When French and English officials saw Spanish galleons return from America filled with gold, they wanted a piece of the action. Within a generation of Columbus, both were exploring the northern reaches of the continent. About the time the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock in 1620, French explorer Etienne Brule (1592?-1632) skirted the shore of Lake Superior (in 1622-23). Because he left no record, however, the distinction of “first European explorer” usually goes to Jean Nicolet (1598-1642). In 1634 Nicolet met the Ho-Chunk at Red Banks, just north of the present-day University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus, but over the next 20 years hostilities in the eastern Great Lakes prevented further contact. These so-called “Iroquois Wars” pinned the French in Montreal and Quebec and drove their Indian trading partners into the remote wilderness west of Lake Michigan. Here they were followed in the 1650s by the first fur traders,Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636?-1710) and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers (1618-1684), and the first Jesuit missionary, Father René Menard (1605-1661). French explorers first heard the name “Wisconsin” used by one of these tribes in a 1673 conversation; and though historians have puzzled over its meaning for years, the most authoritative study of the name concluded that it probably meant “River of Red Stone.”
The missionaries’ quest for souls and the traders’ for furs brought white explorers into Wisconsin. Their motives were, of course, quite different, and though they worked closely at times, as when Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) and fur trader Louis Joliet (1645-1700) teamed up to explore the Mississippi, the devotees of God and mammon were destined for conflict. By the early 1700s the competition between spirituality and commerce had been decided: the Jesuits, who opposed the excesses of the fur trade, were expelled, and French soldiers, who guarded the lucrative Wisconsin trade routes, held power until late in the century.
From 1650 to 1850 Wisconsin’s economy revolved around fur in the way that today’s economy revolves around oil. Because fur is waterproof, beaver skins could be pressed into felt for hats that kept people both warm and dry. From Moscow to Rome, the demand for beaver hats remained immense for more than 200 years. Anyone who could supply beaver pelts to cities in Europe could grow rich.
So, merchants shipped anything that Indians would buy and demanded beaver skins in return. Trade goods included metal knives, awls and kettles, steel flints for starting fires, guns and ammunition, alcohol (which, though officially prohibited, was steadily supplied through the black market), woolen blankets, and porcelain beads for jewelry. These were shipped into regional warehouses in Michilimackinac (present-day Mackinac, Michigan, at the head of Lake Michigan) and then redistributed to smaller outposts such as Green Bay, Prairie du Chien and LaPointe. In autumn Wisconsin traders would advance guns, ammunition and other supplies to Indian hunters, who would return in the spring to settle their accounts with beaver — a system that kept most Indians permanently in debt to French traders. The traders would pack large canoes with thousands of pounds of pelts for the annual trip to Montreal. Beavers caught near present-day Milwaukee or Minocqua soon graced the heads of customers in Paris or London.
Ho-poe-kaw (Glory of the Morning), an 18th-century Ho-Chunk chief, is the first woman described in the written record of Wisconsin history. 19th-century Ho-Chunk woman in traditional dress WHI 8294
By the 1720s a chain of French trading posts arced across the interior from Montreal through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi past St. Louis to New Orleans. Military garrisons were established along this route to make sure that trade goods came in and beaver pelts went out with as little trouble as possible. Wisconsin sat directly in the center, a major conduit for the wealth of the Mississippi Valley to flow toward Quebec. The river route from Prairie du Chien up the Wisconsin to Portage and then down the Fox through present-day Oshkosh, Neenah and Appleton to Green Bay was the interstate highway of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The interior fur trade was so profitable that the English tried to win Indian suppliers away from the French. Between 1755 and 1763 the two fought pitched battles from Pennsylvania to Quebec, deciding the fate of the continent. In 1755 Wisconsin’s first permanent white settler, Charles de Langlade (1729-1801), led Great Lakes warriors against the British (including a young officer named George Washington) on the site of present-day Pittsburgh. In the end, the French lost when Montreal fell to the British in 1760. Peace was declared in 1763, and English was spoken in “Ouisconsin” for the first time.
By then a century of colonialism had utterly transformed Indian life. Several Wisconsin tribes — such as the once-powerful Ho-Chunk and Meskwaki (Fox) — had been reduced to tiny fractions of their pre-contact size. In nearly all Indian communities, material life, gender roles, religious practice, daily tasks and social structure had all changed. Stable agricultural communities that had for hundreds of years engaged only in seasonal hunting broke apart, as full-time hunters wandered far and wide pursuing beaver. Indian women, the elderly and children clustered around trading posts, where they caught European diseases and were often exploited. A “metis” class of mixed-race offspring blurred the lines between French and Indian families.
Under British domination (1760-1815), the Wisconsin fur trade was a major source of revenue: in 1767 a third of all Mackinac furs came through Green Bay. The trade thrived for another two generations as new outlets sprang up around Wisconsin. The first white settlement at Milwaukee, for example, was a tiny fur trade post started in 1795 by Jacques Vieau (1757-1852). But by 1830 over-hunting had nearly exterminated fur-bearing mammals in Wisconsin, shifting the trade farther west and north. By 1850 traders shipped most furs by sea either from Hudson Bay to London or from Oregon to New York. Wisconsin’s fur trade era was over.