It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?
If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.
But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.
Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.
There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.
To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.
In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.
The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.
Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”
Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.
The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.
During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.
Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.
The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.
By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.
Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.