State Historical Society of Wisconsin cn.

Collections - State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Volume 10) online

. (page 28 of 58)
Online LibraryState Historical Society of Wisconsin cnCollections - State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Volume 10) → online text (page 28 of 58)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

great mistake; his jnarking Fort St. Nicholas above the
mouth of the \Visconsin when it should have been bckno it,
was a slight error.

However, lest the reader should, after all, imagine that
there might have been two forts, each called St. Nicholas,
let him turn back to page 03 of this volume and there, in
note 2, he will sec that the learned Secretary of the State
Historical Society infers there v/as but one; and he is right:
but he also, it is manifest, inclines to the opinion that that
one was above the mouth of the Wisconsin, diirering from
Dr. Jiutler and myself; for he says: " Thus, good authorities
point out the establishment of Perrot's Fort St. Nicholas, in

' New York Colonial Documents, Vol. IX, p. 418. Compare, in this con-
nection, Taliban's Perrot, p. 304, 305, 338.

'Compare the authorities just cited with Frauquelin's map in Neill's
History of Minnesota,

312 Wisconsin State Historical Society.

]GS5, just above the mouth of the Wisconsin, accor.liug to
l^'rancjuelin and D'Anville, or just bolow, ai^cordhii^ to La
Potherie." And he also says "that 1)l'. Neill, onj of the
very ablest liistorical in vesti-^atofs in tht) North- West, lo-
cales l\;rrot's establishment (;l: Kisi, at Prairie du Ciiien."

Just what Dr. Ncill does miian is jiut entirely clear. What
he says is this: " It [ Kraiii|uelin's mip| also m u'ks wiiere
the first party of Perrot wintered above Blaol; Pivur, and
the first trailing post it Prairie du CMiien, called, in compli-
ment to Perrot's baptismal name, ' P. n't St. Nicholas.' " ' if,
however, he really means what Or. Diapor thinks he d>)es,
it is because he has not studied \yi Potherie on the subject
of that fort as closely and carefully as Prof. Bailer.'

There is another reason why Port St. Nicholas must have
been below the mouth of the Wisconsin. La Potherie tells
us how far it was above the lead mine Perrot discoveriid —
twenty French leagues — forty-eiglit English miles. Now,
Perrot's lead mine, it is well known, was at the site of the
present city of Dubuque, Iowa, and tliat city is sixty miles
below Prairie du Cliien. Port St. Nicholas was, therefore,
not only some distance belotv the moutn of the Wisconsin,
but an Indian tradition says it was on the west side of the
Mississippi, in v/hat is now the State of Iowa; and the
topography of the valley would seem to confirm this tradi-
tion; for it would be ditlicult to find on the east side such an
advantageous situation as is described by La Potherie, im-
mediately below the mouth of the Wisconsin.

But there are physical reasons wliy Port St. Nicholas was
not above tlie Wisconsin. A broad pi-airie extemis from
that stream up the Mississippi, on the cast side, for nearly
eight miles. Portions of tliis piairie are sometimes sub-
merged; and, along the river, in no one place is it but little
if any above high-water mark. It certainly does not in the
least answer to the advantageous site of Fort St. Nicholas
as so particularly described by La Potherie.

> Neill's History of Minnesota, p. 770.

^ On JelTieys' map in Neill's History — the same map cited by Prof,
jutler — Ft. Nicholas is clearly below the mouth of the Wisconsin.

French Fort at Prairie du Chien a Myth. 313

Every argument and fact niilitatincr against Franquelin
also militates equally against the one or two map-makers
who followed him, and doubtless copied from him, in locat-
ing Fort St. Nicholas above the moutii of the Wisconsin.
There wab not, thL'U, at any time in the b.'ventt'L'nth century,
a fort at what is now I'rairie du L'iiien, or within th.- pres-
ent limits of Crawford cuuiily, \\'isL-.)nsin.


I now come to the consideration of the supposed French
fort erected upon tlni site (or adjacent tliereto) of the pres-
ent city of Frairie du Chien, in i;55. And here, for tlie first
time, Frof. lUitler discusses tlie real issue: fur tiie fir^L time
seeks to prove that there was once a French fort in Prairie
du Chien, or, if the reader please, within the present bound-
aries of Crawford county.

The words of Dr. Draper (ante, page Go, note 2) are these:
"Another fort was establislied in 1755, at what is called
Lower Town of Prairie du Chien;' that is, another French
fort was established. Then he adds: " the particular locality
of which is designated in volume nine of the Wis-onsin
Historical Society's Collections, pages 2.sG-2!il." By refer-
ing to this volume, it will be discovered that his authority
is exactly the same for his declaration as that given below
by Dr. Putler; but he speaks of the fort as the "old French
fort said to have been established in i:55."

