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

The Indians at the Time of Contact, 1600-1850

Native American cultures had occupied the Upper Midwest for centuries before whites arrived in the region. The invading whites were properly impressed by the thousands of burial mounds then to be found in the southern portions of the region, left behind by the extinct Hopewellian and Mississippian cultures. The Indians encountered by the whites at the time of contact depended upon fishing and hunting for a livelihood and spoke the Iroquois, Algonquin and Siouan languages. The European presence to the east had by then transformed Indian life. Indians became dependent upon guns and other western goods (and, often, got western diseases in the bargain). They warred with each other for primacy in their trade with the Europeans. Huron dominance of the Upper Great Lakes and eastern trade, and the Hurons themselves, were destroyed by the Iroquois in the mid-seventeenth century. The Sioux had been forced to move west by the Chippewa. Indians formed alliances with one and then another colonial power as power shifted from one to another. Charles Langlade, a half-white Indian leader known as the father of Wisconsin, helped the French defeat Braddock and the British; then fought with Burgoyne and the British against the Americans, and then lived out the balance of his life as an American. Remnant tribes huddled together. Stockbridge Indians, moving west from Massachusetts, lived with the Oneidas in central New York, before moving (with some Oneidas) to Green Bay, where they negotiated with resident Winnebago and Menominee Indians to win the right to establish a settlement.

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"Chief Little Crow." With pen and pencil on the frontier in 1851; the diary and sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, by Francis Blackwell Mayer (Saint Paul, 1932).

There was talk of setting aside part of what became the Northwest Territory as an Indian reserve or even as a state with all the perquisites of other states. Such talk ceased as white settlement approached the area. In each of the Upper Midwest states, whites assumed title to one stretch of Indian land after another, in breathtakingly short order, as that land became accessible to them. The white advance often culminated in a final desperate stand on the part of the Indians, as seen on a large scale in the uprising led by Pontiac (1763-66) and again in that led by Tecumseh (1811-13), and on a lesser scale in the Black Hawk War (1832) in Wisconsin and the Sioux Uprising (1862) in Minnesota. Often friends among the whites, in applying one or another "white" remedy to the Indian "problem," were as destructive to Indian ways of life as were their avowed enemies. The defeated Indians were finally exiled from territory coveted by the whites, to reservations within the Upper Midwest states or to remote western areas devoid of white settlers. Once the wars and resettlements were over, significant numbers of Indians remained in each of the three states, on the reservations and in the cities. In fact, in the recent past their numbers have increased dramatically. The white debt to the Indians in the exploration and settlement of the region is indirectly evidenced in the abundance of Indian place names for every feature of the landscape.