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Wisconsin's Fur Traders.

Heading Almost from the first contact of the white man. with the American aborigines the trade in. furs sprang up and from year to year increased in dimensions until it became a vast industry, governed to a large extent by its own laws and customs, and. producing incalculable wealth. Indeed, aside from his lands, of which he was often cheated or forced. to vacate by a power which he could not effectually resist, furs were practically all that the Indian had to offer 111 exchange for the white man’s goods which he had learned to desire. 

Previous to the shifting of tribal homes already mentioned, it was his custom to carry his goods to Montreal, which was the great fur market, but now the white men brought their wares to him and with his consent established posts and small log forts in the Indian country, where an officer and a few soldiers kept order and exercised authority over the motley crowd of traders and coureur de bois who enriched themselves by the wilderness traffic. Most of the traders were licensed by the government and subject to strict rules for the conduct of their trade. The illegal trader; however, flourished and followed his Indian customers into the depths of the forest beyond the reach of the military commanders and representatives of government. These unlicensed traders carried to the red man the alcoholic liquors which the whites had taught him to Iove, and in spite of the strict regulations of the French government, the Indians grew more and more debauched and degraded, easily assimilating the vices of the superior race, though unable or un­willing to emulate them in their better qualities. 

In addition to this cause, which worked injury to the trade, there were others which prevented the French from reaping its full benefits. One was the formation of the Hudson Bay Company, brought about through the defection of Radisson. Its traders early penetrated to the north shore of Lake Superior and drew away many Indians who had previously contributed to the wealth of Canada, The English also attempted to secure the Northwest fur trade by the route of the Great Lakes. With the Iroquois acting as middlemen, the tribes of Wisconsin were tempted to carry their wares to men who paid a larger price for furs and gave better goods in return than those of the French merchants. Thus, through illegal traders and foreign rivals, the French fur trade was by the close of the seventh century so demoralized that the Canadian authorities, spurred thereunto by the missionaries, determined upon drastic measures. All licenses for traders were revoked, and in 1696 a decree went forth that all the Northwest posts should be evacuated, and that missionaries should be the only white men allowed in the Ottawa country. It was thought that the old custom of yearly caravans would be revived; thus, government control could be exercised over the trade and the Indian protected. These measures were only partly successful. The coureur refused to obey the summons to return to New France, and shamelessly brought in English goods; soldiers deserted from the garrisons before evacuation, married among the Indian tribes arid introduced the white man’s arts. Albany and Hudson Bay traders vigorously pressed. their advantage, and the Canadian authorities feared that the whole of the Northwest trade would slip from their control.

This danger of disintegration was checked by two events that occurred in the first year of the eighteenth century. The first of these was the founding of Detroit, a post whose position barred the· English from the upper lakes. The second was the peace with the Iroquois, which was signed at Montreal after a great ceremony· and an exchange of prisoners among all the warring tribes. The license for the fur trade was then restored, the couerurs de bois called in by a proclamation of pardon for all past offenses, and the policy of control by posts and garrisons reestablished throughout the Northwest

The establishment of Detroit caused new changes in the geographical dis­tribution of the tribes and led to a fièrce intertribal war which broke out in 1712 and in which many of the Sauk, Foxes and Kickapoo were slain, the remnant fleeing back to their former homes in Wisconsin. The part played in it by the commander at Detroit aroused a bitter enmity of these tribes against the nation he represented and for 30 years they waged barbaric warfare against the French, a warfare that closed the Fox-Wisconsin waterway against French traders and greatly diminished French influence in the far Northwest. 

From 1727 to 1750, in order to exploit the fur trade among the Sioux, French posts were erected along the upper Mississippi. Other possible sources of wealth had also received attention. In 1718,in order to develop the copper mines that were thought to exist on the shores of Lake Superior, an official post was built at Chequamegon, and in 1743 a French post was erected on the Mississippi near the lead mines and a beginning made in developing them. Thus the French found copper, lead and furs in Wisconsin, of which three commodities the last mentioned proved the most valuable to them. The yearly harvest of Wisconsin furs amounted to 500 to 600 packs, valued at a quarter of a million dollars. But there was much peculation and dishonesty among officials, which causes had much to do with the fall of New France. 

The French and Indian war, begun in 1754 and finally ended by the treaty made Paris in 1763, effected a change of sovereignty and Canada and the Northwest became British. For the most part the French traders transferred, their allegiance to the new rulers with but mild regrets, and the Indians readily exchanged their French medals and flags for those of England. The British traders employed the same voyageurs and coureurs de bois as had served the traffic under the French regime and the French language was that most in use in Wïsconsin’s forests. 

Most of the Western Indians still disliked the English, and in 1763 Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, united all the tribes between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi and laid siege to Detroit, which he failed to capture, though he did not finally yield until 1766. In this uprising the Wisconsin tribesmen, almost alone among those of the Northwest, refused to participate, but escorted the British garrison from Green Bay to Mackinac and there aided to rescue the captured British officers from the hands of the hostile Chippewa and Ottawa. 

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. This unrestricted rivalry wrought great havoc, both among the fur bearing animals and their red hunters. Liquor was the ordinary medium of exchange and so fierce were the drunken orgies of the Indians that it seemed as though 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 1718 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 a third of a century. About the same time the Mackinac company was formed, whose operations lay farther south and who, having established a post opposite the mouth of the Missouri, were competing for the trade of Spanish Louisiana.
The headquarters o£ 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 forest along the southern shore of Lake Superior. Around the company’s 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. Their social condition was somewhat of the patriachial type, as in general they looked up to and were guided by some leader who had become noted for his ability, courage or wisdom in the stirring events of the times and to whom they could look for impartiality in the administration of justice. Suh a one was Charles Langlade, called “The Father of Wísconsin,” and after whom one of its counties is named, who was chief of the important settlement at Green Bay, and who had an established military record as an officer in the French-Canadian army, but had subsequently transferred his loyalty to the British, to whom he was faithful during the American Revolutionary war. 

In the War of 1812 the Scotch fur traders of Wisconsin commanded retinues of voyageurs and Indians, who successively captured. Mackinac and Prairie du Chien and drove every American from the vicinity. They fondly expected that new boundaries would be drawn and that the territory now Wisconsin would become a fur trading preserve under their control; but in this they were disappointed. The Mackinac Company was dissolved and in its stead was organized the American Fur Company, the monopoly of John Jacob Astor. From 1816 to 1824 the United States sought to better the Indian’s condition by the so-called factory system, government posts operated not for profit but for benevolence towards its Indian wards; but the system failed on account of the powerful opposition of the American Fur Company and because the factors were unacquainted with the conditions of Indian trade, which had ruled Wisconsin for 200 years, now gradually declined. The local traders, deeply in debt to Astor’s monopoly, mortgaged their lands and· lost them. In recent years a new commerce in furs has sprung up and grows increasingly valuable; but as a regime the fur trade passed from Wisconsìn with the corning of the Americans and the development of modern industries.

Jones, George O., Norman S. McVean, and others, comp. History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties Wisconsin, Minneapolis, MN: H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1924. Transcribed by Jack L. Winegar.

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