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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Black Fur Traders in 18th-c. Wisconsin


African Americans were living in New France before Jean Nicolet set foot in Wisconsin. The Jesuit Relations describe a black child under the care of a Quebec priest in 1631 and 1632, and there are several references to French officers or traders having black “servants” in their employ throughout the 18th century. The earliest record of African Americans in Wisconsin comes from a 1725 speech by a chief of the Illinois Indians. In it, he charged that his enemies, the Fox Indians (who were then occupying the river that bears their name) had massacred four Frenchmen and “a negro belonging to Monsieur de Boisbriant,” celebrating the victory under the eyes of French officials at Green Bay. Not all 18th-c. African Americans in Wisconsin were slaves, however. About 1791, two free black traders opened a post at Marinette, near the mouth of the Menominee River. According to Augustin Grignon, who lived in the area at the time, “Two negro traders from Mackinaw, about the year 1791 or '92, established a trading-house at the mouth of the Menominee River, where Marinette now is, Te-pak-e-ne-nee’s old village, where St. Germain was many years previously killed. Here the negroes, by some slight-of-hand performances, impressed the Indians with the belief that they were medicine-men, and held communications with the spirit world. Some of the Indian children dying at this time, the Indians charged the cause upon the negro necromancers; and one Menominee and several Chippewas attacked the negroes in their house, killed one, and shot the other as he was endeavoring to escape from the window. Three of the murderers were sent to Mackinaw, and thence to Montreal, and kept in confinement three years, and then returned to their people.” Find more Wisconsin black history on our page at www.wisconsinhistory.org/blackhistory/
:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 9, 2005
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