Allamakee co. IAGenWeb

Chapter 1


Past & Present of Allamakee County
, 1913

Early Dawn

The “dawn of history’ appeared, for what is now Allamakee county, and indeed for all of Iowa, when Marquette and his companions floated from the Wisconsin into the broad expanse of the Mississippi river, on the 17th of June, 1673, two hundred and forty years ago. This is true even if it be admitted, as seems now to be fairly well established, that two French fur-hunters had preceded them down the Wisconsin by fourteen years or more. Nothing appears to have come of their explorations until followed up by those of others, more responsible, and under authority that might utilize their discoveries, for the settlement and civilization of the regions thus opened up.

However, this was but the first faint glimmering of the dawn. Although other fur-traders and the Jesuit missionaries soon began to follow the course pointed out by Radisson and Marquette, a century elapsed before a white mane trod the soil of Allamakee, so far as any known record shows; and another half century before any sign of permanent occupation. Three or four generations of the native occupants enjoyed undisturbed the hunt and other rude pleasures of their wild life, except as these were from time to time exchanged for the more savage joys of the warpath, in struggle with adjacent tribes for the possession of choice hunting grounds.

There can be no doubt that the explorers mentioned were the first Europeans to look upon the rocks and trees of Allamakee, as the majestic bluffs along our southern shore-line were well within their range of vision as they emerged from the mouth of the Wisconsin river. We were situated at the earliest gateway to the Northwest; but partly because of our rugged and forbidding “coast-line,” and partly because the natural routes of travel were along the larger rivers, the first explorers passed us by both to the north and south. As the tide of exploration was thus directed to our very doors as it were, it will be of interest to look back and trace the progress of these explorations which developed the Wisconsin river route as the most natural channel of emigration to the regions west of the upper Mississippi, as the Ohio river was to the regions further south, and Lake Superior to those of the far north.

In 1608 Samuel de Champlain, who was called the father of New France, made a permanent settlement at Quebec. In 1615 he had pushed his explorations to the banks of Lake Huron, and missionary stations were soon after established among the Indians of that name.

The first European to enter the upper Mississippi valley appears to have been Jean Nicolet, an explorer and interpreter for the merchants of Quebec, who visited Green Bay in 1634-35, and there met the Winnebago and Mascoutin, and made a treaty with them in the name of France, in an assembly of four of five thousand. He related his discoveries to the Jesuit priests, and from the translations of their writings these facts have but recently been established. It has been inferred by some that he visited the Mississippi river; but after a careful study it has been established that he went no further than up the Fox river to the Wisconsin portage.* It is interesting to note that this first established route of Nicolet, by way of Green Bay, and the Fox and
Wisconsin rivers, continued for more than two hundred years to be a main path of exploration, travel, and commerce, to the West and Upper Louisiana.

The zealous Jesuits, frequently accompanying the licensed traders, were the reporters of what they discovered, though they were not usually the first to visit the new regions. In 1641 Fathers Jogues and Rambault arrived at the outlet of Lake Superior, the falls of St. Mary (Sault Ste. Marie). Where they met a band of Pottawottomi fleeing from the Dakotas, “who lived to the west of the falls about eighteen days’ journey.” Two adventurous French traders, by name Radisson and Chouart, the latter often called
Groseilliers, passed a year or two among these warlike Dakotas, or Naudowessi (Sioux), in 1654-55, but their place of staying is not clearly established, the best authorities locating it at the Isle Pelee, or Prairie Island, (at or near the head of Lake Pepin). Winchell says” “if we are to accept the implication of Radisson himself, he had apparently been on the Mississippi and had seen the country far toward the mouth. There is great difficulty however in accepting this assumed trip down the Mississippi, and some authorities
have rejected it as fictitious. If we consider, however, that Radisson relates what was ‘told’ him by some people that he met, we may perhaps attribute some of his discrepancies to his imperfect manner of narration.” But it appears probable that these explorers sailed down the Wisconsin and discovered the Mississippi in 1655 (or 1659), and that they ascended the latter river to Prairie Island, where they spent about a year, and returned by the same route.

