Category Archives: Fur Trade

The old trails, traces, and thoroughfares that helped build northern Illinois

It was the spring of 1837, and Robert Hill had a problem. It was his job to persuade his neighbors in his Cook County voting precinct to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the roads that passed through the area. One road was an almost purely local trail that ended—or began, depending on your perspective—at Hill’s claim. The other was a minor branch of the Chicago to Naperville Road, itself part of the system of main thoroughfares to Ottawa and Galena.

Chicago roads scan I

The web of trails, traces, and roads leading from Chicago on Lake Michigan to the prairie hinterland as settlement in northern Illinois began is evident from Albert Scharf’s 1900 map.

In those days before state and federal tax support of road construction and maintenance, local government required residents to work on the growing system of primitive roads that, like a spider web, spread westward from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The network of trails used by Native Americans in the area bounded by Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley probably evolved from game trails. When Europeans arrived in the area, they continued to use the existing trail system, even though, as one historian suggested, the trails were often not the most direct routes from point to point. With their twists and turns, they were often hard to follow. Names like Vincennes Trace and Potawatomi Trace suggest the trails were little more than faint tracks through the prairies and groves that dotted northern Illinois. Even experienced guides frequently got lost.

But during the settlement era—the 1820s to the 1840s—overland routes were the only options for travelers between Lake Michigan and the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru and Ottawa. Not until the Illinois & Michigan Canal linked Chicago’s lakefront with the head of navigation on the Illinois River and rail lines began stretching west of Chicago in the late 1840s was overland transport by road eclipsed.

In addition, merchants and other business owners in and around the booming lead mining town of Galena in far northwest Illinois were interested in an overland link with Chicago that might offer an alternative to expensive, relatively slow river transport of food, equipment, and other supplies the growing area required. While river transport was satisfactory for bulk cargoes, the Mississippi River of those years was a sometimes fickle transportation route. Drought often closed off portions of the river to navigation. High water sometimes did the same as the primitive steamboats of the day struggled upstream against the raging current while trying to dodge a variety of hazards, from snags to shifting sandbars. And even the mighty Mississippi often froze over during the winter months.

1820 Chicago

Chicago, as seen in this view from Lake Michigan in 1820, boasted little more than Fort Dearborn and a few fur traders’ cabins scattered along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River. Two decades later, it would be an incorporated city, the largest in northern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 1830s, as settlement accelerated in the region around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, both the state and local governments in Illinois began to lay out an official system of roadways. In northern Illinois, the initial purpose of this fledgling road net was to connect the areas south and west of Lake Michigan with Chicago and its Great Lakes links with Eastern markets.

Shipping from the east via the Great Lakes to Chicago had slowly increased since the visit of the first steamboats carrying troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. But a major problem existed; there was no harbor at Chicago. The Chicago River entered the lake at an acute angle, running parallel to the shoreline, with a sandbar blocking entrance of the river to ships on the lake. As a result, ships had to anchor offshore and transship their cargoes over the bar in small boats. It was, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and became downright dangerous to ships and crews when storms howled out of the north and west, threatening to drive unwary vessels ashore. As a result, while steamers first visited Chicago in 1832 to drop off their cargoes of U.S. Army troops, they left as soon as they were unloaded because there was no sheltered anchorage for them.

Realizing the settlement’s strategic advantages, the U.S. Government began the creation of a true port at Chicago in 1833 by cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction started July 1, supervised by Maj. George Bender, 5th U.S. Infantry. Bender began with setting a series of piers through the sand bar that blocked the harbor mouth. The deceptively simple task of cutting a channel through the bar—and then making sure it stayed open—proved a lot more difficult than originally thought. It eventually took some six years, and a cost more than $100,000 (nearly $3 in today’s dollars) to get the job completely finished.

1830 Chicago Harbor improvements

The proposed improvement of a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. When it was finally completed, the channel helped fuel Chicago’s explosive growth.

