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Colonialism Transforms Indian Life

European microbes probably reached Wisconsin's Indians before European explorers. In the fifty years following Hernando de Soto's invasion of the lower Mississippi in 1539-1540, disease wiped out 90 percent of Indian villages in the middle Mississippi Valley - villages with whom Wisconsin's Oneota culture had traded for centuries. Some archaeologists therefore think it likely that epidemics of measles or smallpox may have swept through native communities here decades before Nicolet stepped ashore at Red Banks.

When the French arrived and began living in Indian villages, diseases once again broke out. "Maladies wrought among them more devastation than even war did," wrote contemporary French visitor Bacqueville de la Potherie, "and exhalations from the rotting corpses caused great mortality."

European contact also caused displacement and disruption as eastern tribes emigrated into Wisconsin between 1640 and 1680. During those years the Iroquois invaded neighboring nations in Michigan and Ontario, driving the Sauk, Meskwaki (Fox), Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Ottawa, and other tribes into the land between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. The ensuing competition for food and furs prompted almost a century of intertribal warfare among these nations and the already-present Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sioux, and Ojibwe. To make matters worse, until 1763 the English were eager to divert Indian hunters away from the traders in Green Bay, Michilimackinac, or Detroit, and the Meskwaki (Fox) often supported these efforts.

The result was clandestine attacks, retribution, open warfare, and a tangle of shifting alliances. From 1700 to 1730 the Meskwaki (Fox) and the Mascouten were in open rebellion against the French, who showed little mercy in suppressing their adversaries. In 1712, for example, the French killed nearly 1,500 members of these tribes during the siege of Detroit. The French also mounted several military expeditions against the tribes, including the major battle at Little Lake Butte des Morts in 1716 (near present-day Neenah), and sent their most important leaders into slavery in French colonies in the Caribbean. By 1750, the remnants of the Meskwaki (Fox) had taken refuge in a village near the mouth of the Rock River, a few miles from the Mississippi.

Finally, the need for European goods, especially guns and ammunition, made Wisconsin Indians dependent upon French traders. Father Louis Hennepin noted in 1680 that Indians he visited in the upper Mississippi region were using clay pots, stone tools, and bows and arrows; ten years later trader Nicolas Perrot, traveling in the same area, found that these had been entirely replaced by brass kettles, iron axes, and firearms.

Although such rapid transformation was not universal, and Indian communities maintained their traditional activities and beliefs, they increasingly used imported technology to carry out the tasks of daily life. By the early eighteenth century, Wisconsin's Indians tended their cornfields with hoes of iron instead of stone or bone, they dressed in cloth garments more often than deer skins, they lit fires with steel flints, their jewelry was made of silver, bronze, and copper shipped from France, and they pursued game with firearms rather than with bows and arrows.

All these basic necessities of life could be had only from the French, and in return for them the traders demanded furs. As game grew scarcer, the Indians were forced to range farther and farther. At the command of French officials, many abandoned their villages and clustered around the fur-trading posts, which were established at centers of influence such as Green Bay, Chequamegon (Madeline Island), or Michilimackinac. Concentrating in such large communities exposed them to European diseases: epidemics were reported among large groups of Indians who came together to trade in 1666, 1676, 1683, 1701, 1757, 1762, and 1783.

In 1760, after nearly a decade of war, the English finally managed to seize control of New France and its fur trade. The resulting chaos helped the Ottawa chief Pontiac unite tribes from Kentucky to Wisconsin in a campaign to drive all white governments back to the Atlantic. English troops, newly arrived in Green Bay, Detroit, Mackinaw, and other western posts, were surrounded by thousands of Pontiac's warriors and captured or killed. Most Wisconsin tribes remained neutral, though the Wisconsin Ojibwe backed Pontiac and engineered the successful sneak attack on Fort Mackinaw. The consequences of a century of disease, warfare, and colonialism are clear. By the mid eighteenth century, several tribes -- such as the once-powerful Ho-Chunk, Mascouten, and Meskwaki (Fox) -- had been reduced to tiny fractions of their precontact size and influence. Among nearly all the Indian societies in Wisconsin, work life, gender roles, religious practices, daily tasks, clothing, and social structure had all changed dramatically with the arrival of the Europeans. Most tribes were transformed from settled agricultural communities who engaged in seasonal hunting on the side, to full-time trappers and hunters who wandered far and wide to harvest beaver and other pelts wherever they could found.