Keyes says: “The first white men actually to view the ‘Great Water’ and to set foot upon what is not Iowa soil appear to have been Pierre Radissson and Medard Groseilliers. In the spring of 1659 they determined to visit the Mascoutins, or Fire Nation, and passing up Fox river crossed the portage to the Wisconsin, and sailed on down into a greater river. Here are Radisson’s own words” ‘We went into ye great river that divides
itselfe in 2, where the hurrons with some Ottonake & the wild men that had wars with them had retired. There is not great difference in their language as we we are told, against those of the forked river. It is so called because it has 2 branches, the one towards the west, the other toward the south, wch we believe runs towards Mexico.’” There is no doubt that Radisson had his associate entered the Mississippi river and gazed out upon the high bluffs of Iowa land at about where McGregor now stands. Thwaites is of the opinion that the west branch of the forked river, as Radisson calls the Mississippi, may have been the Iowa river. Richman, in his sketch of “Mascoutin, a Reminiscence of the Nation of Fire,” considers it the Upper Iowa river. There appear to be good reasons for believing it was really the Missouri river. Radisson’s information on this point was manifestly hearsay.

The news of the great river conveyed to Canada by Nicolet and Radisson created great enthusiasm, both among the traders and the missionaries who ever followed closely upon their heels in their zeal for new fields of labor. An expedition was fitted out from Montreal in the spring of 1660, but was attacked by the Iroquois and dispersed with some loss of life.

Not until 1665 was further progress made in western exploration, when Father Pierre Claude Allouez coasted along the south shore of Lake Superior to La Pointe, on Chequamegon bay, where he established the mission of the Holy Ghost, near the present Ashland, Wisconsin. Here he wrote about the Dakotas, who dwelt to the west, toward the great river called Messipi, and this appears to be the first mention in literature of the name “Mississippi.” In 1669 the renowned Marquette succeeded Father Allouez, who about this time established the mission of St. Francis Xavier on the west shore of Green Bay, and soon after returned to Sault Ste. Marie, although he “longed to visit the Sioux country and see the great water the Indians called the Missi Sepe.”

In 1665 also, Nicolas Perrot left the east and spent several months with the Pottawottomies around Green Bay. In the spring of 1666 he entered the Fox river and visited the Outagamies, or Foxes, who dwelt above Lake Winnebago.

Perrot was a very active agent for the French crown throughout the northern region then known, and was the authority who summoned the chiefs from fourteen tribes to Sault Ste. Marie in 1671 to celebrate the formal taking possession of all the country along the lakes and “southward to the sea,” by the erection and ceremony of consecration of a large cedar cross. Alongside of the cross a cedar column was also erected, marked with the lilies of the Bourbons. Thus, says Bancroft, “were the authority and the faith of France uplifted in the presence of the ancient races of America, in the hear of our continent. Yet this daring ambition of the servants of a military monarch was doomed to leave no abiding monument – this echo of the middle age to die away.” Allouez and Joliet were among the fifteen Frenchmen present on this occasion.

It was now well known that a great river to the west ran southwardly, but it was not known whether it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico or, as they hoped, into waters leading to China. Soon after this, Father Jaques Marquette and Louis Joliet, the latter as agent for the French government, were given authority to make an expedition for the purpose of solving this question.

Starting from St. Ignace, a mission station at the straits of Mackinaw, on the 13th of May, 1673, these two distinguished men, with five boatmen and two birch-bark canoes, coursed along the north shore of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, and found there a welcome at the mission of St. Francis Xavier established by Father Allouez four years before. Continuing their journey, they paddled up the Fox river to the portage, launched their canoes in the waters of the Wisconsin, and on the 17th of June, 1673, emerged from that river upon the broad bosom of the Missi (great) Sepe (river, or water), “with a joy I cannot evpress,” writes the devout Marquette in his journal. Marquette named it “Conception River,” because of the day on which it was discovered, and it appears by that name on a map which he drew after returning from the expedition, printed in some of the earlier histories, and the original of which is said to be still preserved in St. Mary’s College at
Montreal. He says, “the river is narrow at the mouth of the Wisconsin, and the current slow and gentle; on the right is a considerable chain of very high mountains. It is in many places studded with islands.” He found “ten fathoms of water; its breadth is very unequal, sometimes three-quarters of a league and sometimes narrows to three-arpents or two hundred and twenty yards.”