But on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1834, with only a rudimentary channel carved through the sandbar, Mother Nature took a small hand in creating the Chicago Harbor. A heavy, two-day rainstorm caused the Chicago River to suddenly rise by three feet. The outflow of storm water found the channel Maj. Bender had begun and on which Lt. James Allen was then working, and cut a 30-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the bar. It’s likely the astonished engineers could hardly believe their good fortune.

On May 4, the Michigan, a sidewheel steamer with a fore-and-aft sail rig, took advantage of the new channel, and became the first steamboat to enter the Chicago River harbor, passing under the recently completed Dearborn Street drawbridge to anchor along the riverbank.

For the first time, with the channel finally cut through the bar, ships didn’t have to unload their cargoes immediately and flee to an area where there was some shelter. Instead, ships could be moored at docks along the river, safe from sudden storms, while cargo was unloaded.

3 Steamboat Michigan 1833

The Michigan was the first ship to make its way through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River and dock in the city.

Just a couple months after the Michigan arrived in Chicago’s new harbor, the aptly named Illinois became the first sailing ship to enter the Chicago River under full sail. On July 12, 1834, the Illinois forged through the newly opened channel with “her top-masts covered with flags and streamers,” sailing up-river through the open Dearborn Street drawbridge to dock at Newberry & Dole’s riverbank wharf.

While work to improve the channel through the bar and keep it from refilling with sand would continue for several years, the arrival of those first Great Lakes freighters was an important start.

1834 Dearborn St drawbridge

The Dearborn Street drawbridge—the first of many that would be built in Chicago—raises to let a ship through to dock along the Chicago River in 1834.

The tonnage of goods shipped to and from Chicago skyrocketed almost immediately after the safe harbor was provided for arriving vessels. In 1833, the year work on the channel through the bar began, just four ships arrived at Chicago—two brigs and two schooners, but no steamboats. Just two years later, 250 ships arrived and a year after that, the number of arrivals had nearly doubled to 456 vessels, with the total including 49 steamships.

In addition to goods, people were also arriving at the new port, as more and more pioneer farmers used the Great Lakes route to travel west. After arriving, these pioneer families left Chicago’s swampy streets and settled on the Illinois prairies in the fast-developing city’s hinterland. Meanwhile, a growing volume of cargo awaited shipment east. Goods crowding the docks along the Chicago River included steadily increasing amounts of grain produced as the acreage of cultivated prairie rapidly expanded in northern Illinois.

In 1837, four years after the channel through the bar at the mouth of the Chicago River was begun, only 100 bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago via the Great Lakes. A decade later—and a year before the completion of the I&M Canal and commencement of construction of the first railroad west of the city—more than 2.2 million bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago. Each and every bushel of that grain arrived at Chicago thanks to the network of roads extending into the growing city’s hinterland.

That spider web of roads stretching northwest, north, and southwest of the city provided the means for the coming tsunami of growth that would propel the Chicago metropolitan region that was then supercharged by completion of the old-technology I&M Canal and the new-technology rail lines that followed the old traces and trails out of the city by the lake.

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Pestekouy River Valley? Not for the past 331 years

Names of things have always fascinated me, and I guess they sometimes interest other people as well. I know that when I speak to various groups about local history, one of the most-asked questions is, “How did Oswego get its name?” Although Oswego, Illinois was named after a long-settled city in New York state, its name of Mohawk Tribe origins, many of the names of local geographical features originated right here.

For instance, a good example of a major local feature of interest is the Fox River. The Fox had been tagged with its present name several decades before the first American pioneer settlers arrived along its banks. The Fox River, as a matter of fact, was well known to explorers and map makers for well over a century before the first American settlers arrived in the area in the late 1820s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer and explorer Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to see the Fox River during their 1673 expedition.

