Changing Currents: Reinventing the Chippewa Valley
A story from "Canoe Country"
Viistors enter Changing Currents in "Canoe Country," where they experience Chippewa Valley during the fur trade era. The international fur trade transformed life in the region from the 1650s, when resident American Indians like the Dakota first encountered adventurous French traders, until fur-bearing animals became scarce during the 1820s. What follows is a detailed look at a single dramatic event from the period that helps us understand much more about how the fur trade produced new and complicated relationships in the Chippewa Valley.
Encounter at the Trading Post
In November 1788, a group of six Ojibwe men from Lac Courte Oreilles traveled from a successful hunt near Lake Chetac to trade with Jean-Baptiste Perrault. The month before Perrault had constructed a small trading post along the Red Cedar River near where Menomonie now stands. While the Ojibwe group was at Perrault's post, a much larger Dakota hunting party led by chief Le Petit Corbeau (Little Crow) arrived also seeking to trade with the Frenchman. The three groups—Ojibwe, Dakota, and European—engaged in a tense standoff inside the trading post. Explaining the standoff takes us inside the complex set of relationships that developed in the Chippewa Valley during the fur trade era.
Perrault had built his post in a no-man's land in the middle of a warzone. He knew quite well that the Ojibwe and Dakota in the area had been at each other's throats for more than fifty years. However, he also had instructions from his superiors to set up a trade depot there. The location had the potential to draw trade from the warring factions on both sides, but it also risked a confrontation that might explode like a powder keg. As a trader new to the area, Perrault had no family relationships with either group that could diffuse such a situation. His closest allies were Menomonee trappers who travelled with him from Green Bay, but they had every intention of remaining neutral.
Before the standoff, Perrault wrote that trade with the Dakota of Wabasha III's band "went so well that in the course of November we had eight packs of beaver, which gave us great hopes." But the coinciding arrival at his post of the armed Ojibwe and Dakota hunting parties led Perrault to believe the fuse to the powder keg had been irreversibly lit. Even before any words were spoken in the standoff, he grew fearful. "Imagine our dismay!" he wrote after the fact. "I would have preferred to be a long way off then."
CVM re-created Jean Baptiste Perrault's trading post in Changing Currents. Inside the post, you can even trade with an animated Perrault himself.
A No-Man's Land
The lower Chippewa Valley had not always been a dangerous no-man's land. More than a hundred years before the standoff at Perrault's trading post, the Dakota had welcomed small bands of Ojibwe to share their hunting grounds in the Chippewa and St. Croix valleys. The Ojibwe were then newcomers, having arrived along the western and southern shores of Lake Superior during the mid 1600s. The Ojibwe benefited by gaining access to excellent hunting grounds while the Dakota benefited by gaining access to European trade goods, at first through Ojibwe middlemen. (La Pointe on Madeleine Island quickly became the main center for French-Ojibwe trade after a French post was established in 1693.) Peace lasted for decades, and was encouraged further by repeated exchanges of daughters and sons in marriage.
A number of events in the 1730s and 1740s, however, broke the peace for good. In southern and central Wisconsin, a series of long wars between French-allied tribes and the Meskwaki (Fox) came to an end in the 1730s. The wars reduced Meskwaki numbers to a few hundred and sent the remainder fleeing south and west. Their departure opened up the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to French trade, allowing French traders direct access to the Dakota along the Upper Mississippi. It also appeared to make inland settlement much safer for French allies like the Ojibwe.
However, bands of Eastern Dakota clashed violently with French traders and their native allies at Lake of the Woods and Lake Pepin in 1736. The Dakota believed French traders had broken exclusive kinship bonds that went hand in hand with trade when they chose to do business also with Dakota enemies like the Cree and Ho-Chunk. Dakota war parties lashed out at all French-allied tribes in the vicinity, raiding several Ojibwe camps by 1738. The Ojibwe, seeking to maintain their friendly trade with the French, retaliated against their former Dakota allies. The French administrator of the upper Great Lakes, whose son had been killed in the Dakota attack near Lake of the Woods, encouraged the Ojibwe to hunt and trap as far into Dakota lands as they dared.
Hence, during the 1740s a number of Ojibwe bands for the first time created permanent summer villages on the mainland, rather than returning each summer to Madeleine Island. Ojibwe historian William Warren, who interviewed Ojibwe elders during the 1840s, relates the story of three brothers of the Bear Clan who lost a small child near Lac Courte Oreilles in about 1745. They "braved all dangers," he writes, and remained by the child's grave through the spring and summer. Their survival in such a perilous location inspired others to follow, and soon made the lakeside site a permanent Ojibwe village.