In regard to the supposed French fort of 1755, Prof. Putler
says: "In tiie American State Papers regarding Public
Lands, we read that on February 25, 1818, Hon. George
Pobertson, from the Committee on Public Lands, reported
to the House of Pepresentatives, that in the year 1755, the
Government of France established a military post near the
mouth of the Wisconsin." Then Dr. Ihitler ad-ls: "The
report to Congress was based on information given by a
Government agent who had visited Prairie du Chien, and
gathered up testimony on the spot." That statement by
Dr. Butler is wholly erroneous. No Government agent had^
previous to the making of that report by Robertson, ever
visited Prairie du Chien for any such purpose as indicated
21— H. C.

3U Wisconsin State IIistokical Society.

by Prof. Butler, llubortson's Report was "based on infor-
mation " derived simply from a petitior. sent in by some
citizensof Pi-airio du Cliien; and every reference to a French
fort having been erected in that })laee in K.Oo, was ina<h> by
them from tradition only.

In IS-JO, two years sn^seijuent to the date of l^djertson's
Report, Isaac, an agent of the United States, vi.sited
Praii-ie du Chien to report upon land titles; and, to that end,
"'•gathered up testimony on the spot." But, in his re})ort,
not a word is said about a Frinieh fort having been built ia
I'rairie du Chien, in i;'5a. The report of Jiobertson is based
wholly upon tradition; that of Lee, upon sworn evidence.
Prof. Ikitler then comments on the evidence taken by,
just as though it had been the foundation for liobertson's
report. He does not say that of all this "' testimony
gathered up on the spot" as to a French fort, not one word
was given by anyone claiming to have ever seen the foit
or claiming to have geen any person who had seen the fort;
but such was the fact. And Dr. Butler then adds: "' Accord-
ing to the oldest inhabitants, some of whom had resiiled
there wellni^h from the close of the Revolutionary War,
it was only during that contest that the French fort was
burned." This last sentence is well calculated to carry
the idea (1) that white settlers were living at Prairie du
Chien during the whole continuance; of tlie Revolution; {-l)
that it was during that contest the fort was burned;
and {'■)) that the oldest inhabitants, some of whom had lived
there well nigh from the close of the war had been told by
those who lived there before them, that tln^y had seen tlie
fort and that they saw it when it was burned; and that,
therefore, the " testimony " gatluu'ed from the " oldest ni-
habitants" by the Government Agent nmst have great

If the reader will take pains to read over just what
these oldest inhabitants said (it has all been published '), ho
will quickly reach the conclusion that no such inferenco as
that contained in the first and third propositions can be

'See American State Paj)ers {Public Lands), vol. IV., pp. 867-879.

French Fort at Pkairie dv Chiex a Myth. 315

drawn from wliat they liave loft on roconl. l^>at this will
be more fully disscused iieroafler. As to tlio second |)ropo-
silion, I will say that what was .sujiposed to have boon a
French fort irds buiiu'd durini; the lu'Vclutioii. lint I will
pre&ei. tly explain why it was that uliat Avas Ijurncd was
thought to ha\'e been a fort.

Here, let me again invoke the law of histoi'ical criticism.
No traveler visiting "i^rairie des Chiens'' during French dom-
ination in the North- Wiist mentions any French fort either
on the "prairie"" (n* in any portion of what is now Crawf(jrd
county — and that dominatimi lasted, as we liave already
stated, from lOM to i.'Gl. Tiiere is not extant any ollicial
or unoiliciai dijcument giving any account of the supposed
French fort of i7J5. No one lias ever put it on record that
he has ever seen an)^ such fort. No one has placed on re-
cord that he had been told by one claiming to have seen
such a fore, that it was in existence there, either in 1755 or

No list of names of any officers or privates said to have
been stationed there is in existence or, so far as is known,
ever has been. No nuip of 1755 or later has upon it any
such fort. There was a terrible war raging in the West at
this very date between France and England for possession
of this country, the incidents of which war have been care-
fully w ritten by a number of able writers; yet not one of
them mentions the existence of such a fort. Now, in view
of all this, the impartial historian declares he wonld not be
justilied in saying that such a fort had ever existed, even
though there was a tradition (be it ever so positive, but
simply a trailition) to the contrary. To offset all this, what
have we? Only a tradition, and an exceedingly vague one,

' According? to the tradition upon whieh both uiy criticH rely, llie sup-
posed fort was erected in 1755 aud destroyed liy lire in 1170 — the second
year of the Revolution, During that period. Jonaihan Cai ver, an exceed-
ingly cloee observer and careful writer viailed (in 17GG) the " prairie." Can
any one for a moment suppose that so striking an object as a fort on th;it
low and level expanse, and particularly a French fort (for Carver was En-
glish, and this was soon after the close of the Old French War) would
have escaped his notice? But Carver mentions no fort of any kind there.