The very first explorers who traveled through Illinois noticed the Fox River. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., led an expedition to discover where the Mississippi River’s mouth was located. The French hoped the Mississippi bore to the southwest and that its mouth was on the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River they were certain the Mississippi headed due south and that its mouth was probably somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and definitely not anywhere near the Pacific.

Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, drew a map of the expedition’s journey after he arrived back in Canada following the trip. Although the most familiar edition of this map was probably not drawn by Jolliet, but rather used his information (his name is misspelled on the map), it does show the course the expedition took. It also shows the Fox River, although the stream is unnamed.

1683 Franquelin map

Franquelin’s 1684 map of LaSalle’s colony shows a number of Native American towns clustered around Starved Rock. The map shows the mouth of the Riviere Pestekouy–our Fox River–just above Starved Rock.

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was an intrepid French explorer and unsuccessful businessman who, using Jolliet and Marquette’s information, attempted to colonize Illinois beginning in 1679. LaSalle made several trips to the area before getting his trading empire started at the fort he built atop Starved Rock. Starved Rock, just as imposing three centuries ago as it is today, was called le Rocher by the French.

Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin, LaSalle’s cartographer, drew a fairly accurate map of the area comprising LaSalle’s proposed colony in 1684. On this map, the Fox River appears, but is referred to as the Riviere Pestekouy. Pestekouy was the French spelling of an Algonquian Indian word for the American bison.

Clearly, the residents of the several Indian villages located on the map along the Pestekouy River must have hunted the herds of the Eastern Bison that roamed the Illinois tallgrass prairies during those years, thus giving the river its name.

Franquelin drew another map of the area in 1688, which while more accurate than his 1684 map, still called the river Pestekouy.

In addition, Marco Coronelli, a Venetian Conventual friar, produced a map in 1688 based on gores he made for a globe in 1687, on which the Fox River is labeled Pesteconti R. It seems pretty clear that Pesteconti is an Italianization of the French Pestekouy, which is not surprising since Coronelli got most of the information for his map and globe from French sources, including Franquelin.

After Franquelin and Coronelli’s maps, cartographers stopped putting a name on the Fox River for several years.

In fact, as early as 1684, Minet, an engineer and cartographer who accompanied LaSalle, published a map with the Fox River drawn in but not named. After Coronelli’s map was published, the name Pestekouy seems to have vanished from maps.

For instance, Louis de La Porte de Louvigny in 1697 and Guillaume Delisle in 1718 both produced fairly accurate maps of the interior of North America, including the Fox River Valley, but did not label the Fox River with any name at all. The reason for this is unknown, but was probably due to the fact that the area had lost whatever economic significance it had gained during the LaSalle period due to a combination of factors, including the hostility of the Fox Indian Tribe.

1754 Ottens map detail

This detail from Ottens’ 1754 map shows the Fox River labeled as R. du Rocher, probably because of the proximity of its mouth to Starved Rock–named du Rocher by the French.

By 1700, the French trading center at le Rocher had been moved south to Fort Pimiteoui on Lake Peoria, and along with it had gone French military power in the upper Illinois and Fox River valleys. The Fox Tribe had prohibited the French from the area south and west of Green Bay, and that included use of the portage from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Lake Michigan at Green Bay and the Wisconsin River that offers a good route to the Mississippi. For more than 30 years, the French and their Indian allies battled the Fox to secure access to the area northwest of Chicago. In 1730, the French and their Native American allies vanquished the Fox for the final time, opening the area to French trade and missionaries.

In 1754, after the French had in essence exterminated the Fox, an interesting map was published in both French and Dutch titled Map of the English and French possessions in the vast land of North America. The map was published in Amsterdam by Cartographer Josua Ottens. Interestingly enough, the Fox River is named R. du Rocher on Ottens’ map, which was quite a change from Riviere Pestekouy. It seems likely the name was derived from the Fox River’s mouth’s proximity to the old French post at le Rocher. It may well be that the French traders in the area had renamed the river after the old fort at le Rocher after the trouble with the Fox Tribe was settled.