They did not stop here, but proceeded on their journey south. As they passed down the river and the banks became less precipitous the country appeared to them more promising, and occasional herds of buffalo were seen grazing on the prairies. It is to be presumed that they made their camp on the western bank at times, but no record of any stop or landing is made until after eight days they approached the extreme lower corner of the state, where they first saw Indians, and stopped for a few days in a village of the Illinois tribe, who at that time occupied most of the present Iowa.

Continuing their journey, at a point near the present city of Alton, Illinois, they were startled by the sight of a painting of a monstrosity in human form, high up on the face of a cliff, which was attributed by Marquette to the work of the evil one himself, and he would have destroyed the sacrilegious picture could he have gained access to it. (This is mentioned here to show that there were several “painted rocks” along the course of the
upper Mississippi. This one is said to have remained until 1850 or later, when the rock was
quarried out for building purposes. – ED.)

The party proceeded on down the river arriving at the mouth of the Arkansas river in July, where the Indians they there met informed them that in ten days more they could reach the mouth of the Mississippi. They were now near, or below, the point where the unfortunate De Soto had discovered this river in 1541, one hundred and thirty-two years before. Having determined that the great river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico instead of into the Pacific ocean, on the 17th of July the voyagers set out on their return. It was a different proposition, pulling up stream, and upon arriving at the mouth of the Illinois river they gladly availed themselves of the guidance of the Indians up that stream, and the Desplaines, and portage to the Chicago river, whence they proceeded along the shore of Lake Michigan to the mission at Green Bay, where they arrived before the end of September. Marquette’s strength was exhausted and he remained here for the winter to rest. But he was thereafter an invalid, and although he once more resumed his work his death took place May 19, 1675, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The following year his bones were removed to St. Ignace and interred beneath the floor in the chapel there.

The next recorded visit of Europeans to our vicinity was that of Father Hennepin, in 1680. He was a member of the party of Cavelier La Salle who had undertaken an expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi, by way of Lake Michigan and the Illinois river, and was constructing therefore a large boat at a fort he had built at Peoria, Illinois, which, after the failure of this first attempt was named Fort Creve-Coeur. Of the four priests
in his party, it seems that Hennepin accepted the mission with no good grace, but started in an open canoe with two companions, Accan and DuGay, in the last days of February, 1680, amply provided with presents for the Indians, as well as provisions, guns and ammunitions. They fared well until the 12th of April, when, landing at a point now supposed to be at or just above Prairie du Chien, to roast a wild turkey, they were made captive by a large war party of Sioux, and taken to their homes in the region of Lake Mille Lac in northern Minnesota, reaching there in May. Here the three were adopted, each by a different chief, and so separated from each other. In the summer the Indians determined on a buffalo hunt, and Hennepin, disgusted with Indian life and the semi-captivity which had deprived him not only of his liberty but of his stock of goods brought along for presents, of which his captors had nearly despoiled him, told them that a party of
Frenchmen were to meet him at the mouth of the Wisconsin river, in the summer, with a new supply of goods and thus obtained permission to go to meet them at that point. Hennepin asserts that La Salle had promised this, but the statement is questioned, especially as Hennepin’s mendacity was later established by a book of travels he published upon his return to France.

Hennepin and his companion, DuGay, started down the river, arriving at the falls on St. Anthony’s day, in honor of which event he gave them the name which became permanent. Long before reaching the Wisconsin, however, they met a party of the Sioux who had outstripped them to that destination and found no Frenchmen there; and they returned with the Indians to the site of St. Paul, where they had heard there were five more white men awaiting them. They found them to be Daniel Greysolon DuLhut (Duluth), and four companions, who had been two years among the far-off lodges of the Sioux, and other tribes to the north, exploring under the patronage of the Canadian governor, having entered that region by the way of Lake Superior. At the approach of autumn the entire party, eight in number, started upon their return to Canada, by way of the Wisconsin river. At its mouth they found no traders and no Indians.

