The War of 1812 in Wisconsin: The Battle for Prairie du Chien

By Mary Elise Antoine

Hardcover: $28.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-738-9

240 pages, 39 b&w illustrations, 6 x 9 E-book edition also available

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Winner: Book Award of Merit 2017! -- Wisconsin Historical Society

The War of 1812 was more than just the bullet-pointed battles most Americans learned about in textbooks--more than only the Battle for New Orleans, the burning of Washington, DC, and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In The War of 1812 in Wisconsin, author Mary Elise Antoine brings a little-known, strategic, corner of the war's history to life. She details the story of a years'-long fight for control of the Northern Mississippi and the "western country," a struggle that culminated in a three-day siege of the area's lynchpin fur trade center in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in July of 1814.

Prairie du Chien, located just above the mouth of the Wisconsin River, was the key to trade on the upper Mississippi. Whoever controlled the prairie commanded the immense territory inhabited by thousands of American Indians -- and the fur they traded. When war broke out between the United States and Great Britain in 1812, British and Americans fought to maintain the ever-shifting alliance of the tribes.

The siege inserted pre-territorial Wisconsin into the War of 1812 directly, becoming a part of life for frontiersmen and Native Americans living in the area after the British won the siege and maintained the fort and controlled the trade along northwestern water routes until news of the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the war finally reached the Northwest Territories in 1815. This war story also shares the stories of the people, Euro-American and Native, who lived in pre-territorial Wisconsin and how the contest for control of the region affected their lives and livelihoods. After all, the outcomes of the War of 1812 determined what Manifest Destiny would mean to all who called these lands home.

Discover more Prairie du Chien history in Mary Elise Antione's Society Press book Frenchtown Chronicles of Prairie du Chien.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Mary Elise Antoine is the president of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society and former curator at Villa Louis. She has written numerous articles and books on Prairie du Chien, including two volumes with Arcadia Publishing. She is co-editor, with Lisa Murphy, of Wisconsin Historical Society Press's Frenchtown Chronicles of Prairie du Chien: History and Folklore from Wisconsin's Frontier, which debuts in Fall 2016. She also lives in a French-Candian home that dates from the early 19th century, which she helped to restore. She has three children, Elise, Nicholas and Matthew (who is a World Cup skeleton rider and one of the Olympic athletes featured in the Society Press book Going for Wisconsin Gold.

Interview with Mary Elise Antoine

Wisconsin Historical Society: Why did you decide to write "The War of 1812 in Wisconsin?"

Like the decision to write the book, my answer is "a process." I was born and raised in Prairie du Chien. Living with my grandmother, I grew up with a sense of history. She At the age of sixteen, I became a guide at the Villa Louis (a Wisconsin Historical Society site) and worked there for seven seasons. We told visitors that Prairie du Chien was settled by “the French” and was the second oldest city in Wisconsin. (Not entirely true. Prairie is the second oldest permanent settlement in Wisconsin.) But that is about as far as knowledge of the early history of Prairie du Chien went. The story told at the Villa was of Hercules L. Dousman’s fur trade fortune and the Villa Louis estate. After earning a Masters degree in History Museum Studies. When I graduated, I settled in New York's Mohawk Valley. Like the Mississippi Valley, it is rich in early Indian and white contact history. This was the homeland of the Iroquois, and white settlement began in the late 1600s. I became fascinated with the people, stories, and history of American history prior to 1840. What drew me was the contact that occurred between different cultures -- Iroquois, Dutch, Palatine German, French, British, and then American. How some cultures met in friendship and trade, adapting and how others found themselves to be "superior" and the other cultures "inferior" because they were different.

After I returned to Prairie du Chien and the Villa Louis (this time as Curator of Collections and Research), I began in-depth research on the Dousman family. Yet, my interest in early history never waned. Two French-Canadian log houses had been "discovered," not far from the Villa Louis, and I began to research them and their occupants. That led me to the area's late 18th and early 19th century history. On the site was a mural depicting the "Battle of Prairie du Chien" in 1814 and a marker stating that this battle occurred on the grounds of what became the site of the first Fort Crawford and then the Dousman estate. This, combined with documents that were in the Villa collection, led me to greater research about the battle of Prairie du Chien that eventually became the basis for the event held each July at the Villa Louis interpreting the battle. Even after I left the Villa Louis to teach, I never stopped researching the early history of Prairie du Chien, including the settlement by French-speaking people, the interaction of the French-Canadians and the British-Canadians with the Indian nations of the western Great Lakes-upper Mississippi through the fur trade and marriage.

As the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 approached in 2012, I pulled out my files on the battle and realized that the battle of Prairie du Chien of July 1814 was part of a greater story for the control of the upper Mississippi region. So, I expanded my thesis into this book, which looks at the battle for the control of Prairie du Chien that culminated in the War of 1812.

WHS Press: What one part of the story in particular seems the most pivotal or historically significant?