1778 Hutchins map detail

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map showing the Fox River with its modern name.

It was a few years after Ottens’ map was published that our river officially received its present name. By 1764, the French had been defeated in the final French and Indian War—called the Seven Years War in Europe. British troops slowly moved into the vast area north and west of the Ohio River that had been controlled for so long by the French.

Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled throughout the area between 1764 and 1775 with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, published the same year that George Rogers Clark conquered Illinois for the state of Virginia during the Revolution, the Fox River was given its modern name. It is not known why Hutchins recorded the river’s name as the Fox River, but the Fox Tribe’s occupation of the area in the northern reaches of the Fox River Valley probably had a lot to do with the renaming of the stream.

Whatever the reason, the name stuck and was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish and published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

 

 

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Exploring the ‘treeless land’ with Jolliet and Marquette

This year, Illinois will celebrate it’s Bicentennial. In December 1818, the U.S. Congress formally approved establishing the State of Illinois. And with its change in status from territory to state, Illinois was finally allowed to send two senators and a representative to represent the state’s people and their interests at the national capitol.

By the time Illinois became a state, Europeans had visited and settled in what the colonial French called the Illinois Country for nearly a century and a half. The first Europeans to arrive in Illinois did so illegally—that is, in violation of the Royal French colonial government’s prohibitions. Those earliest visitors were seeking riches, both mineral and in furs, and they found a bit of both.

The Indian way of life began to change as soon as those European influences began to reach Illinois. Thanks both to trade among the tribes and those hardy French freebooters, European influences reached Illinois well in advance of any permanent settlers.

Jolliet & Marquette map

The route taken by the Jolliet and Marquette expedition of 1673. They were the first Europeans to travel through and report on northern Illinois.

As such items as glass beads and brass cooking pots were traded for furs in the East, they began working their way west through the extensive web of Indian trading routes. Gradually, this trade became formalized, with the great trading nations of the west, the Ottawas and Chippewas, trading the grain and furs of the western tribes to the Iroquois and Hurons of the east for European trade goods.

The role of middleman between the western tribes located around the Great Lakes and the Europeans (primarily Dutch, French, and English) was hotly contested. This economic rivalry brought on a number of wars between the Huron and Iroquois, resulting in the eventual destruction of the Huron Tribe.

The first legal penetration of the area now known as Illinois was made by an exploration group led by Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean Talon, governor of New France, had decided to investigate the reports carried east by French missionaries and traders about a great river to the west of Lake Superior, called “Great Water” or Mississippi, by the Indians.

Talon appointed Jolliet, an experienced mapmaker and explorer, to command an expedition to determine whether this river emptied into the Pacific Ocean. If it did, reasoned Talon, the French would have discovered the long-sought Northwest Passage.

An interpreter familiar with many Algonquian dialects was considered necessary for the expedition, and to fill this post Talon and Jolliet picked a studious intellectual Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette—at the time the expedition left, Marquette could speak six different Indian languages. Just as importantly, Marquette was easily available. His regular post was at the Mission of St. Ignace at Michilimackinac, located on the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, the major crossroads of the western fur trade.

Jolliet

A sculptor’s vision of geographer and explorer Louis Jolliet.

The exploration party, consisting of Jolliet, Marquette and five French voyageurs in two canoes, left the strait between the two lakes on May 17, 1673—345 years ago this month—and set a course down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. At the Bay, the party turned up the Fox River to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

As the party traveled south, Jolliet became convinced that hopes the mighty river’s course did not lead southwesterly to Gulf of California, offering a transcontinental passage to the Pacific Ocean as had been hoped. Instead, his navigational observations affirmed the Mississippi bore almost straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, upon reaching the Arkansas River in July, the party reversed its course and headed north once again. They were also encouraged on this course because the Indian villages around the Arkansas River’s mouth were in possession of Spanish trade goods, and given the small size of the French expedition, the last thing they wanted to do was get involved with hostile Spanish colonials.

