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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

The War of 1812 in Wisconsin

The Battle of Prairie du Chien: Historical Synopsis

by Michael Douglas

In the summer of 1814, the War of 1812 arrived in Prairie du Chien. It was a conflict that did not have support throughout the United States, that was laden with confusion as to its causes, and ended in uncertainty with reversion to the status quo prior to the declaration of war. Yet as a result of the war, the United States demonstrated to Europe it was a force with which to be reckoned. Also, the United States finally established military and economic control over all its territory. The Indians of the Great Lakes lost an ally and could be subjected to the authority of the Americans; the financial gains to be reaped from the fur trade and sale of lands in the Northwest Territory could fill the coffers of the United States.

Prairie du Chien's American Fur Co. post, 1820s. Ft. Crawford, Shelby's successor, is just left.
Prairie du Chien's American Fur Co. post, 1820s. Ft. Crawford, Shelby's successor, is just left.

The reasons the United States declared war against Great Britain in June 1812 are many and complicated, and often were intertwined. They included such issues as impressment, naval blockades by Britain, an embargo on British goods, seizure of ships and cargo, and renewal of Indian warfare on the western frontier. Perhaps the best cause for the declaration was that war with Great Britain presented an opportunity for the United States to advance its own interests. Military strategy defined where the interest lay. Forces were organized to take Canada—by gaining control of the Great Lakes, and to free the West of the Indian menace as fomented by the British. Prairie du Chien was to experience the effects of military strategy.

Prairie du Chien was a small community whose residents found employment in the fur trade. Composed of French-Canadians, many of mixed-blood descent, and British-Canadians, the residents were tied to the Canadian fur trade based in Montreal, which depended heavily on good relations with the Indian nations for its success. By the fall of 1812, the war was being felt in Prairie du Chien.

Though part of United States territory, Prairie du Chien was economically controlled by Great Britain. Canadian traders established trading houses on the prairie and actively engaged in the fur trade with the Indians of the upper Mississippi and its tributaries. In the fall, goods were transported from Montreal through the Great Lakes and the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to Prairie du Chien; the furs acquired during the winter making the return trip in the spring. The declaration of was soon interfered with the trade. Though British forces captured Detroit and Mackinac in the early months of the war, the naval engagements along the Atlantic coast and in the Great Lakes hampered the transportation of goods from England to the trading regions of the west.

The Indians though, who were partners in the fur trade, had ceased gathering furs to fight against the Americans before the hostilities had been declared. The Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811 opened a new round of warfare between the Great Lakes Indians and the constantly advancing American frontier. Winnebago, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Sauk Indians from Wisconsin and Illinois were the main force in the Battle of Tippecanoe. When war was declared between the United States and Great Britain, the more militant anti-American Indians secured active cooperation and support from the British in their attempt to halt American settlers from the East. In return Menominee, Winnebago, Ojibwa, Dakota, Sauk, and Mesquakie traveled to the Detroit region to participate in the siege of the American forts. This participation in hostilities took the Indians away from the fur trade.

In the Mississippi valley, war parties were organized to attack the Americans at Fort Madison, the lead region, and the few Americans who resided at Prairie du Chien. Fearing for themselves, the residents of Prairie du Chien appealed to the British Government at Mackinac for protection and requested that assistance and ammunition be sent to them. In response, the Prairie du Chien Militia was organized was organized under the command of Captain Francis Michael Dease. These men were to protect the village from hostile Indians in search of food and to resist the American forces that Britain anticipated would come up the Mississippi river from St. Louis.

It was a situation laden with tension. Within the village lived supporters of the American cause and supporters of Great Britain. Both feared the roving bands of Indians who had neglected the fur trade and their fields and who were thus dependent on the traders for needed supplies. But because of the hostilities, goods were not plentiful and houses of the Americans were plundered.

In the summer of 1814 the United States decided to do something about the perceived British threat at Prairie du Chien and to secure the upper Mississippi for the United States. In June, American soldiers from St. Louis arrived at Prairie du Chien. Commandeering land, they erected a fort on a mound situated behind the village. The fort, named Fort Shelby, for Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, was garrisoned by 60 United States troops and their officers, with additional protection provided by the gunboat, Governor Clark, anchored in the Mississippi to the west of the fort. Upon the arrival of the United States troops, many of the residents, especially traders, left Prairie du Chien and traveled to Fort Michilimackinac asking the British commander for assistance.

Prairie du Chien's American Fur Co. post, 1820s. Ft. Crawford, Shelby's successor, is just left. William McKay, a trader, was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized to form and lead a military expedition to Prairie du Chien. Three prominent traders, Joseph Rolette, Thomas Anderson, and Pierre Grignon, were commissioned captains of companies of volunteers to be drawn from the ranks of voyageurs. One British regular was attached to the force. Sergeant James Keating, of the Royal Artillery, was to man the brass three-pound field cannon allocated to the expedition. A small company of Michigan Fencibles was placed under McKay's authority. Robert Dickson, British Indian Agent, attached part of his Indian force to the expedition consisting of three bands of Dakota and about one hundred Winnebago with a few Mesquakie. To keep the Indians under control, officers of the Indian Department, including Michael Brisbois, Jr., of Prairie du Chien, accompanied the group. At Green Bay, Menominee and Ojibwa joined. By the time they reached the Mississippi river just below Prairie du Chien McKay estimated his force at 650 men.

The force arrived in Prairie du Chien on Sunday July 17. Positioning the companies around the prairie, about noon, terms of surrender were presented to Lieutenant Joseph Perkins, commander of United States troops in the fort. Upon refusal, fighting commenced with an attack on the gunboat. By late in the day, the Governor Clark was forced to cut her lines because of the accuracy of the three-pound gun. Drifting away from Prairie du Chien, Fort Shelby was left without provisions and ammunition.

The battle desultorily continued for two or more days with the Indians growing restless and McKay positioning his troops closer to the fort. Finally the British-Canadians decided to end the stalemate and began to prepare hot shot for the three-pounder to set the wooden fort afire. Confronted with diminishing ammunition, no provisions, a lack of water, and potential fire, the Americans presented a flag of truce. Terms of surrender were negotiated. The morning of July 20, Lt. Perkins and the troops marched out of the fort and laid down their arms. The men were paroled and arrangements were made to send the Americans back to St. Louis. It had been a bloodless affair but secured British control of the entire upper Mississippi valley. To insure the territory remained British, a fort was to be maintained in Prairie du Chien. Fort Shelby was invested with British forces from Mackinac and renamed Fort McKay.

The Battle of Prairie du Chien will be interpreted through battle scenarios presented each day during the War of 1812 in Wisconsin re-enactment. Each scenario will be narrated and will take visitors through a portion of the battle. Each scenario will feature advancing troops, musket fire and cannon fire. Through these scenarios visitors will gain insights into multiple issues, details, and events of the Battle of Prairie du Chien.

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