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Collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910

The French Lead the Way: c. 1500-1763

France took the lead in colonizing the Upper Midwest region. From the early sixteenth century on, French soldiers, missionaries and fur traders left their slight mark upon the St. Lawrence valley, the upper Great Lakes and points west. For the early French explorers, the more continent they discovered the more their hopes were frustrated. They had hoped that the vast St. Lawrence-Great Lakes waterway was part of a Northwest Passage to the wealth of the Orient. They were eager to hear word of salt water and strange people to the west. For example, Jean Nicolet prepared for his 1634 trip to Green Bay by carrying along an elaborate robe of China damask to properly impress the oriental merchants he expected to meet. Such false hopes gave way to systematic exploration of western lands and peoples, yielding the outlines of a future empire linking the St. Lawrence with the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. The French presence was asserted by a network of forts, trading posts and missions dotting the lake and river routes traversing the continental interior. By the middle of the eighteenth century, settled populations were beginning to take hold at Detroit and Green Bay and in what was called the Illinois country. The settlements had a distinctive shape; like those long established in the Quebec area, they were defined by their dependence upon riverine commerce. They were thickly clustered along the river's edge, on long and thin lots running back into the nearby hinterland.

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"Henry Belland, Voyageur." With pen and pencil on the frontier in 1851; the diary and sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, by Frank Blackwell Mayer (Saint Paul, 1932).

The great currency of the French empire in North America was, however, the fur trade, carried out at great distances in partnership with Indian allies. Canoes were used to float the furs down a series of waterways from the far northwest of present-day Canada, to the upper Great Lakes, up the Ottawa River to Montreal. A series of wars between France and England culminated in a treaty in 1763 by which France ceded away all claim to the area east of the Mississippi. The area west of that river, after a few decades under Spanish control, was sold by France to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. A substantial part of the future state of Minnesota was included in that transaction.

The French remained influential in the upper Great Lakes region as long as the region made its living from the fur trade. By the third decade of the nineteenth century, the flood of incoming American farmers overwhelmed the fur trade and the slight but extensive French presence. The French presence, like the Indian presence, persists in regional place names (e.g., Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin, or Lac qui Parle, in Minnesota).

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