So back up the Mississippi they paddled. When the explorers reached the mouth of the Illinois River, they decided to ascend it to Lake Michigan, probably on the recommendation of a friendly group of Indians who probably suggested the route as a shortcut back to the lake. They therefore became the first Europeans to see the rich Illinois River Valley, and their opinion of it was very favorable.

Noted Jolliet in an account written after the trip:

“At first, when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country savaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, for vines, or for any other fruit whatever.

“The river, which we named for Saint Louis, which rises near the lower end of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan], seemed to me the most beautiful place; the most suitable for settlement…There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent…A settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plow into the ground.”

Although he didn’t realize it, Jolliet’s words would be echoed a century and a half later in emigrants’ guidebooks luring pioneers to the Illinois prairies.

At the time the party traveled through the Illinois River Valley, the Illinois Indians were in the process of moving to the upper reaches of the river in large numbers The Indians’ village of Kaskaskia was located across from Starved Rock and numbered some 74 cabins in 1673. By the next year, the village had grown to 100-150 cabins. In 1677, Marquette’s Jesuit colleague Father Claude Jean Allouez reported that the village had grown to 351 cabins.

The reports of the Jolliet-Marquette expedition, as well as those of such missionaries as Father Allouez, were clear testaments to the richness of the Illinois River Valley. And the reports of large concentrations of Indians living in the area seemed to make it an ideal location for a centralized trading post to cater directly to the Indians, thus removing the Iroquois, Ottawa, and Chippewa middlemen from the profit equations of the French fur traders.

It would take a strong man with the right connections to make this move, but in 1666, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle had arrived in New France, burning with the desire to make his fortune. It was a case of the right man being on the scene at the right time.

 

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Three…

Day 3 of our Undaunted Courage 2017 tour got off to a good start this morning at Laramie, Wyoming. Had a great shower and a good motel breakfast, and then hit the road west.

The last two days, we saw a number of utility repair trucks in groups of two or three headed east, probably either to Texas to help recovery from Hurricane Harvey or maybe all the way to Florida to get the electricity back on for the millions without it thanks to Hurricane Irma. But not today; not a bucket truck in sight all day as we headed farther west into the high plains.

We gradually left the rolling shortgrass plains behind and got into the land of buttes and coulees where there appeared to be a lot more horses and cattle than people. It’s empty country west of Laramie. And that isn’t just a feeling, either. Wyoming has about the same population as Kane County back home in northern Illinois, the county that borders my home county of Kendall to the north. And Kane is just one of 102 counties in Illinois, so wide-open spaces Wyoming certainly has.

2017 9-12 Ft Bridger, WY

No worries about whether I-80 might take a sudden turn on this stretch just past old Fort Bridger. And I bet you thought Montana was the Big Sky Country!

It was interesting seeing the name of Jim Bridger frequently popping up on the Wyoming map. Bridger was the quintessential mountain man who engaged in the fur trade both as a trapper and as a trader, acted as a guide for the U.S. Army, and helped guide wagon trains to Oregon and California. As we drove west on I-80, we traversed Bridger Pass, a route over the Continental Divide he discovered in 1850.

Hydrocarbon extraction is still big business in Wyoming, and we passed one huge open pit coal mine serviced by a busy rail line. In addition, oil wells and their accompanying storage tanks dot the landscape. But so do the wind farms that, along with solar and other renewable sources, will likely replace all that mining and well drilling.

We made a brief stop at Green River, Wyoming for lunch, and enjoyed great tacos, steak for me and fish for Sue, before we hit the road again. Green River was a popular rendezvous for the mountain men after the fur trade moved to the far west. No trapper worth his salt set out unless he had a Green Rive knife on his belt.

2017 9-12 Entering the Wasach

As we entered Utah’s Wasatch Range, we were still climbing, but a little later we started a steep descent. No topography like THIS back in northern Illinois!

