Indians, claim land, and encourage other migrants to follow. Chapter 3 opens with the arrival of Charles L. Colman, an ambitious lumberman who migrated to La Crosse in the 1850s, to show how the policy choices of federal and state lawmakers made it possible for local sawyers and millers to build the industry that remained the engine of the city’s prosperity until the century’s end. It underlines how local lumbermen benefited from federal and state land distribution policy, legal contracts, state incorporation, and special franchises to make their city the hub of a thriving pine empire between 1850 and 1900. Part I thus offers a simple lesson: federal and state officials enabled La Crosse’s early settlers to establish prosperous businesses and allowed them to drive their city’s growth from within before 1900.

The American state, however, did not only pave the way for La Crosse to become a booming western hub. As Part II demonstrates, government institutions and policies also vested La Crosse’s residents with power to finance and police private businesses and mold the city’s built environment largely on their own terms during the century. Most important, it maps out how Wisconsin lawmakers and judges enhanced the regulatory authority of La Crosse’s Common Council in ways that boosted the city’s economic power before 1900. Chapter 4 introduces Thomas Benton Stoddard, a local railroad booster and politician, to trace how aldermen tried to use state-granted authority to invest in and regulate potent railroad corporations that ran trains in town. The Common Council also deployed state-granted municipal power to control private businesses closer to home and mold the public infrastructure. Chapter 5 begins with the appearance of John A. Renggly, La Crosse’s city physician, who published a scathing report on local health in 1882, to understand why municipal leaders embraced their state-sanctioned authority to bolster and regulate private companies that provided crucial public services, including gas and electric lighting, street cars, and telephone lines. Together, these two chapters reveal that municipal policy, much like federal and state authority, was often an effective tool that helped residents shape both the physical and the economic environments of their city.

Part III shows how the American state provided opportunities for new voices to emerge and help redefine La Crosse’s political economy and commercial future before 1900. Chapter 6 unfolds around the colorful political career of David Frank Powell, a local physician and vocal champion of labor politics, to trace how municipal government offered organized workers in town a chance to mobilize one level of the American state in their own economic interest at a time when federal and state lawmakers, judges, and executives were largely unsympathetic to their cause. It explores how Powell’s effort to win municipal elections introduced a political economy in which mayors and aldermen had an obligation to protect workers. Chapter 7 introduces John Levy’s wife, Fredericka, an ambitious woman who arrived in La Crosse with her husband and son in 1845 and helped build the family business, to shed intriguing light on how the American state also conditioned the commercial opportunities of La Crosse women. Many local women recognized that state government favored men at their expense. Over time, however, changes in state laws and judicial opinions helped local women to start businesses, earn wages, and contribute to their city’s economy in new ways. Part III thus contends that although the decisions of state lawmakers and jurists often favored businessmen in smaller midwestern cities like La Crosse, they sometimes offered fresh and exhilarating opportunities for workers and women to shape their city’s commercial future before 1900.

Ultimately, by situating these individual stories in a broader political and economic context, Hinterland Dreams offers a new way to understand how smaller midwestern cities like La Crosse emerged in the nineteenth century and helped determine the region’s commercial history. Rather than being a simple, deterministic tale of natural landscapes and market forces, the city’s story is one of lawmakers and judges framing a world of economic possibilities for its inhabitants. Federal, state, and municipal officials made southwestern Wisconsin into an inviting western destination, enabled the city’s first migrants to build a prosperous trading post, and encouraged lumbermen to transform La Crosse into a commercial mecca. State lawmakers and judges also vested municipal officials with the legal power necessary to draw in railroads, build a modern public works system, and attract even more residents and businesses. Finally, government agents provided workers and women in town with potent economic tools that allowed them to redefine their city’s political economy and redirect its commercial energy on the verge of a new century. La Crosse’s history was a tale of economic choices conditioned by the American state.

When Frederick Jackson Turner traveled to La Crosse and celebrated an America history of hardy and self-reliant pioneers in 1895, he laid out a heroic national origin tale that many in his audience would have wanted to hear. Yet Turner’s history overlooked a compelling reality: lawmakers, judges, and government executives were a near-constant presence in the lives of residents during the nineteenth century. From the very beginning, federal, state, and municipal officials enabled residents of La Crosse and other smaller middle western cities to make and remake their city’s commercial story from within. They were dynamic agents of the shifting and evolving political economy of the region before 1900.

Yet, similar to other middle westerners who celebrated the spirited frontier tales of Theodore Roosevelt or the publishing house of Beadle and Adams as the United States industrialized, the people of La Crosse continued to laud their city’s early founders near the end of the century as independent adventurers who had blazed a trail west, conquered savage Red Men, exploited natural resources, and bestowed the gift of urban prosperity on their grateful descendents. Early American migrants did in fact lay the foundation for this thriving river city. But as we will see, they often did so in ways that Professor Turner’s late nineteenth-century audience would have found puzzling, and perhaps even a little unsettling.




