Territorial Forts of Wisconsin
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
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
Archaeologists uncover the
foundations of Second Fort
Crawford during reconstruction
of Beaumont Street
(Image courtesy of the Mississippi
Valley Archaeology Center).
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
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)
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.
Fort Howard, ca. 1851
(WHS-Archives WHi[X3] 1894).
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
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)
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.
The Commissary warehouse at Fort
Winnebago, ca. 1897. The farm
building in the background occupies
the formerlocation of the fort
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
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)
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.
Military buttons excavated
from Second Fort Crawford
(Image courtesy of the the
Mississippi Valley Archaeology
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.