After crossing the state line into Utah, I-80 makes a dramatic descent of what seemed to be roughly 1,000 feet from those high plains across which Clint Eastwood’s man with no name drifted down to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Driving it in clear, warm weather was exciting enough for us Illinois flatlanders. We could only imagine what it must be like during the winter when it’s snowing and blowing.

We made the drive in good time, managed to find our motel with only a couple glitches, arriving as we did during Salt Lake City’s afternoon rush hour, and then had a nice dinner with my aunt and my cousin and her husband. Tomorrow will be given over to resting up and doing some family history.

I’ll check in again when we get back on the road.

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day Two…

So day two of our Undaunted Courage 2017 expedition to Salt Lake City and beyond saw us starting out from Lincoln, Nebraska. We stayed last night at the Lincoln Fairfield Inn, which offered one of the best motel breakfasts I believe I’ve had. Highly recommended.

I drove the first two-hour leg, and enjoyed the cheerful sunflowers growing in thick patches along I-80’s wide Nebraska shoulders.

Nebraska’s a lightly-populated state—its current population is less than the combined population of Kane, Will, and DuPage counties in northern Illinois—and it occurred to me as we drove west what a marvel the interstate highway system really is.

The initial construction project was certainly a marvel, especially with routes like I-80 as it negotiates Nebraska’s sparsely populated shortgrass prairies. Just marshaling the construction equipment and building materials, especially the concrete, in some of the nation’s least populated regions must have been a lot like the logistics planning it took to win World War II.

It took decades from the initial pitch of the idea for the nation’s interstate system to become a reality thanks to the strong push the idea got from President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower cannily touted the system as part of the nation’s life or death struggle with worldwide Communism—authorization came in the National Interstate and Highways Defense Act. Ike didn’t invent the concept, but he made sure it got pushed through and begun as what became the nation’s biggest public construction project ever.

Russia is often compared to the U.S. in terms of it’s vast spaces and wealth of raw materials. But Russia has always suffered from its lack of a national highway system. There is no such thing as a transcontinental Russian highway, much less a continent-spanning superhighway system like we have in the U.S.

Lincoln Highway badgeWe, on the other hand, started experimenting with cross-continent highways more than a century ago when the Lincoln Highway Association was organized in 1912. The highway’s boosters envisioned it as an all-weather hard road running from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Today, I-80 parallels the old Lincoln Highway—basically today’s U.S. Route 30—right across the western prairies. And the long-established U.S. Routes 34 and 6 are also close at hand. The thing is, a transcontinental highway is not only challenging to build, but also requires an extensive on-going support infrastructure of motor vehicle service stations, hotels and motels, restaurants, and all the other things we expect to find when we travel. The whole thing really is a modern marvel, one that is so amazingly ubiquitous in this country that everyone takes it for granted.

The idea of communicating from coast to coast, or at least all the way across the vast western plains, is far more than a century old, of course. For instance, the I-80 also parallels the route of the old Pony Express. One of history’s greatest publicity stunts, the Pony Express carried messages—NOT the U.S. Mail—for 19 months between April 3, 1860 to October 1861 in a bid for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to win a government mail contract. While it garnered lots of publicity it failed to persuade the government to grant the company a mail contract. And it was ultimately killed because stagecoach lines and the coming of the telegraph made it superfluous.

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie as it looked in 1837 near the end of the fur trade era. Painting by Jacob Miller.

We were also interested to note that our trip west is paralleling yet another historic route, that of the Oregon Trail.

And tonight, we find ourselves not far from the site of old Fort Laramie where so many mountain men exchanged furs for money and so many emigrant wagon trains paused to rest and refit on their way west. Knowing a bit of the history of the region through which you’re traveling isn’t necessary, I suppose, but it certainly makes for more fun on the road.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the city by the Great Salt Lake.

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European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

Image result for Montreal canoe

Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

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A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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