Red Bird’s Tale

In the summer of 1827, a Ho-Chunk Indian chief named Red Bird (Figure 1), who lived in a village near Prairie La Crosse, became one of the most notorious inhabitants of the Old Northwest. Tensions had long festered between the Ho-Chunk and American settlers in southwestern Wisconsin. During the War of 1812, the Ho-Chunk had joined forces with Great Britain, their trusted partner in the North American fur trade, against the United States and continued to favor the British after the war’s close. As a result, the Ho-Chunk were not inclined to welcome the Americans with open arms. The situation became even worse in the 1820s when American traders, lead miners, and soldiers invaded Ho-Chunk territory and pressured the Indians to abandon their land. In 1826, the stage was set for a violent conflict when American authorities accused two Ho-Chunk warriors of murdering a French-Canadian family. In the face of this growing discord, the Ho-Chunk searched desperately for any leader who could stem the white invasion. Red Bird seemed to fit the bill.

In response to growing Ho-Chunk anxiety, Red Bird and two of his followers set out to strike a blow against white settlement. In June 1827, they traveled to Prairie du Chien, a busy fur trading post to the south of La Crosse. On June 27, they arrived at the cabin of Registre Gagnier and dined with the Frenchman, his wife and children, and a family friend named Solomon Lipcap. After a few hours, a pleasant visit turned tragic. Without warning, Red Bird shot Gagnier in the chest, while one of his cohorts killed Lipcap and stabbed and scalped Gagnier’s infant daughter. Unfortunately for the Indians, Gagnier’s wife and ten-year-old son escaped the slaughter and sounded the alarm. After the attack, Red Bird returned to his village a conquering hero. In the months to come, however, the federal government mustered soldiers, made alliances with other Indian nations to work against the Ho-Chunk, and forced tribal leaders to surrender the Indians responsible for the attack. On February 16, 1828, Red Bird died at Fort Crawford and his uprising came to a quiet end.¹

Figure 1. In 1827, a Ho-Chunk Indian named Red Bird tried to spark an indigenous insurrection in southwestern Wisconsin when he and his followers killed several white settlers outside of Prairie du Chien. Although Red Bird’s uprising failed, his desperate attack is significant because it suggests just how profoundly federal soldiers and explorers had transformed the Ho-Chunk by the 1820s. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID #3911.

Red Bird’s resistance, much like that of the Sauk Indian chief Black Hawk in 1832, has long fascinated American historians. Most scholars interested in Red Bird’s uprising contend that it was a local response to a particular issue: the American invasion of Ho-Chunk mining lands in the 1820s.² Settlers certainly heard the siren’s call of lead ore. Yet the insurrection was also symptomatic of a much more deeply rooted trend that eventually remade the lives of Indians and settlers in southwestern Wisconsin and paved the way for the emergence of La Crosse: the growing presence of American military power in the region.

Red Bird’s story, in fact, opens a remarkable window on the consequences of federal efforts to capture and settle the territory that would one day become the site of the city.³ Much like thousands of other Indians who lived in southwestern Wisconsin during the antebellum era, Red Bird inhabited a world shaped by the American state. On the one hand, the U.S. military had crushed indigenous resistance and paved the way for white settlement. The War of 1812, in particular, crippled the Ho-Chunk and many other Indian nations that had fought alongside the British. In the years that followed, American soldiers built forts, favored friendly merchants, and continued to suppress Indian uprisings like the one led by Red Bird in order to protect white settlers. At the same time, the U.S. government helped remake southwestern Wisconsin when it sponsored a series of high-profile military and scientific expeditions led by such notable figures as Zebulon Pike, Stephen H. Long, Henry Schoolcraft, and David Dale Owen, who charted the region’s natural resources and painted an intriguing portrait of its commercial possibilities for potential migrants to the east and in Europe. For Red Bird, much like native peoples elsewhere who had struggled to keep control of their land and resources, the expansion of American military power and the growing presence of explorers and traders was further proof of the unsettling dissolution of the cultural middle ground that had long defined indigenous and white relations in the region.⁴ For most American settlers, however, this extension of federal power was a prudential godsend. Decades before these ambitious migrants made their way to Prairie La Crosse, the federal government had largely crushed indigenous resistance, captured Indian land, secured the surrounding territory, and, in so doing, forged a radical new world in which white settlers could begin to build a merchant city.

An Outpost of Empires

In 1827, Red Bird’s tale of bitter hatred, his desperate and bloody attempt to exact revenge, and his unmitigated failure to reassert native power in the face of the growing American presence in southwestern Wisconsin was far from unique. Instead, his story would have been painfully familiar to indigenous people who had lived near the Great Lakes for generations. In fact, it was part of a larger transnational narrative of European and American efforts to control the heart of the continent that began more than a century and a half earlier.

