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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 22, 2003 - Issue 83


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Jean Baptiste Perrault Information from The Wisconsin Frontier


Chapter 5 - The Struggle Over the Upper Lakes
Subtitled: Four Traders (Pages 102-104)


credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)


Four Traders

Northwest Company Flag and CrestJournals and memoirs of four fur traders active in northern Wisconsin in this period reveal how the fur trade was transforming this frontier and its inhabitants. These writing record the activities of Jean Baptiste Perrault, 1783-1799; George Nelson, 1802-3; Michael Curot, 1803-4; and François Malhiot, 1804-5.

The four witnessed, and sometimes carried out, the worst excesses of competition between the large Montreal-based companies, as gifts and alcohol became bribes that debauched both the recipient and giver. By the closing decades of the eighteenth century it is clear that Indians are becoming heavily dependent upon European trade goods, and tribes that once held aloof now rushed to seek out traders. This competition was played out amid the continuing Sioux-Chippewa warfare that erupted across northwestern Wisconsin and westward into northern Minnesota.

Jean Baptiste Perrault was born in Trois Rivières on the St. Lawrence in 1761, entered the fur trade in 1783, and did not return from the west for a visit to the lower lakes for twenty-two years. Perrault first went as a trader to Cahokia, in Illinois, then on the Red Cedar near the site of Menomonie in 1785, came to Prairie du Chien at the time of the 1786-87 treaty sessions, clerked for Pierre Grignon at Green Bay immediately thereafter, ran a post on the Red Cedar in 1788-89, and traded at Lac Vieux Desert in 1792, when he began working for the North West Company. In 1799 he was on the Red Cedar again. "I could not settle down in any place," he later admitted.

Perrault's operations in 1792 centered on what would become Wisconsin's northeastern border with Michigan at Lac Vieux Desert, headwaters of the Wisconsin River. Perrault selected six men at Mackinac and gave them "good wages, for no one was obliged to enter here, because of the length of the portage." They indeed earned their pay, for low water in the Ontonagon River forced the crew to cache their canoes until spring and portage all their goods - 40 packs - for thirty-three days. At one point Perrault stopped to separately cache five kegs of rum, one of gun powder, and two of lead and ball. Another trader was already operating out of Lac Vieux Desert, and Perrault joined him to cover the area from l'Anse at the foot of the Keweenaw Bay to Lac du Flambeau. Their first Indian visitors, coming from the Wisconsin River headwaters, were given tobacco and a two-gallon keg of rum to distribute to other Indians to encourage their hunting activities. Perrault and his crew soon faced new difficulties: they had to make fishing nets, and also had to hollow out a log to use as a boat since they were unable to construct one of birchbark. Next spring an Indian was hired to make three canoes of moose skins for them to use in descending the river - demonstrating again the trader's dependence on Indians.

Meat from moose and other large game was plentiful at Lac Vieux Desert. Also, Perrault had the men carve out 450 wooden bowls to use in making maple sugar; seven kegs of sugar were eventually produced. But in the end the meat, fish, and sugar at Lac Vieux Desert proved more abundant than furs: despite a good beginning, Perrault received only 200 plus (a plus was the basic measurement of pelts, defined as enough furs to equal one beaver pelt. Perrault's trappers therefore caught furs of many animals, worth 200 beaver skins) of peltries, and half a pack of beaver. He told the Indians he would not return - the district was simply unprofitable, the portage too difficult.

During Perrault's years in the fur trade Wisconsin he witnessed the extreme reliance of Indians upon trade goods: as one of the Chippewas told Perrault at the Red Cedar post, "whites are the support of the savages; we could not live without them." But trapping conditions were changing, and the Indians could not always bring in enough furs to erase their extensive credit - at Lac Vieux Desert the Indians had been given 300 plus worth of credits, but supplied only 200 plus in furs.

Although Perrault labored for the North West Company for twelve years after 1793, he did not grow to love his employer. In 1810, while with another company, he had a run-in with North West and was threatened; he later explained, "It is necessary to remark that at that time the North West was Legislator and King,; it killed, hanged, stole, and violated, etc. The enormity of their crimes let to their fall."

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