Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

A Yankee Traveler

I. Ambitious Plans

At the close of the war which gave the Northwest to the English there was living in Connecticut a dreamer of dreams whose name was Jonathan Carver. When a young man he had enlisted in the British army, and by his energy and courage he had finally

risen to the rank of captain. The great Northwest with its hidden mysteries and its future possibilities had interested him from his childhood. He had read of Jean Nicolet, of La Salle, of Hennepin, and of Verendrye; and he was fired with a desire to complete the discoveries which they had begun. He would trace the Mississippi to its source; he would lay bare the mystery of the great westward flowing river; he would discover the long-sought water route to the Pacific.

There were other less visionary plans which he hoped to carry out. He would make correct maps and charts of the country so lately added to the possessions of Great Britain, and he would gain a knowledge of its soil, its products, and its inhabitants. Then he would ascertain the breadth of the North American continent at its widest part, and would learn what was the nature of its surface and what the extent of its rivers and mountains. In case he should succeed in all these schemes, he proposed to establish a trading post on the Pacific coast near the so-called straits of Annian, which, having been discovered by Sir Francis Drake, belonged of course to the king of England.

In June, 1766, Captain Carver started from Boston on his enterprise of discovery. Three months later he reached Mackinac, the most western of the English posts on the lakes. There he obtained a supply of goods for use in dealing with the Indians, and then pushed onward to Green Bay.

At the head of the bay, and not far from the old Jesuit mission of St. Francis Xavier, there was a stockade which had been built by the French and called Fort la Baie. The history of this fort was well known to Carver. A small English force under Lieutenant Gorell had taken possession of it in 1761, and had rechristened it Fort Edward Augustus. The walls were in a ruinous condition, and the place was but poorly fitted to withstand an attack from any foe. But Lieutenant Gorell was as wise as he was brave. He treated the Indians with great fairness, and at the same time made them understand that he would punish any false dealing on their part. In this way he won their respect and friendship. Ten days after the bloody massacre at Mackinac, an Indian messenger brought the news to Green Bay, together with a letter of warning and advice from Captain Etherington, who was then a prisoner of the Ottawas.

Obedient to his captain's orders, Lieutenant Gorell abandoned Fort Edward Augustus and embarked all his men in canoes, saying that he was going to Mackinac to restore order. Ninety Indian warriors went with him. At the village of L'Arbre Croche, near Mackinac, he found Captain Etherington and eleven other prisoners—all who remained from the massacre—in the hands of the Ottawas. He called a council of the chiefs, and by wise and courageous action persuaded them to give the Englishmen their freedom. Then all embarked again, and escorted by a fleet of Indian canoes, started toward the white settlements in the east. A month later they reached Montreal, having come by the old French route down the Ottawa River.

II. An Early View of the Northwest

When Jonathan Carver reached Fort Edward Augustus it was in the same ruinous condition in which Lieutenant Gorell had left it. A few French families were living within the stockade, and on the other side of the river were some small French houses with little gardens around them. Carver thought that it was a very pleasant though lonely place, and the people seemed to be comfortable and contented.

Going on up the river, he came to Lake Winnebago, and visited the chief town of the Winnebagoes which was then on Doty's Island. Here were about fifty houses, all strongly built and surrounded by palisades. The ruler of the tribe was a woman, who received Carver kindly and entertained him as hospitably as she could. Farther up the lake was another but smaller town of the same tribe.

Carver, following the course of Marquette and Joliet, soon came to the portage between the Fox River and the Wisconsin. Here his canoe was carried for a mile and a half—part of the way over a wet meadow and part of the way through a straggling forest of oak and pine.

From the portage he descended the Wisconsin to the great village of the Sacs at the place now called Prairie du Sac. This village, if we are to believe his very doubtful story, was a wonderful place. He tells us that the houses were built of hewn planks with broad porches in front, and so disposed as to form long and beautiful streets. A great trade in provisions was carried on there, and lead was so plentiful that it could be picked up in the streets.

On the left bank of the Mississippi River, just above the mouth of the Wisconsin, was Prairie du Chien, the principal village of the Fox Indians, which Carver describes as being another very busy place. Throughout this whole region not a single white man was to be found; but while passing through Lake Pepin, a few days later, the traveler was shown the ruins of the fort where Legardeur de St. Pierre had lived and traded with the Sioux more than twenty years before.

Our traveler explored the country along both banks of the Mississippi as far as to the St. Francis River in Minnesota. One day as he was standing near the place now occupied by the twin cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis, he pictured to himself the future of the region about the head waters of the Mississippi. Here, thought he, was a place designed by nature for the seat of a future great empire. Eastward, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence would afford an easy communication with the Atlantic seaboard. Southward, the Great River would give ready access to the Gulf. Westward, there would doubtless soon be discovered some practical route to the Pacific coast. Northward, there were water ways leading to Hudson Bay and the unexplored regions bordered by the Arctic seas. And then, as if gifted with the spirit of prophecy, Carver made this note in his journal: "As the seat of empire from time immemorial has been gradually progressive toward the west, there is no doubt that, at some future period, mighty kingdoms will emerge from these wildernesses, and stately palaces and solemn temples, with gilded spires reaching the skies, will supplant the Indian huts, whose only decorations are the barbarous trophies of their vanquished enemies."

III. Carver's Grant

For one whole winter, Carver lived among the Sioux Indians, and according to his own account he made himself so agreeable to these savages of the distant West that they adopted him into their tribe and made him one of their chiefs. While sitting by the camp fires of his dusky friends, or resting in their wigwams, he busied himself taking notes of his discoveries and making maps of the Northwest country. His maps were drawn with much care and were based both upon his own observations and upon the reports brought to him by the Indians.

He believed that the great westward flowing river which Verendrye and St. Pierre had sought for in vain would yet be discovered; and in one of his maps he placed its source in a small lake a little way west of the source of the Mississippi. This river he called the "Origan," and he traced its probable course as it flowed through unbounded plains to the far distant Pacific. As for the Rocky Mountains, mentioned by Legardeur de St. Pierre, he argued that they had no existence except as "a single peak of bright stones "rising out of the plains north of the great river.

For some reason which he never explained, Carver did not go much farther west. Late in the summer he returned to the lakes, and in the following year he reached Boston. He had traveled, according to his own estimate, about seven thousand miles. His theories and the story of his explorations awakened much interest; and there were men of wealth who were willing to aid him in finding a way from the Mississippi to the Pacific. But trouble was already brewing between the colonies and the mother country, and, before any plans could be matured, the breaking out of the Revolutionary War put an end to all further thoughts of new discoveries in the distant West.

After the death of Carver his descendants claimed that the Sioux Indians had granted to him a tract of land more than a hundred miles square in the western part of what is now the state of Wisconsin. A deed in Carver's hand-writing, signed by two Indian chiefs, was presented in evidence of this grant. In it the boundary line of this tract was described as beginning at the Falls of St. Anthony and running thence "on the east banks of the Mississippi, nearly southeast, as far as the south end of Lake Pepin, and from thence eastward five days' travel, accounting twenty English miles per day, and from thence north six days' travel, and from thence again to the Falls of St. Anthony on a direct straight line." Many persistent efforts were made to induce Congress to confirm and legalize this grant, but all finally failed. For nearly fifty years the territory, known as "Carver's Tract," was distinctly marked and named on all maps of the Northwest.