As early as the 1670s, southwestern Wisconsin promised a number of strategic advantages that captured the attention of European traders, missionaries, and soldiers. First, the region’s soil, especially in the Mississippi River Valley, was fertile and well suited for tobacco, oat, and fruit farming. The hilly countryside was also home to some of the richest lead deposits in North America, and mines would soon dot the Wisconsin landscape from Cassville in the west to Monroe in the east.⁶ Furthermore, a number of rivers, including the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Kickapoo, and Black, interlaced the region and provided a transportation network for European soldiers and merchants. Finally, this section of the future state of Wisconsin was home to several thriving Indian and European settlements, including locations at Prairie du Chien and Prairie La Crosse, which lay at the confluence of rivers and were well positioned to become commercial hubs. Southwestern Wisconsin thus provided much of the raw material necessary for different civilizations to take root during the precolonial and colonial eras of American history.

Not surprisingly, such features made the region an attractive destination for a host of Indians who had inhabited the land for centuries before the first European adventurers crossed the Atlantic. Some of the Indian peoples who called the location home were Red Bird’s forebears: the Ho-Chunk. According to tribal legend, the Ho-Chunk originated on the shores of Green Bay and eventually dominated a swath of territory that covered much of the eastern part of modern-day Wisconsin. By the sixteenth century, however, Indians from farther east, such as the Ojibwa and Potawatomi, had invaded these lands, besieged the Ho-Chunk, and forced them to move south and west. This migration did not bring an end to Ho-Chunk conflicts. Instead, as they fled one group of indigenous enemies, they soon encountered others, such as the Kaskaskia and Illinois, who were not happy to see the Ho-Chunk refugees. And around 1570, growing ecological, cultural, and martial pressure fractured the Ho-Chunk and forced them to compete with still other tribes, including the Sauk and Fox.⁷ Thus, well before the first Europeans made their way to southwestern Wisconsin, Red Bird’s ancestors had long struggled to survive in a fluid indigenous world remade again and again by ongoing contests over land, resources, and political power.⁸

The first Europeans to make their way to southwestern Wisconsin and document what they found in the region were French missionaries. In 1673, Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest who navigated the Mississippi River in search of Indian converts, passed by the area.⁹ Marquette had much good to say about the region and its abundant resources. He described the lands near Prairie du Chien and Dubuque as beautiful and populated by deer and cattle, bustards … Swans without wings and monstrous fish.¹⁰ Marquette was not alone in sharing tales of southwestern Wisconsin with a larger French audience. In the spring of 1680, Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest keenly dedicated to "enlarging the Limits of Christianity, and converting the barbarous Americans to the Belief of the Gospel," skirted southwestern Wisconsin on his way from the mouth of the Mississippi to the site of modern-day Minneapolis. Although Hennepin was not nearly as impressed as Marquette by what he discovered, he did recall that the Black River, near Prairie La Crosse, fed into the Mississippi.¹¹

Marquette and Hennepin called attention to southwestern Wisconsin. But French traders were the first Europeans to understand the economic potential of the region and to begin to build a vast commercial empire that would eventually enmesh the Ho-Chunk and other Indians. While Spanish conquistadors found wealth in the gold and silver of South and Central America, French adventurers pursued a very different treasure: animal pelts. The earliest French merchants, most notably Samuel de Champlain, who made his way to New France and founded a colonial outpost at Quebec in 1608, faced a simple challenge. Unlike in the case of the Spanish, who had used superior tools of war, played upon religious fears, and built political and military alliances with indigenous peoples to capture Indian cities and plunder the Aztec and Inca empires, the nature of Indian societies and the fur trade forced the French to explore different economic tactics.¹² In short order, Champlain and other French explorers recognized that their commercial prospects depended almost entirely on establishing strong cultural connections with Indians and negotiating with them in New France. To this end, he and his followers visited Indians, became students of their languages and cultural ways, and provided them with aid during their ongoing struggles with other indigenous people in North America.¹³ The French, in turn, gained the help of Indians in their ongoing effort to find the best trapping grounds and to make Quebec into a flourishing colony and reliable source of wealth for the monarchy. Champlain and his fellows thus offered an effective model of cooperation and coexistence with indigenous people that other ambitious French traders and explorers were eager to follow in years to come.

Champlain and early French merchants were so successful, in fact, that many who followed continued to push farther and farther west in search of beaver and other animals during the seventeenth century. In the process, some of these people soon made their way to southwestern Wisconsin. The first French voyageur to arrive in the region was an experienced trader named Nicolas Perrot. Although born in France in 1644, Perrot had migrated to North America and begun to work as a servant for the Jesuits in 1660. In the company of priests, he journeyed among Potawatomi and Fox Indians, and become fluent in their languages and familiar with their cultures. In the middle of the 1660s, he applied these skills to become an effective Indian trader who crisscrossed the Great Lakes region in search of indigenous customers.¹⁴ By 1685, he had built a trading post north of Prairie La Crosse at present-day Trempealeau, Wisconsin, and began to exchange his wares with nearby Sioux Indians. He did not stay long; he soon moved up the Mississippi and traded with other tribes.¹⁵ But the French remembered the trading post’s fortuitous location. In 1731, France, eager to fend off British encroachment on its colonial fur trade, erected a fort near the site of Perrot’s original settlement. For the next five years, the French tried to maintain good commercial relations with nearby Indians, most particularly members of the Sioux tribe. Yet all was not well. Under growing pressure from tribes other than the Sioux,

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