Ojibwe warriors were able to expand villages into the upper Chippewa Valley as far south as Rice Lake, while Dakota villages remained along the western shores of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. The ensuing violence kept either side from planting villages in the middle and lower Chippewa Valley. It also discouraged French traders from setting up posts there. Only well-armed hunting parties dared venture into the oak-dotted prairies of the southern Valley in search of bison, elk, or enemy scalps. The Dakota-Ojibwe wars lasted even longer than peace had, as raids by one group elicited retaliatory violence in an endless cycle. When American explorer Jonathan Carver traveled up the Chippewa River in 1766-7, he described the southern stretches of the river as the "Road of War between the Chippeways and Naudowessie [Eastern Dakota]," a no-man's land.
This long history of violence underlay the anxiety that spread to every person in Perrault's post when the Dakota hunting party led by Little Crow appeared in the post's doorway not long after sunset on that cool November evening in 1788.
Jonathan Carver's 1767 map shows teepees at the sites of "Naudowessie" [Dakota] villages and wigwams where Ojibwe camped. He labeled the Chippewa and Red Cedar Rivers the "Road of War" between the two nations.
The first potential spark was diffused when, according to Perrault, the antagonists disarmed themselves. "The scioux," wrote Perrault, "were all still at the door when they gave up their arms . . . while the sauteaux [Ojibwe] hid theirs under our beds. . . . They were equally surprised at seeing each other."
Little Crow, who had basic knowledge of Ojibwe, then began speaking to the Ojibwe hunters:
"My brothers, we have taken the liberty of approaching your lands for awhile. You know that the deer seeks the thick woods for the winter, and that upon it depends the life of our women and children. We hope therefore that you will bear with us for a couple of months on the upper waters of that branch of your river [that is, the Chippewa River], and we will retire as soon as we have acquired provisions for our spring."
Ojibwe trader Bear's Heart replied:
"My brothers, we are well pleased to see you here and to be able to say to you in the presence of the French, that you need have no anxiety on our account. Hunt peaceably on our lands here till the month of March, when we beg of you to withdraw, and that your young men come not here and frighten our children at that time. The master of life has given to all the Indians the land to live on in peace, but unhappily, we are all foolish."
Each side then danced in turn, a ceremony through which they competitively "related their exploits," explained Perrault. A second spark was diffused when a Frenchman working for Perrault suggested stopping the ceremony since it appeared headed for more direct confrontation. The night ended peacefully, but everyone was still at the post. As Perrault reported, "there was a sullen silence all the night, so that no one slept."
The Dakota did their trading the next morning and departed. Disaster seemed averted, the powder keg still intact. Perrault then recalled the departure of the six Ojibwe men:
"I gave each a salute. We said adieu, and they took their own road. Near the house was a rivulet, distant perhaps three arpents [about 575 feet], on the other side of which had fallen a great pine, making a breastwork. In the shelter of this, six Scioux had hidden to surprise the Sauteux [Ojibwe]. . . . The Scioux . . . waited until the last two had passed before they fired. The son of Le Petit Bled received a ball in his head and Le Petit Eturgeon was wounded by two bullets, which passed through his body. . . . The Scioux fled the moment they saw the Sauteux rush to their Brother."
More than a Blood Feud
The bloody end to the standoff could be explained as just another act of vengeance in a blood feud. However, a number of other factors underlay the conflict. Most importantly, the Dakota still considered the lower Chippewa Valley their exclusive hunting domain and part of their homeland. Dakota leaders had shared the land with Ojibwe hunters during peacetime but now sought to defend it against permanent incursions by their friends-turned-adversaries. Explained an unnamed Dakota man to a French trader in the 1750s, "No one could be ignorant of the fact that from the mouth of the Wisconsin to Senue [Leech] Lake, these lands belong to us. At all points and on the little rivers, we have had villages. . . . And today the Sateaux want to take our lands and chase us away."
Indeed, years after the standoff at Perrault's post, Little Crow's own son Cetanwakanmani, also called Little Crow, shared the same sentiment. In 1819, American Major Thomas Forsyth traveled up the Mississippi River to pay for lands ceded by the Dakota in 1805. When Forsyth stopped on shore at Little Crow's Village, he inquired about the interminable warfare between the two tribes. The Dakota chief explained his philosophy as follows:
"It is better for us to carry on the war in the way we do than to make peace. . . . If we make peace the Chippewa will overrun all of the country between the Mississippi and Lake Superior and have their villages on the banks of the Mississippi itself. . . . Why then, should we give up such an extensive country to save the life of a man or two annually? I know it is not good to go to war, or to make too much war, or against too many people; but this is war for land which must always exist if the Dakota Indians remain in the same opinion which now guides them."
