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Territorial Forts of Wisconsin

Surviving portions of Second Fort Crawford, March 1864 (WHS-Archives UW [W6] 23606).
Surviving portions of Second Fort Crawford, March 1864 (WHS-Archives UW [W6] 23606).

In the years following the War of 1812, American traders operating in the Mississippi Valley petitioned the U.S. Government to help regulate commerce between the eastern seaboard and the western frontier. A series of military outposts was established, stretching from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Three forts were constructed in Wisconsin. They were located at crucial points along the main trade route linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Soldiers and officials stationed along the route administrated and protected commerce, negotiated treaties with Native American populations, and constructed Wisconsin’s military roads.

Archaeologists uncover the
foundations of Second Fort
Crawford during reconstruction
of Beaumont Street
(Image courtesy of the Mississippi
Valley Archaeology Center).
Fort personnel also provided social, legal, medicinal and educational services to those living near them. To Yankees relocating westward, the forts were cherished bastions of “civilization” in an unfamiliar wilderness. To the frontier French, the outposts were unwelcome intrusions, bringing not only competition for furs and goods, but military commanders and settlers hostile to French land claims and society. To the Native Americans, the forts represented both commercial opportunity and military oppression.

The forts and roads constructed by the military attracted a wave of new settlers, comforted by the protection and ease of travel they provided. Conflict between new arrivals and Wisconsin’s Native American residents increased, leading to a series of uprisings that culminated in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Settlers fled to the forts for protection as U.S. troops chased Black Hawk and his band across southern Wisconsin to the Mississippi River. Many settlers in isolated communities constructed their own small forts during the brief war.

After Black Hawk’s people were decimated on the banks of the Mississippi, military and civilian officials began pressuring tribes into a series of new treaties and land cessions. The territorial forts became anachronisms. The fur trade in Wisconsin was dying even as the forts were built. As Native American populations were confined to reservations or forced beyond Wisconsin’s borders the need for the fort’s diplomatic and military functions was sharply reduced. With statehood, governmental and administrative functions passed to civil authorities. In the 1850’s the forts were discarded by the United States and sold into private hands.

Fort Howard (1816 – 1853)

Fort Howard, ca. 1851
(WHS-Archives WHi[X3] 1894).
By the close of the War of 1812, Green Bay had served as a hub for the fur trade for over a century. The French erected fur posts there in 1717, near a series of large Menominee villages. A thriving, ethnically mixed community soon sprang up around them. A small fort, the first on the site, was built on the east bank of the Fox River.

British troops and traders initially moved into the French fortifications when the community passed into their hands, but the fort was later abandoned and allowed to deteriorate beyond repair. In 1816, American troops arrived to take possession of the territory. Tensions between the Americans and the pro-British residents of Green Bay ran high. An uneasy peace was reached with the help of the Menominee Chief Tomah, and construction on Fort Howard began.

Following an outbreak of malaria in 1820, Fort Howard was abandoned and troops moved to Camp Smith, located on higher ground away from the river. Their sojourn there was brief, and Fort Howard was reoccupied two years later. The Fort was abandoned for a second time in 1841, when its garrison was sent to fight in the Seminole Wars in Florida. After a final brief period of re-occupation, Fort Howard was decomissioned in 1853.

The commanding officer’s kitchen, post school and hospital still stand, though they have been relocated to the site of Camp Smith (now Heritage Hill State Park). Though the fort is depicted on numerous maps, its archaeological remains have never been located. The site is believed to be buried under ballast and a railroad yard. Though recent archaeological testing failed to locate the fort, some building foundations and features may still be preserved below the ballast.

Fort Winnebago (1828-1853)

The Commissary warehouse at Fort
Winnebago, ca. 1897. The farm
building in the background occupies
the formerlocation of the fort
Euro-American settlement at the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers began in the late 1700’s, with the establishment of a ferry system by French traders. Two small settlements occupied by local Ho-Chunk and representatives of the French-Metis Rollette, Grignon, DuBay and LeCuyer families were established at either end of the portage trail. American traders arrived with the close of the War of 1812.

Fort Winnebago was erected in 1828, on a scenic hillside between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers near modern Portage. The fort served as the linchpin of the fur trade, commanding the crucial portage that funneled furs and material from the Mississippi drainage to the Great Lakes and on to the cities of the East Coast. The spirited Juliette Kinzie, wife of Indian Agent John Kinzie, recorded life at the fort in the 1830’s. Her semi-autobiographical book Wau-Bun captures the everyday travails of fort life as well as the rising conflict between Native and Euro-Americans.

In 1845 troops were withdrawn from the fort. It was sold at public auction in 1853, and was largely destroyed by a fire three years later. The Surgeon’s Quarters still stand today, as does the Agency House occupied by the Kinzie family on the west bank of the Fox River. Both are open to the public. Excavations conducted in 1967 by the Wisconsin Historical Society relocated portions of the fort, and demonstrated that portions of the buildings at the site remain remarkably intact. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

First and Second Fort Crawford (1816-1856)

Military buttons excavated
from Second Fort Crawford
(Image courtesy of the the
Mississippi Valley Archaeology
The first Fort Crawford (1816-1829) was built on the banks of the Mississippi River, over the ruins of Fort McKay (also known as Fort Shelby), a British post destroyed during the War of 1812. The forts served as important rendezvous points for participants in the Mississippi and Wisconsin River trade network, and as neutral ground where representatives of western tribes and eastern governments could meet. The wooden first Fort Crawford was abandoned after a series of destructive floods. Its successor, Second Fort Crawford (1829-1856), was built of cut stone and placed on higher ground.

Archaeologist Leland Cooper and WPA crews confirmed the location of First Fort Crawford in the 1930’s. A reconstructed blockhouse greets visitors to the grounds of Villa Louis today. In 1999 construction along Beaumont Road uncovered the foundations of the second fort. Recent excavations by the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center have helped reconstruct the lives of the soldiers once stationed there.

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