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1816 Prairie du Chien Document Acquired

Top section of the 1816 document, with seal, petitioning the United States government to declare Prairie du Chien residents' home and land ownership

The Society recently acquired one of its earliest and most interesting documents on the founding of Wisconsin. This is a petition by the people of Prairie du Chien sent to Congress at the close of the War of 1812. It asks the U.S. government to officially validate the titles to their homes and lands. It will interest genealogists, local historians and scholars of the fur trade since it names the early French-Canadian settlers and explains the history of their residence in one of the state's two oldest cities.

When Wisconsin Was Part of Canada

The first white settlers arrived in Prairie du Chien in the middle of the 18th century, when Wisconsin was still part of Canada. In 1763 the French ceded it to the British, and 20 years later, at the close of the American Revolution, the British ceded it to the United States. At that time, however, Prairie du Chien was on the far edge of civilization, and officials in Washington paid very little attention to it. Only after the War of 1812 ended did they begin to exert American political and military control over Wisconsin.

That's when local residents asked their new rulers to officially sanction that they owned their homes and farms by sending this petition to Washington. Congress referred it to Rep. John Scott, chair of the House Committee on Public Lands, to investigate their titles. After two long pages giving evidence about their residence and detailing their families' long history in the area since 1755, the document individually lists 54 residents; most were illiterate and signed with an X. The original document is shown in color, followed by a typed transcript, at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Origin of the Petition

The petition may have been drawn up in English by John W. Johnson, who arrived in Prairie du Chien during the summer of 1816 as the government agent in charge of the fur trade, under the new "factory system." The only other educated English speaker in the town was James H. Lockwood (1793-1857), who also arrived in Prairie du Chien in the summer of 1816 as a fur trader. Lockwood's memoir of what the village was like at the time is online in volume two of Wisconsin Historical Collections, beginning on page 112.

In response to the petition (and others like it), Congress hired a surveyor named Isaac Lee to come out to the frontier and officially determine the land titles and property boundaries. Lee visited Prairie du Chien and Green Bay in 1820, interviewed residents, and drew two maps showing the house lots and property lines. We have put both maps online: Prairie du Chien and Green Bay. You can zoom in on the Prairie du Chien map to read individual names of the people who signed the petition.

The Document's Provenance

This document descended to the grandson of Rep. Scott, who gave it in 1919 to M.J. Dyrud of Prairie du Chien. His descendant, Martinus Dyrud, of Honolulu, Hawaii, recently contacted the Society to ensure the original manuscript's preservation for posterity.

You can see more documents from early Wisconsin at Turning Points in Wisconsin History, and more than 300 historic pictures related to Prairie du Chien at Wisconsin Historical Images.

:: Posted November 15, 2010

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