The end of the war. Throughout the conflict the British in Canadian assured the Indian nations that supported them that they would do all to ensure the tribes retained their land and sovereignty. The first attempt by the United States and Great Britain to conclude a peace treaty failed because of Britain's insistence on a guarantee for the Indian nations. When the Treaty of Ghent is agreed upon at the end of 1814, there is an article concerning the Indians and their status, but British basically abandoned the tribes to the whim of the United States.

WHS Press: What do hope readers will learn from the Battle of Prairie du Chien story?

When we first began interpreting the battle at the Villa Louis, people were surprised to learn that the residents of Prairie du Chien and La Baye (Green Bay) sided with the British. The response was usually, "But they were Americans!" The territory became part of the United States in 1783, but the residents of it had had little contact with representatives of U.S. government. Territorial governors and military officials had little regard for the residents, and their daily contacts were in the fur trade with Canadian (British) traders and the Indians. Sometimes the teaching of American history at the grade school and high school level and its promulgation in the media is too simplistic. Nothing is good or bad, black or white. I would hope that readers learn to look below the surface of events that are given a name: the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, fur trade. I hope that they look at all sides and do not make unilateral judgments.

WHS Press: What do you find most fascinating about the War of 1812? 

It is almost as if two wars were being fought -- one in the eastern United States and eastern Great Lakes, and one in the Northwest Territory and western Great Lakes. In the east, the battles were between regular British forces (army and navy) and regular United States forces (army and navy). In the west, all the Indian nations were involved. Most fought as allies of and with the British forces. The British forces were mostly comprised of French and British Canadians, many residents of the western Northwest Territory as well as some professional soldiers. They were fighting in American territory to protect their homes and livelihood from Americans.

WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing this book?

Before I returned to Wisconsin, I was director of "Fort Johnson" in the Mohawk Valley, NY. Built in 1749, Fort Johnson was the home of Sir William Johnson, who was the northern superintendent of Indian affairs for Great Britain. He dealt with Indian tribes as far west as Detroit and Mackinac Island. During the American Revolution, the Johnson family supported Great Britain. They were part of the thousands of Loyalists who had to escape to Canada and lost their homes and all of their possessions. As I did my research, I was fascinated to learn just how closely connected many of the people involved in the battle for Prairie du Chien were connected to the Johnson family. Their fathers had either been tenants on Johnson land in upstate New York or had fought with Loyalist forces in the Revolution. Sire John Johnson like his father William was superintendent of Indian affairs for Great Britain and had sent Robert Dickson to the western Great Lakes and upper Mississippi to secure Indian support during the War of 1812. Little did I know when working at Fort Johnson that I would be researching the continuation of the Johnsons story in Wisconsin. There truly is less than six degrees of separation, and this was across two centuries.

WHS Press: What are the ways in which this story is a uniquely Wisconsin story? In what ways does it tell a national story?

The battle itself occurred in what is now Wisconsin. On the British side, almost all of the participants were residents of what became the State of Wisconsin -- people of French-Canadian heritage, British-Canadian heritage, metis, and Indian heritage.

However, the battle is part of the national story. After the American Revolution, the British did not completely leave United States territory. They did not turn over Great Lakes forts to the United States until 1796 and were active in the fur trade with the Indians and other residents of the western part of the Northwest Territory. The British presence in the Northwest was one of the reasons the United States declared war on Great Britain in July 1812. By the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, the British withdrew from the Northwest Territory and ended support of the tribes. The United States now had possession, and the Indian tribes lost any help they may have had in keeping Americans from taking their land. In many ways, The War of 1812 was the beginning of the end for dealing with Indians as an equal.

WHS Press: Were there any parts of the story not featured in the book that you wish you could have included? 

I would have liked to have included more about the people involved in the events. Too often the people are just names and titles or groupings – Lt. Joseph Perkins, United States commander of Fort Shelby, Lt. Col. William McKay, Commander British expedition, Wabasha, the residents of Prairie du Chien, the Winnebago. Their lives, like all humans, were complicated. There were reasons, some very personal, for the positions they held and the beliefs they supported.

WHS Press: How was writing this book a personal experience? 

I was born and raised in Prairie du Chien and am part of the fifth generation of my family to make Prairie du Chien a home. I grew up with my grandmother. She told me many stories about Prairie and the people who lived here. Regrettably, some I have forgotten. But she instilled in me an interest in history. As the age of sixteen, at the instigation of Florence Bittner, the long-time curator of the Villa Louis, I started working as a tour guide at the site. After living in upstate New York, I came to realize that Prairie du Chien and the upper Mississippi had a rich mix of cultures and early history with which no one was doing anything. When I returned to Prairie du Chien, I began to research the people and events prior to 1848. I found it fascinating and so unique to this area. I wanted to share it and hope that others find it as wonderful as I do.

WHS Press: What is your favorite historical detail from the book? 

When the United States forces came to Prairie du Chien, some were 60-day recruits. When the 60 days were up, they left. During the battle, soldiers on the gunboat cut the cable of the boat when fired upon by the British cannon and left the soldiers in Fort Shelby without a means to supply themselves with food and ammunition. What sunshine soldiers! (This sort of hints at my position.)