Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

The War of 1812

Although the fledgling United States took legal possession of Wisconsin at the close of the Revolutionary War, hardly anyone seemed to care. The new government had more important priorities than the remote Wisconsin frontier. And the few white residents here spoke little if any English, and looked not to Philadelphia and Boston for role models but to Montreal and Paris. The vast majority of Wisconsin residents were Native Americans, who needed good relations with both English and American fur companies to survive.

So when in 1812 politicians a thousand miles away began to complain about "freedom of the seas," few Wisconsin residents paid much attention. But when hostilities actually broke out and the British captured Mackinac, both Indians and frontier settlers chose up sides. As a general rule, Wisconsin's French residents and Indians usually sided with the British rather than the Americans, though many struggled to remain neutral. Support for the U.S. tended to come from the few American traders who had straggled up the Mississippi River from Illinois and St. Louis.

In 18l4 these Americans, led by William Clark (U.S. superintendant of Indian affairs at St. Louis and co-commander of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806), built Fort Shelby on St. Feriole Island at Prairie du Chien in the hope of keeping the upper Mississippi fur trade out of British hands. On July 17, with about 60 American soldiers inside the fort, the British arrived from Mackinac via Green Bay and attacked it with a force of about 150 regulars and 400 Indians. For several days the two sides half-heartedly tried to keep beyond reach of each other's guns, until the British managed to take the sole American gunboat out of action and lay siege to Fort Shelby. The Americans capitulated on August 9, the British moved in on August 20 and renamed their captured prize Fort McKay, and so ended Wisconsin's only participation in the war. The fort remained in British hands for only a few months, until December 1814, when both sides agreed to the restoration of territory captured from the other. The retreating British forces burned the fort prior to withdrawing from the Northwest in 1815.

The most important legacy of the war for Wisconsin was the American realization that the northwestern frontier and its fur trade needed protection. As a result, a series of military outposts was established in the following decades that stretched from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Three forts were constructed in Wisconsin: Fort Howard (1816-1853) at Green Bay, Fort Winnebago (1828-1853) at Portage, and Fort Crawford (1816-1856) at Prairie du Chien.

Soldiers and officials stationed at these forts administered government and protected commerce, negotiated treaties with Indian nations, and constructed Wisconsin's military roads. They included troops and officers, a "factor" in charge of fur trade activities, and Indian agents and sub-agents charged with administering treaty provisions. Fort personnel also provided social, legal, medical, and educational services to settlers living near them.

To Native Americans, the forts represented both commercial opportunities and military oppression. To the frontier French, some of whom had been here for several generations, the posts were unwelcome intrusionsthat brought military commanders and settlers hostile to French land claims and customs. To Yankees and Southerners relocating westward, the forts were cherished bastions of civilization in an unfamiliar wilderness.

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The British Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1935). 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: Ho-Chunk chief Spoon Decorah looks back over a long life.  Ho-Chunk chief Spoon Decorah looks back over a long life.
Link to article: Menominee chief Tomah declares his nation's neutrality.  Menominee chief Tomah declares his nation's neutrality.
Link to article: Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events  Indian Versions of Some Early Wisconsin Events
Link to article: A Ho-Chunk warrior cautiously acknowledges the U.S. in 1816.  A Ho-Chunk warrior cautiously acknowledges the U.S. in 1816.
Link to article: A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.  A trader relates his family history and personal adventures, 1745-1857.
Link to images: Oil portrait of Souligny, Menominee war chief who fought with Tecumseh.  Oil portrait of Souligny, Menominee war chief who fought with Tecumseh.
Link to images: Menominee Chief Oshkosh in 1858  Menominee Chief Oshkosh in 1858
Link to manuscript: A British view of the capture of Prairie du Chien in 1814.  A British view of the capture of Prairie du Chien in 1814.

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to book: Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society  Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society
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: An 1823 interview with a Sauk warrior  An 1823 interview with a Sauk warrior
Link to manuscript: William Clark informs Indian nations that the U.S. has won the war.  William Clark informs Indian nations that the U.S. has won the war.
Link to manuscript: A memoir of Tecumseh, who led Indian resistance against the U.S.  A memoir of Tecumseh, who led Indian resistance against the U.S.
Link to places: Visit Villa Louis, on the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien.  Visit Villa Louis, on the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien.

Related Links

Read about the archaeology of Wisconsin forts.
Read a history of the forts at Prairie du Chien
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
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.
Visit the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text