Great Lakes Creoles A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860 by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy
Lucy Murphy adroitly focuses her lens on the complex tale of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, a community peopled by Native Americans, French-Canadian fur traders, British soldiers, and eventually Americans (and even a few African Americans) after the American Revolution. Europeans first entered the native world slowly, inter-marrying and establishing a multi-ethnic Creole community only to face further change when Anglo-Americans took control and eventually became the community’s majority. For Native American historians (and others) looking for a deeper glimpse into this world, Murphy’s probing analysis of the mixed multitudes of one small fur-trading community delivers. And, if that were not enough, Murphy adds another layer to her study: she compares this borderland to that of the American Southwest after the Mexican-American War—where the community’s pioneers became the political minority—and to that of the Métis culture that developed on the western Canadian border in the late nineteenth-century—there probing why that culture developed a clear indigenous ancestry, whereas south of the border in the Great Lakes area a similar culture never arose.
Murphy begins in the 1750s, tracing the community’s transition from Native American Meskwaki village to fur-trade enclave. By the early nineteenth-century the Meskwakis had relocated, although some remained behind, having intertwined their lives with European-descended fur traders and borne them children. With the establishment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the final showdown of the War of 1812, the United States government began to assert its control of the town. Government officials courted the Creole community they found there, recognizing Creole support would only aid United States’ control, legitimizing America’s domination and opening of the West to Anglo-American settlers. The most vital point, Murphy argues here, was that this courtship prompted the United States government to identify the Creole community as white. [End Page 81]
Next, Murphy assesses the shifting political structure as Prairie du Chien came under United States’ control. Because of the region’s multi-ethnicity, U.S. officials—as a minority—had to tread carefully, identifying Creoles as white, evidenced by their voting and serving on juries. Native Americans were deliberately left out of this process, but even Creoles with Metis status and Metis wives still fell into the white political categorization. Murphy shows that Creoles exerted much agency politically in the early days, defending themselves against what they deemed inappropriate newcomer behaviors that did not mesh with their established ways. As American control solidified and relegated Creoles to minority status, the town’s Creoles managed to hold some strength within the new legal system, despite their mixed-race realities. However, the rising Anglo tide reduced Creole influence considerably by the 1830s. But Creoles’ “white status” labelled them to identify culturally rather than racially: as French, rather than Métis. Here was why most mixed Native American groups south of the border diverged from their northwestern neighbors in Canada.
Perhaps one of Murphy’s most striking contributions to Native American studies is her work on gender. The chapter “Public Mothers” describes a different gender world denied to Anglo women but open to the town’s Creoles. Many of the town’s Creole women managed to position themselves as cultural mediators, explaining Creole and Native ways to incoming Euro-Americans, especially via marriage, adoption, and traditional gender roles in areas of charity, hospitality, midwifery, and the like. Whereas Creole men were increasingly denied a political voice as American numbers rose, Creole women managed to meet on a middle ground with American women. They served as public mothers, Murphy asserts, mediating between the various ethnic groups and succeeding in connecting Creoles, Native Americans, African Americans, and Euro-Americans by shared women’s activities that aided both private and public spheres, the latter sought by traditional “female” activities noted above. Their mediation, Murphy argues, further solidified Creoles as “whites” in the community, preventing the group from becoming outsiders, even as they became a minority.
By the 1840s, Murphy shows how Creoles became increasingly localized as Prairie du Chien’s economy shifted with the advent of the railroad. A few Creoles worked alongside elite Anglos, but most Creoles turned inward, keeping to their ethnic neighborhoods and preferring to speak French. The closing decades of Murphy’s study saw Native Americans increasingly forced out of the area from disease and white settlement. Only those who had combined their interests with French-Canadian fur traders long ago remained and managed to keep some ancestral lands intact.
Finally, Murphy investigates the overarching connection of Great Lakes Creole communities to those of Mexican Americans in the American Southwest and Canadian Métis to the northwest. Both Creoles and Mexican Americans became minorities as the United States conquered and claimed their territories. But Creoles differed by managing three things that kept them largely autonomous in the midst of the broadening American culture: they held onto much of their land, remained economically independent, and retained “white” political standing. In contrast, Mexican Americans did not. And where Canadian Métis formed themselves as a distinctly oppositional group to the emerging Canadian government, viewing themselves [End Page 82] as a separate indigenous people, Great Lakes Creoles of Prairie du Chien, as described above, did not.
While the emphasis in this review centers on the Creole community of Prairie du Chien, Murphy is very careful to emphasize how important the community’s native beginnings were. Twentieth-century Prairie du Chien Creoles remained very conscious of their Native American connections. Murphy concludes that in the end, the town’s Creoles assimilated by joining the Anglo culture of politics, education, and religion, while deliberately keeping themselves apart in their own neighborhoods and therein retaining many Native communal traditions. They maintained their position by their impressive adaptability and, by adapting, managed to keep a “white” status and hold on to land and life, long after “official” Native American life in the town had been removed.