Riverfront history walk provides fascinating view into Prairie du Chien’s history

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One service the forts built on St. Feriole Island served was to hold prisoners taken by the military force holding the fort. This pit is where soldiers and Native Americans taken prisoner were held. It is rumored to be the holding place of a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who some say died in the pit. This incident is believed to have played a role in inciting the Ho-Chunk uprising of 1827.

By Gillian Pomplun

Prairie du Chien, a modern city located on the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of the confluence with the Wisconsin River, has been the site of gatherings of human beings for thousands of years. First, Native American people using rivers for transportation and trade gathered at the site to live, recreate and trade. Later, traders, missionaries, soldiers and settlers of European ancestry joined them at the natural gathering place.
On Friday, June 9, Prairie du Chien historian Mary Antoine led a group of interested citizens on a “Riverfront History Walk” along a group of historical sites located on St. Feriole Island. The sites, all grouped along the river front, stretched from the Villa Louis to the spectacular Dousman House, and gave a fascinating glimpse into 18th and 19th century history.
Antoine will be providing the tour monthly to interested groups all summer long. Future tour dates include July 14, Aug. 18 and Oct. 6. The 90-minute tours run from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., and participants are encouraged to wear comfortable walking shoes.
On the tour, Antoine describes the histories of the different forts built on the site by the British and the Americans and the battles fought between the two for control of the Upper Mississippi River. The tour takes people inside the homes of the early French-Canadian settlers, British and American Indian Agencies, the U.S. Fur Factory, the homes of prominent citizens still standing on the island, the history of slaves brought to the island by military officers, and eventually, into the history of the railroads.
The area of Prairie du Chien was initially inhabited by French-Canadians, and later by British and Americans centered primarily on St. Feriole Island, an area that stretches from the Mississippi and Wisconsin river’s confluence to nine miles north of the current city.
According to Antoine, the original Europeans to settle on the island were French-Canadians, pursuing opportunities in the fur trade with Native Americans. They partitioned the island into what were known as “long lots,” which stretched between the slough dividing the island from the mainland, and the Mississippi River. In modern times, the area was known as the “fourth ward” of Prairie du Chien, and was abandoned due to flooding on the Mississippi River in 1965.
Here, French-Canadian traders and settlers built homes, farmed and built their stakes in the fur trade. According to Antoine, those settlers had made their way down the Fox and Wisconsin rivers from the French settlement of Michilimackinac, or Mackinac Island, from Quebec, and up from Illinois.
At this point, the land that would become the state of Wisconsin was included in an area of the North American continent known by the French and British as the Northwest Territory. Due to depletion of fur bearing animals in the east, the area was coveted for its untapped wealth of fur bearing animals. According to Antoine, the French and British were less interested in settling the area than in forming relationships with the Native American peoples living here and gaining access to the furs they could provide.
After the American Revolution, the Northwest Territory was transferred from the British to the Americans, but the Americans couldn’t hold it. The British continued to remain interested in taking over the reins of the thriving fur trade developed by the French, but the Americans were interested in securing the land and trade opportunities for themselves.
“In 1812, the United States and Britain fought a battle that would establish control of the territory and the fur trade,” Antoine explained. “This battle is sometimes referred to as the Second American Revolution.”
According to Antoine, the first of the forts built was Fort Shelby, built in 1814 by William Clark, serving in St. Louis as the American Superintendent of Indian Affairs (part of the War Department). Fort Shelby was constructed on the top of a large mound believed to have been built by Native Americans of the effigy mound civilization in a period estimated to be roughly 700-1200 A.D. The fort’s purpose was to secure the Upper Mississippi River for the Americans.
The fort was taken by the British in 1816 after a battle lasting three days, and renamed Fort McCay. The British held the fort until the spring of 1815. The force that ousted the Americans was led by Colonel McDouall, and originated out of Fort Mackinac. The force was composed of Michigan Fencibles, Mississippi volunteers, and Dakota, Menomonie, Ho-Chunk and Chippewa fighters.
The island was taken back by the Americans, led by General Smith commanding a rifle regiment in May of 1816. Smith ordered residents to move their homes, and built a log and earthen works fort or post, large enough to house six companies of soldiers. This fort was named Fort Crawford.
Today’s Villa Louis was built atop the same mound where the forts were built. According to Antoine, excavations by archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society have exposed the foundations of the forts that occupied the site before the Villa was built by local business magnate Hercules Dousman.
The site has a rich and fascinating history that will give participants a feel for the struggle between European nations for control of the area that is now known as the Upper Midwest of the United States. Take the opportunity to learn more about this nationally-significant piece of Crawford County’s history. To sign up for a tour, go to whist.org/40Nd3lm.

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