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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison's Fur Traders

The first white residents of Madison were not the pioneers who came to build the capitol in 1837 but rather three fur traders who established posts about 1830. These were Wallace Rowan, who built a cabin where Gov. Nelson State Park is located on Lake Mendota; Olivier Ammel, who erected a temporary shanty, half brush and half canvas, on Johnson St. near James Madison Park; and Michel St. Cyr, who took over Rowan's site in 1833.

Rowan came up from Kentucky during the lead mining boom of the 1820s, but preferred trading for furs to digging for lead. Brigham and Davis, who had passed around Lake Mendota's western shore in 1829, made no mention of him, but he was there by the time the Black Hawk War broke out in the spring of 1832. In May of that year 5,000 Ho-Chunk assembled near his cabin for a council, and promised Col. Henry Dodge that they would remain neutral. As the war came closer that summer, Rowan took refuge at Fort Winnebago, in Portage, and the following year moved across the isthmus to Lake Monona. He bought up most of what we know today as Winnequah in order to have better access to the Rock River, the route to two Indian villages and his suppliers in Galena. Rev. Cutting Marsh visited him in Sept. 1834, finding that "everything both in the house and around were remarkable for filth and sluttishness." Once permanent buildings began to be erected in Madison, Rowan apparently decided the place was becoming too civilized for his taste and left to become the first white settler of Poynette, in Columbia County. He died at Baraboo in 1846.

Olivier Ammel -- who also appears variously as Louis or Oliver Armell, Emmell, Ammelle, and Hamel -- was born about 1798 in Canada and came to Wisconsin in 1821. He married a Ho-Chunk woman, and was with the tribe in 1829 at the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (depicted in James O. Lewis's Aboriginal Portfolio). When the Black Hawk War broke out, Col. Henry Dodge recruited him as a scout and a spy for the U.S., and he helped keep the Ho-Chunk from supporting the Sauk. Ammel "very frequently painted himelf as an Indian, assumed their garb, and reconnoitred the County to ascertain their position." Dodge later called him "an active efficient man well acquainted with Indian character and entirely trustworthy."

After the war, in the fall of 1832, he established his trading post where downtown Madison now stands. Ammel, like most traders of the time, operated not just a trading post but also a tavern of sorts, since alcohol was one of the prime goods exchanged with Indians for furs. In October 1832 Capt. Gideon Low had to come down from Fort Winnebago with two soldiers to pick up some deserters who'd run off from the fort. One of them later recalled that they found their AWOL comrades at Ammel's place, too drunk to run any further or to put up any resistance. On the slopes that we know today as the Capitol Square and Mansion Hill they found 500 Ho-Chunk Indians also gathered.

Ammel remained in Madison through the 1830s, possibly living at a large Ho-Chunk village by the southeast corner of Lake Monona, near the modern intersection of highways 18 and 51. At the end of the decade, contemporaries testified that he had been "extremely liberal to the Indians, and to have rendered them more services than perhaps any other person in his section of the county." When white authories drove the Ho-Chunk out of the Madison area as the city developed, Ammel went along. He was with them in Minnesota in 1850 and ultimately died on their reservation in Nebraska in the 1870s.

Michel St. Cyr was born about 1811 to a Prairie du Chien trader and his Ho-Chunk wife. He succeeded Rowan as a trader on the north shore of Lake Mendota in 1833, and his stock in trade was alcohol and tobacco, which he exchanged for furs. Since his log cabin -- which measured about 12' x 12' and had a dirt floor -- was the only permanent shelter in the vicinity, travelers between Fort Winnebago and the lead region usually stopped at his place. He raised corn, oats, potatoes, and a few vegetables, and provided such hospitality as he could to the occasional visitor. Alexander Pratt stopped at St. Cyr's while making a trip across the region in February of 1837, and left the following description:

"The next morning we crossed Fourth Lake, a distance of about four miles, where we saw a small log cabin, which was the first building of the kind we had seen since leaving Fort Atkinson. We knocked at the door, but all was silent. We were both cold and hungry, and the sight of a cabin was some relief. We did not wait for ceremony, but bolted in, where we found a squaw and some four or five papooses. We spoke to her in the Pottawatamie language, but she made no reply. We were soon satisfied that she did not understand us. We then made all the signs that our Indian education or ingenuity would admit of, to show her that we were hungry; but all in vain. We expected that her husband would soon come in and kick us out of doors, without waiting for an explanation, and were at a loss what to do. A white man, however, soon came in, spoke to us in good English, and seemed glad to see us. He informed us that he was a Canadian, that the squaw was his wife, and that the children were also his. The squaw belonged to the Winnebago tribe, and spoke a different language from the other Indians in the vicinity. He had been an Indian trader there for years. The lands which he had cultivated had been sold without his knowledge; for, in fact, he took no interest in anything except trading in furs, etc. His wife on being made acquainted with our wants flew around and prepared for us a supper. It was a kind of pot-pie, which we relished very well. After finishing our meal, we inquired what kind of meat we had eaten, and were informed that it was musk-rat. We remained there till morning, and then left for the Blue Mounds."

Such was the state of society in Madison at the time it became a candidate for territorial capital. St. Cyr, like Ammel and Rowan, left the area as it began to fill up. He had carelessly sold the title to his land for $100 when talk of a state capital at the Four Lakes was first floated, and in 1838 he moved further west to Minnesota, and died among the Ho-Chunk in Iowa in 1864.

[Sources: Daniel Durrie's History of Madison (published in 1874), Wisconsin Historical Collections, volumes 4, 6, 7, and 10, and Linda Waggoner's "Neither White Men Nor Indians": Affidavits from the Winnebago Mixed-Blood Claim Commissions... (2002)]

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on March 28, 2006

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