From this time on the visits of traders and travelers to the Mississippi by the Wisconsin river route became more frequent. In 1683 Nicholas Perrot was sent to the Iowa and Dakota Indians to establish friendly alliances; and it is supposed that it was about this time that he established Fort St. Nicholas on the Mississippi river just above the mouth of the Wisconsin and a short distance below the present city of Prairie du Chien. (Keyes, in annals of Iowa, Jan. 1912.) He also established a post on the west side of the Mississippi near the site of Wabasha, Minnesota, called Fort Perrot. And in 1685 Fort St. Antoine on the east side, at the mouth of the Chippewa river.

Salter, in his “Iowa, the First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase,” P. 30, says: “The Indian trade of the upper Mississippi centered at the mouth of the Wisconsin river, where trading posts were established, some of them on the west bank of the Mississippi. Thence traders and missionaries went up into the Sioux country or down the Mississippi, or followed a long path to the Missouri river overland, which was marked on English maps as the ‘France Route to the West.’” And at page 17: “Perrot was the first trader with the Indians upon the Mississippi and made several establishments: one among the Sioux near Lake Pepin, another near the mouth of the Wisconsin, probably in what is Clayton county, Iowa. The latter had his Christian name. It was Fort St. Nicholas. While thus engaged, Perrot was commissioned by the governor of New France, Denonville, to take formal possession of the upper Mississippi. * * * This was done on the 8th of May, 1689, at Post St. Anthony, a few miles above La Crosses. De Bois Guillot, commandant at Fort St. Nicholas,
Le Seuer, and other witnesses were present.”

In 1689 Baron La Hontan entered the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, October 23, and journeyed up the river. His accounts of his experiences, like Hennepin’s, are not regarded as fully trustworthy. In this year the French are supposed to have had a trading post near the mouth of the Wisconsin, but if so it was soon abandoned.

In the spring of 1693 Le Seuer first came down the Wisconsin to go to the country of the Sioux, where he lived at different times for seven years. There appears no record of settlers at Prairie du Chien until 1726, when one Cardinell came as a hunter and trapper and located there. The Outagamies had a good-sized town there in 1736. In 1755 the French established a military post at Prairie du Chien, and a number of families settled there. That entire region passed into the possession of the English in 1763, when this post seems to have been abandoned.

This brings us down to the time of Captain Jonathan Carver, and English officer who traveled a great deal among the Indians in the years 1766-67, and who obtained from them an immense tract of land in northern Wisconsin, extending along the Mississippi from the lower end of Lake Pepin to and including the site of St. Paul. This was shown on many of the old maps as “Carver’s Tract.” Carver died in London in 1780. His heirs gave quit-claim deeds to these lands, and the purchasers endeavored to have the claim confirmed by the United States Government, but it was finally rejected in 1823.

Captain Carver wrote a very interesting book entitled “Travels Through the Interior of North America, for more than Five Thousand Miles, by Jonathan Carver, Captain of the Provincial Troops in America,” but its publication was delayed by the British government for over ten years, he says because of the information it might convey to the Americans in that disturbed period. While some of his stories are improbable, his descriptions of the country and the natives seem to be on the whole reliable, except when speaking of the geography of the country beyond his personal observation, when the dense ignorance of those days in this respect is exhibited. He says in introduction:

“What I chiefly had in view, after gaining a knowledge of the manners, customs, languages, soil and natural productions of the different nations that inhabit the bank of the Mississippi, was to ascertain the breadth of that vast continent and facilitate the discovery of a Northwest passage, or a communication between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific ocean. But that the completion of the scheme I have the honor of first planning and attempting, will some time be effected, I have no doubt.” (!) but this is prophetic:

“To what power or authority this new world will become dependent, after it has arisen from its present uncultivated state, time alone can discover. But as the seat of empire from time immemorial had been gradually progressive toward the west, there is no doubt but that at some future period, mighty kingdoms will emerge from these wildernesses, and stately palaces and solemn temples with gilded spires reaching the skies, supplant the Indian huts, whose only decorations are the barbarous trophies of their vanquished enemies.”