316 Wisconsin State Historical Society.

that there was sucli a fort on the "prairie." But it is very
plain to be seen lioio this tradition became rifo anions the
settlers at Prairie du CUiien.


At tlie beginning of the year Kso, there were on the
" Prairie des Chions" what were subseqiu-ntly called ''the
remains of ancient works, constructed probably for military
purposes,"' very numerous and of j^reat extent. Tiie ])ara-
pets and mounds were connected in one series of works.
" Wherever there was an anj^le in the principal lines, a
mound of the largest size was erected at the angle; the
parapets were terminated by niounds at each extremity, and
also at the gateways. I\o ditcli was observed on either side
of the parapet. In many places, the lines were composed of
parapets and mounds in conjunction, the mounds being ar-
ranged along the parapets at their usual distance from each
other, and operating as Hank dtifences to the lines.'"' These
were prehistoric earthworks of the sanie character as others
now known to be scattered all ovei- the \Vest and Nortli-
AV^est; but when lirst seen by the (,'anadian French, who
settled u])on the "prairie"' in l?bl, they supposed them to
be the remains of an ancient French or Spanish fort. And
an event happened just before their arrival to help on their

Early in the summer of 1780, a log-house, ca])able of hold-
ing three hundred and sixty packs of furs, is j)Ositively
known to have been in existence upon the " prairie." That
log-house was built on one of those prehistoric earthworks,
just described as having parapets and othe-r peculiarities of
an ordinary fort. In June of the year last mentinned, about
three hundred of the packs were taken out of this log- house
and transported to " Fort ^lichilimackinac,'' for the reason
that there was danger of their falling into the hands of the
enemy — the Americans. The sixty remaining packs were
burned as of little value. Reason and tradition both say

'S. H. Long's Narrative, by W. H. Keating, Vol. 1, pp. 240, 2-11.

French Fort at Prairie du Ciiiex a Mytii. 317

they were burned by setting fire to the building.' That
building would have been a capital place for a detachment
of George Rogers Clark's soldiers to have used as (luat'ters.

This building, Prof. Butler says, it seerns to him, was more
properly a fort than a log-house; but tlie man who describes
the building — who was in it — who helped to take "out
about three hundred packs oi the best skins," — declares,
'•the merchants' peltry, in packs,"' was in a log-house,
guarded by Captain Langlade and some Indians;""- — (luite
different language from my critic, who says *• it was de-
fended by a body of armed men, as forts are wont to be."

Put my critics are, after all, suspicious that this log-house
was the supposed French fovt. Secretary Draper has pre-
viously given it as his opinion that the tradition concerning
the burning of the fort referred to tlie burning of that build-
ing; and Dr. Ihitler, by declaring that the lug-house seems
to him properly "named a fort," jjrepares himself for the
following sentence: " It was so named by almost everybody
known to have been acquainted with those who had seen it."
This implies that many persons whose names are known
knew people who had seen the structure, and that these
many persons all called it a fort because those who had seen
it called it so. I challenge Dr. Butler to produce the name
of one single person who has placed on record that he called
it a fort because some one who had seen it called it so.' Ihil,
had one person or a great many persons so called it, would
that make it a fort? Not at all.

'Dr. Butler says, "thtre is no evidence that the house was burned "
Dr. Draper ua Wisconsin State Ilisiorical Societys Collections, Vol. IX.
p. 2yu, note) says it is the " Brisbois tradition " tliat it was burned.

-J. Long's Voyages and Travels, p. 101.

^ •' My father, Micha-l IJriwboi.s. told me that hv ha.l never 8e.>ri a fort of
any kind on the 'prairie' at an early day; that what he did m'u were re-
mains thought to have been vestiges of a French fort; and no p.-rson, my
fatlier said, ever told him that he had seen anything except what were
these remains supposed to be such a fort, on tlie ' prairie.' " Verbal state-
ment of B. W. Brisbois to the writer, in January, 1884. Compare, in this
connection, the Certificate of B. W. Brisbois, in the History of Crawford
County, p. xiii, wherein he approves, inferentially, of all said in that
work as to the supposed French fort.

t ' ■■ i J -:

318 Wisconsin State Historical Society.

No one fact in Wisconsin History is better established
than that I3asil Giard, Pierre Antaya and Au^ustin Ange
settled upon "Prairie des Chiens' in 1781. Suon after, dur-
ing the same year, came ^lichael Brisbois. There is not one
particle of evidence extant that any white persons — of
French or othor nationality — settled on the "prairie"' be-
fore these Flench Canadians came. The first three named
came at the same time. There is a great deal of evidence
extant that when they came they found upon the *' prairie "
simply an Indian village — nothing more.' Jv^st us now,
bearing this in mind and remembering the year of the com-
ing of these first settlers, look at tlie whole of the Jieport as
to the supposed l^Vench fort of 175 3 and the first settlement
of the "prairie," as given by Hon. George JJobertson, and
upon wiiich my critics so much rely: " In the year J i-JO, tlie
Government of France established a military post near the
mouth of the Wisconsin; that [during that year] many
French families settled themselves in the neighborhood, and
established the village of Prairie du Chien; that, by the
treaty of A^ersaille.'^, in the year J7g;J, the village and the
fort, following the condition of the Ganadas and the Illinois
country, i)assed to the Grown of England." How absolutely
has all that been proved over and over again to be wholly
erroneous! '

' Compare, iu tliis conneclion, History of Crawford County, Wisconsin,
pp. 282-'^S8; also, J. Long's Voyaf^es anJ Travels, p. 118; Washlmrne's
Edwards P.tjjers, p. 00; S. H. Long's Expedition (by Keating) Vol. 1, p. 242.
In January, 1884, I called the attention of B. W. Brisbois to what lie is
represented as saying in the Wisconsin Sitate Historical Societij's Collections,
Vol. IX, J). 291. Hisrejily to me was, that the words: "There was certainly
something of a French, as well as Indian, settlement there at that time" —
were not what he intended to say; and tiiat Ik; eilhrr h;id writttii to ^Iv.
Draper or intend, d to write t) him, altmit thu rndtrr. Mr. l!ri <li(<is also
made the same remark to me coaeerning the words on the same paiie of
the Collections — '"after the French soldiery who had forted there, had
retired;"— ami he unhesitatingly signed the certificate to be found in the
History of Crawford County, Wisconsin, on \y xiii.

■-■ But even this is not all of the Report, which the reader will undertsand
was simply based, as I have already shown, upon a petition sent iu from
some of the inhabitants in Prairie dn Chien in 1818 to the House of Rep-
resentatives, iu Washington. ''In the year 1783," adds Robertson, " the

French Fort at Prairie du Chien a Myth. 319

The charred remains of that log-house upon the prehis-
toric earthwork before described, were noticed by the
French Canadians, who settled upon the "■ prairie " the next
year, adding much to the appearance of there having been
at one time a fort there.'

The tradition was still alive in ls-20, when" Isaac Lee,
Agent of the United States to report upon land titlcb/" who
has already been mentioned, visited the "prairie." After
gathering all of it (that is, the tradition) bearing upon the
subject ho could, this is what he says: " The remains of
what is commonly called the Old French Fort, are yet [in
]80v'], very distinguishable. Though capacious and appar-
ently strong, it was probably calculated for defence against
musketry and small arms only. None can recollect the
time of the erection of this fort; it was far beyond
the memory of the oldest: nor can the time of its erec-
tion be determined, by any evidence to be obtained."'^
Well, I think not. Bat this is not all Mr. Lee says, — he

events of the American Revolution again changed their condition, and on
the 1st of Juno, 1700. the villa-o and f- rt were formally surren.hred by
the n iiisli to Ihe UniUMl States; ihat many of lh>- vuiunuud
tlieir residence and enjoyed uninterrupted traiuiuiliUy uli ihr caj.iu.e oi
the fort by the enemy during tlio last war|tliat is, the war of 1812-15]."
That Robenson had been hugdy impuseJ upon by the petition sent in from
Prairie du Chien. beeame quickly manifest to the United States Agent, m
1820, when he came to take the testimony of the "oldest inhabitants/ m
Prairie du Chit-n, as his Report shows.

'Dr. Draper, in the Wisconsin State Historical Society's Collections, Vol.
IX, p. 290, note, says: " that Dennis Curtois, who settled at Prairie du
Chidu in 1791, stated in 1820, that ' the old Fiencli fort was burnt the sec-
ond year of the Revolutionary War. ' " Wliat Curtois said, is this; " Ac-
cording to the best information I have been able to obtain from the tradi-
lion of the inhabitants at Prairie d-s Chiens, the old French fort was
burned during the second year of the Revolutionary War. "

"■ I would bore ask Prof. Butler, if the log-house of 1730, was the lurt, to
please bear in mind that in 1820, Mr. Lee found its "remains' '• very
distinguishable, " that it was very "capacious, and apparently strong;"
and that " it was probably calculated for defence against musketry and
email ar;ns only. " Exactly how all this could be, when the said log-house
(Prof. Butler's fort) was burned in 1780, according to the " Brisbois tradi-
tion, " I will leave for the reader to judge.