The Dakota were defending lands they believed they needed to survive. The hunting grounds of the lower Chippewa Valley and the wild rice beds father north were too valuable to give up without a fight. Of course, the Ojibwe had also been using Chippewa Valley lands for so long that they too considered them necessary to the survival of their families.
Who's to Blame?
A second, more complex explanation can be found in the words of one of the dying Ojibwe hunters. As he lay mortally wounded after being carried back to the trading post, Le Petit Eturgeon (Little Sturgeon) blamed his death not on the Dakota who shot him, but on Perrault and the greed of French traders like him:
"It is you French, who are the cause of my death. . . . You do not trouble yourselves much about the Indians so long as you can get the packs [of furs]."
By the late 18th century, trading furs for European goods had become a necessary part of life for Great Lakes Indians; manufactured goods from Europe had by then been a part of Ojibwe and Dakota experience so long that life without them was almost unimaginable. Moreover, many Dakota and Ojibwe leaders believed their political power at home depended on their ability to bring in European products like metal traps, woven blankets, whiskey, and guns. In any case, European traders were not going away.
The two nations were, therefore, fighting not only over lands rich in large mammals like bison and deer, but also over access to smaller fur-bearing animals and, in this case, to Perrault's trading post itself. (When Little Crow told the Ojibwe hunters that his Dakota band needed to hunt on Ojibwe lands, we can read between the lines that they intended to hunt for both food and furs.) From Little Sturgeon's perspective, the French were to blame for the attack in this instance because Perrault and his superiors ignored the risks of such violence in their pursuit of profit. Perrault's decision to open his post in the war-ridden no-man's land between the two tribes—his attempt to maximize trade profits—imperiled the lives of native hunters and traders on both sides. The Ojibwe traders could have travelled to La Pointe to trade with Jean Baptiste Cadotte, but that was farther away, upriver rather than down in canoes heavily laden with furs, and most importantly, would have in effect been a concession of their right to hunt and trade along the lower Red Cedar and Chippewa Rivers.
From this perspective, the Ojibwe-Dakota war looks much more familiar. Most of us are accustomed to thinking about European empires going to war with one another over access to trade goods, ports, and markets, not to mention territorial expansion for access to natural resources.
The most important contest between European powers in our area was that between those ancient blood-rivals the British and French over access to fur-bearing lands in western North America, including the Chippewa Valley. Their antagonism resulted ultimately in the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War and firm British control after 1763. Indeed, Jean-Baptiste Perrault, a French Canadian, worked in 1788 in the service of the General Company of Lake Superior and the South, a short-lived breakaway organization from the more famous British fur trade firm the North West Company.
Perrault did everything he could to avoid taking sides during the standoff, lest he risk losing trade or even his life by upsetting one or the other parties. When the four remaining Ojibwe hunters took Little Sturgeon's last words back to their villages, however, Perrault knew he was in trouble. He thought about making a break for Prairie du Chien, but he had not yet departed when an Ojibwe party arrived seeking vengeance. Through tactful negotiation and reparation payments, he survived. Barely.
 Except where noted, all quotations come from Perrault's own recollections, written in about 1830. Jean Baptiste Perrault, Narrative of the Travels and Adventures of a Merchant Voyageur in the Savage Territories of Northern American Leaving Montreal the 28th of May 1783 (to 1820), ed. John Sharpless Fox. (Lansing, Michigan: 1909). In the public domain.
 As quoted in Gary Clayton Anderson, Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862 (Lincoln, Neb. and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 55. Anderson quoted from the original "Journal de Monsieur Marin Fils," 14 Octobre 1753 et 21 Avril 1754.
 As quoted in Doane Robinson, A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians: From Their Earliest Traditions and First Contact with White Men to the Final Settlement of the Last of Them Upon Reservations and Consequent Abandonment of the Old Tribal Life (News Printing Co.: Aberdeen, S.D., 1904), 111.
Perrault's Trading Fort as envisioned by artist Cal Peters on a large mural, 1935-36. Courtesy University of Wisconsin-Stout Archives, image #2011_07485.
Canoes in "Canoe Country," including a historical Dakota-style dugout conoe found in Lake Chetek and a reproduction birchbark canoe made using traditional methods that kids can climb in.
In a re-created summer wigwam, visitors get a feel for how the lives of Ojibwe women and men changed during the fur trade. New European goods were put to use alongside many existing Ojibwe technologies. Furs took on greater importance in the Ojibwe economy as the most significant Native trade product.