Starting in the 1780s, a number of French-Creole settlements emerged in Wisconsin. Among these were La Baie (Green Bay), Portage, Prairie du Chien, and La Pointe. These settlements are referred to as “creole” due to their multiracial, multicultural nature. Inhabitants were a mixture of Europeans, Indians,and Méti that originally gathered due to the fur trade. The culture of these settlements was also a unique combination of all these groups with some local adaptations as well. These Creole settlements were a rather unique outcome of the fur trade.
The Creoles continued to be an important element to these settlements until after Wisconsin becomes American in 1816. With the coming of the new Yankee government, businesses, and settlers; the “French” are slowly and systematically marginalized.
Above: A photo from the Fur Trade weekend at Madeline Island where I was reenacting and teaching about Creole farm life. Notice the dog and cart.
A note on the term “creole” – There is a wave in current scholarship to start using the term “creole” whereas some have used the word Métis. This is seen especially in some of the recent work of Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, however was used early by the Rentmeester’s in their work on Wisconsin Creoles. Additonally a lot of historic sources use this term. Anyway, I have come to prefer it for two reasons. 1.) it avoids the issues that many Indian communities have with the word métis/Métis and with the fact that there are federally recognized people that are Métis in Canada. 2.) there were many non-métis folks living in these communities (full Indian and full Euro) that took on the culture of the overall. Creole is a better term for these multi-racial, multi-cultural settlements that form in Wisconsin; as it looks at the whole group regardless of their race and focuses on the shared cultural metissage that forms in these communities. In the words of Lucy Eldersveld Murphy (in A Gathering of Rivers: Indians, Métis, and Mining in the Western Great Lakes):
“Although the families who lived in these towns had Métis children – that is, of mixed Indian and Caucasian races – it would not be accurate to call these towns Métis… To do so would be to miss the point that these towns were not only multiracial but also incredibly multiethnic: A typical family might include a French Canadian husband, a Dakota or Ojibwe wife, their Métis children, and kin, servants, and other employees with Winnebago, Mesquakie, Menominee, Pawnee, Scottish, or even African ethnic heritages.”