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Elizabeth and Henry Baird

WHI 27578 and 5210

Elizabeth Baird (1810-1890) and her husband Henry (1800-1875) typified prominent white settlers who inhabited 19th-century Wisconsin. Elizabeth was the daughter of a British fur trader in Prairie du Chien and a French-Ottawa mother. She grew up at Mackinac, where she moved easily among both Indian and white residents. One of her teachers was an Irish immigrant named Henry Baird. He was born in Dublin but came to Pennsylvania as a child, studied law and went to Mackinac to teach school. After visiting Green Bay in June 1821, he decided to start life on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan where "civilization" consisted of two small hamlets — Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. Baird and his favorite pupil married, and in September 1824, at the age of 14, Elizabeth Baird set up house in the primitive trading post of Green Bay. Her husband became the first practicing attorney in Wisconsin.

Elizabeth's detailed knowledge of the fur trade, her Indian ancestry and connections, and her ability to interpret for French clients enabled her to make a major contribution to the family's success. Despite her youth and inexperience, Elizabeth's home soon became the center of Green Bay social life. Henry's practice involved much work on Indian affairs, in which he was often critical of government actions. He represented the Ho-Chunk and Menominee in 1830 land transactions, was quartermaster general in the Black Hawk War, and served as secretary to the U.S. negotiator at treaties in 1836, 1838 and 1848. In 1836 he presided over the territorial government's first meeting at Belmont, and was later a delegate to the first constitutional convention of 1846. In 1853 he ran unsuccessfully for governor, and during the Civil War served two terms as mayor of Green Bay. In 1871 Henry and Elizabeth jointly took charge of relief work for victims of the catastrophic Peshtigo Fire.

Connected to the key leaders of the territorial period by family ties, marriage, business interests and politics, the Bairds helped create nearly all the social institutions that gave Wisconsin its identity before the Civil War. They helped shift millions of acres of land from Indian to government ownership. They watched its towns grow from frontier backwaters to major cities teeming with new immigrants. They saw its landscape transformed from unbroken miles of prairie to thousands of bustling farms. Their two memoirs of these events, Elizabeth's and Henry's, show Wisconsin in its formative years.

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