320 Wisconsin State TTlstorical Society.

adds: " Some difference of opinion setjms to exist tliere [at
Prairie du CiiienJ, as to tlie question whether it was ori^^in-
ally built by the Frencli or by the Spanish governnKnit."
Yet Dr. Butler, upon exactly such tradition as that on which
Mr. Lee bases his report as to the fort, says it was certainly
a French fort, and Dr. Draper is e(pially positive that it
was erected in 17.-)5.

Acconipanyin*^ the report of 'Mi'. Lne is the " L'nited States
map," I speak of in iny paper, read before the Madison Lit-
ery Club. It is simply a " I'lan of the S'<lfleiit(^)it at Pniiria
des CliieuH," in JSJO, on which is marked the supposed
French fort.'

' For Mr. Lee'.s Report anil accompanying map, s(!e Atiicrican State Pap-
ers {Public Lands), \o\. IV, p. S()7. The reader will, in examining that
Peport, observe that, in tlie testimony of five or six of the inhabitants,
therein given, the Frencli fort is sj)oken of, as if it then, in 1820, was in
existence; but the references, as tlie context shows, are only to the Sjjut
iclicrc liaditiou has fixed the location of the supposed fort.



From a sense of duty, rather than in any spirit of contro-
versy, 1 will proceed to submit a few notc^s on some of the
statei'nents made by I\lr. Butterlield, in Ids preceding paper.
Wlule investigatin*,^ and studying the few points in which I
think .Air. Butterlield errs, and wliicli, it seems to me, are
important to a proper understanding of the primitive his-
tory of Wisconsin, I have ventured to add other matters
that struck me as worthy, in this connection, of permanent

A just elucidation of our true history, so far as we can as-
certain it from recorded facts, and reach reasonable deduc-
tions, is all I seek. I, too, may err, as even the most faith-
ful investigators are liable to do, for want of full knowledge,
or misled by partial, distorted, or erroneous statements.
Further historical discoveries by i^Iargry, Parkman, Neill
or others, may yet throw a tlood of light on all our doubtful
and disputed points; and when they do, we should all readily
•acknowledge their force.


Before entering upon the question of the locality of Fort
St. Nicholas, it is proper to notice what was apparently a
prior estal)lishment at Prairie du Chien, a few years earlier
than Perrot's post at that point. In La Salle's letter of
August '22, l<JS:i, he complains of the encroachment of
Du^Luth on the territory expressly assigned him for the pur-
poses of trade. " But the King,"' he says, " having granted
us the trade in buffalo hides, this would ue ruined in gomg
to, or coming from, the Nadouesioux, by any other route
than by Lake Superior, by which Count Frontenac has

322 Wisconsin State Historical Society.

power to send liiin there in search for beaver, in the pur-
suance of the authority which he has to <;rant permits. Ihit
if they go by way of the Oaisconsini^, where for the present
the chase of the buffalo is carried on, and where 1 have
commenced an estabhshment, they will ruin the trade, of
which alone I am laying the foundation, on account of the
great number of buffaloes' which are taken thcue every
year, almost beyond belief." '

La Salle further states in the same letter: " Six weeks
afterward, all having returned to to the Ouisconsing with
the Nadouesioux on a hunt, the K. P. Louis Hennepin, and
the Picard, resolved to go to the inuiifh of the rice)-, where
I had promised to send messages, as 1 had done by six nitn,
whom the Jesuits deceived, telling them that H. P.
Louis and his fellow travelers had been slain. They allowed
them to go there alone." Then La Salle speaks of their be-
ing pillaged, because of jealousy. " as they [the Lidians]
were from different villages, and but few from that where
the Frenchmen were to go; they did it in order to secure
their portion of the merchandise, of which they feared they
would receive none iE they once entered the village where
the Frenchmen were to go." '

It would seem highly lu'obable, that La Salle's establish-
ment at the Wisconsin, was a/ tlic inoutJi of Die fiver, where
he was so anxious to send messages, no doubt to persons
connected with his " establishment," and where Hennepin
and his fellow travelers were destined, and it would appear
also, that there was an Lidian village there at tliat early
period. As the locality of Prairie du Chien was confessedly

Online LibraryState Historical Society of Wisconsin cnCollections - State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Volume 10) → online text (page 28 of 58)