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Menominee Vocabulary, 1893  Menominee Vocabulary, 1893
Link to article: An 1818 War Department report describes early U.S. fur trade policies.  An 1818 War Department report describes early U.S. fur trade policies.
Link to article: The Ho-Chunk recall 18th-century battles with the Meskwaki (Fox).  The Ho-Chunk recall 18th-century battles with the Meskwaki (Fox).
Link to article: A French official summarizes Wisconsin tribes in 1736  A French official summarizes Wisconsin tribes in 1736
Link to article: The Meskwaki (Fox) and Mascouten resist the French in 1712.  The Meskwaki (Fox) and Mascouten resist the French in 1712.
Link to article: The governor of New France surrenders to the English in 1760.  The governor of New France surrenders to the English in 1760.
Link to article: Speeches of Pontiac (1763) and Souligny (1848) against white incursions.  Speeches of Pontiac (1763) and Souligny (1848) against white incursions.
Link to article: Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events  Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events
Link to article: The diary of the British commander in Wisconsin during Pontiac's war in 1763.  The diary of the British commander in Wisconsin during Pontiac's war in 1763.
Link to book: Smallpox decimates the Ojibwe in the 1770's  Smallpox decimates the Ojibwe in the 1770's
Link to book: Sex, drinking, and moral corruption on the Wisconsin frontier in 1702.  Sex, drinking, and moral corruption on the Wisconsin frontier in 1702.
Link to book: A French priest writes home in 1721 about Indians, beavers, and fur.  A French priest writes home in 1721 about Indians, beavers, and fur.
Link to book: Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958  Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958
Link to book: Fr. Baraga's 1853 Ojibwe Dictionary  Fr. Baraga's 1853 Ojibwe Dictionary
Link to book: Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900  Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900
Link to images: View of Charles de Langlade's warriors at Braddock's defeat in 1755.  View of Charles de Langlade's warriors at Braddock's defeat in 1755.
Link to manuscript: Brief Potawatomi Language Vocabularies, 1920-1932.  Brief Potawatomi Language Vocabularies, 1920-1932.
Link to manuscript: Alfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870s  Alfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870s
Link to manuscript: A Long Ho-Chunk Vocabulary, 1880  A Long Ho-Chunk Vocabulary, 1880
Link to map: A popular French map of the Great Lakes in 1757.  A popular French map of the Great Lakes in 1757.
Link to map: An English view of No. America in 1754  An English view of No. America in 1754
Link to places: Madeline Island Historical Museum  Madeline Island Historical Museum

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to book: A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854  A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854
Link to book: Baron Lahontan describes his visit to Wisconsin in 1688.  Baron Lahontan describes his visit to Wisconsin in 1688.
Link to book: Jonathan Carver crosses Wisconsin in the 1760's  Jonathan Carver crosses Wisconsin in the 1760's
Link to book: Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society  Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society
Link to book: An electronic text of the complete Jesuit Relations, at Creighton University.  An electronic text of the complete Jesuit Relations, at Creighton University.
Link to book: All of Charlevoix's letters from North America, 1721-1722.  All of Charlevoix's letters from North America, 1721-1722.

Related Links

Visit our archaeology Web pages
Visit the Web site of the Menominee Indian Tribe
Visit the Web site of the Ho-chunk Nation
Visit the Web site of the Sac and Fox Nation
Discover the standard book about Wisconsin Indians, by Patty Loew
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
View a Menominee timeline of epidemics
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
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