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At the Beginning of the Upper Mississippi's Colonization

Aerial view of Prairie du Chien, today.
Photo credit: City of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

June 23, 2016

The story of Prairie du Chien (a francophile city in Wisconsin the anglicized pronunciation of which is 'prairie doo sheen') is the history of the Mississippi Frontier. This lovely community has a rich French heritage worthy of remembrance.

The approaching summer was particularly warm when Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, his French Canadian companion from Québec City, arrived at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. There, they saw before them the majestic Mississippi, the great river they had come to explore. Their birchbark canoes glided safely into the Great Waterway "with a joy that I cannot express" wrote Marquette. The date was Saturday 17 June 1673, and the site was near present-day Prairie du Chien, an area with a stunning landscape.

In 1685 Frenchman Nicolas Perrot erected a seasonal trading post, he named Fort St. Nicolas, at the southern end of the yet unnamed 9-mile (14,5 km) prairie that lay just above the confluence of the two rivers. It is said that the fort was refurbished in 1754 by Pierre Paul Marin, a Montrealer who was the commandant of Fort La Baye where the City of Green Bay is currently located.

At the end of a series of wars between local indigenous tribes around 1764, the prairie became, twice a year, an important gathering place for both Native Americans throughout the Upper Mississippi and fur traders coming mainly from French Canada, who the Natives called "les hommes du nord" (the men of the North). Beaver pelts and other furs were bartered for pots and pans or hunting rifles. At these large gatherings that went on for weeks, commerce was combined with festive games, gambling and other diversions. Across the continent these "rendez-vous" were highly popular. The fur trade (dominated by French Canadians) determined the economic, social and cultural life of Prairie du Chien for more than a century until the arrival of the railroad in April 1857.

Michel Brisebois, born in Yamaska, Québec, was among the first settlers to colonize Prairie du Chien. He arrived in 1781. Thirty-nine years later, he reported to a surveyor of the United States government that upon his arrival he learned that the place was named after a prominent local family called Des Chiens. This name could also have been a phonetic or spelling variation of the surnames Deschenes / Duchaine first found in Normandy, France. Moreover, the François Vertefeuille House is today the oldest structure in Wisconsin on its original site. This well preserved log cabin was formerly owned by French Canadian François Vertefeuille (dates unknown). It is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

In the Old French Cemetery on Frenchtown Road a communal bronze plaque reads "Here, on ground long used by Indians, French 'hommes du nord' buried their loved ones". It reminds visitors that Prairie du Chien was once a vibrant French-speaking community. On this epitaph, family names such as Amiote, Blondeau, Brisebois, Cardinal, Courtois, Courville, Gagnier, Gauselin, Kapi, La Batte, Lessard, Mason, Menard, Ouiellemette, Paquette, Pizanne, Rivard, St. Cyr, Trepanier, Urtubise, and many more, commemorate French America's furtherance that is l'Amérique with its acute and distinctive accent. Lest we forget.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Bernier is a retired executive from the financial sector with a burning passion for America's Francophonie and its fraternity.

A Québec City native, he now lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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