And here is some information that might be “valuable to the Americans:” four great rivers take their rise within a few leagues of each other, nearly about the center of this great continent, viz,: the river Bourbon, which empties into Hudson’s Bay; the waters of the St. Lawrence; the Mississippi; and the river Oregon, or the river of the west, that falls into the Pacific ocean at the Straits of Annian.”

Captain Carver set out from Boston in June, 1766, and arrived at Fort Michillimachkinac in September, and Fort La Bay, at southern extremity of Green Bay, September 18. On the 15th he arrived at the great town of the Winnebagoes; launched his canoes in the Ouisconsin, October 8, and on the 15th entered the Mississippi. About five miles from the junction of the rivers he observed the ruins of a large town, evidently the old town of the “Ottigamies,” before mentioned, and says:

“This people, soon after their removal, built a town on the bank of the Mississippi, near the mouth of the Ouisconsin, at a place called by the French, La Prairies les Chiens, which signifies the Dog Plains; it is a large town and contains about three hundred families; the houses are well built after the Indian manner, and pleasantly situated on a very rich soil, from which they raise every necessary of life in great abundance. I saw here many horses of good size and shape. This town is the great mart where all the adjacent tribes, and even those who inhabit the most remote branches of the Mississippi, annually assemble about the latter end of May, bringing with them their furs to dispose of to the traders.

“The Mississippi at the entrance of the Ouisconsin, near which stands a mountain of considerable height, is about half a mile over; but opposite to the last mentioned town it appears to be more than a mile wide, and full of islands, the soil of which is extraordinarily rich, and but thinly wooded.”

In all the preceding accounts of the early explorations along the Mississippi we have not found a mention of any landing upon the Iowa shore, north of that made by Marquette. But upon leaving Prairie du Chien, Captain Carver tells us: “A little further to the west, on the contrary side, a smaller river falls into the Mississippi, which the French call Le Jaun Riviere, or the Yellow river. Here the traders who had accompanied me hitherto, took up their residence for the winter. I then bought a canoe, and with two servants, one a French Canadian and the other a Mohawk of Canada, on the 19th proceeded up the Mississippi.” This indicates that the traders were now accustomed to making their home at Yellow river periodically, thus establishing the first temporary settlement in Allamakee county; and as Carver makes no mention of meeting any white inhabitants at Prairie du Chien at this time, it is quite probable that the French had abandoned their post on the east side of the river after that region, with Canada, had passed under the control of the English three years before. It is well established that the present settlement of Prairie du Chien was begun in 1783, by Mr. Giard, Mr. Antaya and Mr. Dubuque; and not until the summer of 1786 was the fort formally surrendered by the British to the United States. It is to be regretted that Captain Carver does not inform us as to how long the Frenchmen had frequented Yellow river; and when and how it had become known by that name. It is noticeable that he also makes no mention of the Painted Rock, a few miles above.

The greater part of Captain Carver’s narrative relates to his travels and life among the Indians, with entertaining accounts of their customs and beliefs, and has no particular connection with our county’s history.

[Notes: *Father Paul Le Jeune and Father Bartholemy Vimout, 1640-1642. – N. H. Winchell in “The Aborigines of Minnesota,” published by the Minnesota History Society 1911, and Charles R. Keyes, Ph. D., in “Annals of Iowa,” Jan., 1912 “Earliest explorations of Iowa Land.” Winchell says they returned to Northern Minnesota in the early spring of 1659 by the south shore of Lake Superior, suffering famine and frost, to an appointed rendezvous with the Sioux, when they met to celebrate the feast of the dead, in the early spring, and after six weeks passed directly back to Chequamegon Bay, on Lake Superior]

~transcribed by Lisa Henry

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