- Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750–1860 by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy
In this study, Lucy Eldersveld Murphy examines how the Creoles of Prairie du Chien, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, shaped and experienced the community's incorporation into the United States. With its origins as a Meskwaki (or Fox) village, [End Page 379] Prairie du Chien emerged as an outpost of the French fur trade and grew into an important fur-trade center that served a diverse Indigenous population. By the end of the eighteenth century, a Creole town had taken root there, with a multi-ethnic population comprised primarily of the descendants of Indigenous women and Francophone men. It was, as Murphy points out, one of many such towns scattered across the Great Lakes region, in which networks of fur-trade families forged a distinctive and syncretic culture that fused elements of the region's Indigenous cultures with those of the French.
Murphy's study traces how the members of these multi-ethnic communities navigated the formal assertion of American control over the region following the War of 1812. She argues that the economic power Creole merchants wielded through their fur-trade networks and their social and cultural connections to surrounding Meskwaki, Sauk, Ho-Chunk (or Winnebago), Dakota, and other Indigenous nations, shaped the early patterns of incorporation into the republic. The need to maintain Creole support for American expansion at a time when American claims to the region were tenuous helped secure a space for them in this new order. In this setting, the participation of Creole men in the formal political sphere as voters, jurors, and even as political appointees, was necessary to the function of these institutions. Murphy argues that Creole men and women were even able to bend the institutions and expectations of American-style democracy to reflect community prerogatives. More important, Prairie du Chien's Creoles were able to secure confirmation of their lands and to remain rooted in the community, thereby avoiding the patterns of dispossession and economic subservience that typically characterized colonization in other settings. The arrival of large numbers of Anglo American immigrants in the region during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, tipped the demographic scales decisively in favor of the newcomers and eroded the basis for Creole power as settler agrarian economies replaced those rooted in the fur trade.
In this regard, Murphy's study offers an unusually sustained and up-close look at the interactions between Creoles and outsiders during this critical period of transition. It stands out, however, for the particular attention it pays to the role that Creole women played in mediating the experience of American settler colonialism and to the ways that American conquest restricted women's political authority. For instance, new American laws transformed marriage from its traditional role as a mechanism [End Page 380] for incorporating outsiders into Great Lakes communities into a mechanism for detaching women from Indigenous communities and ensuring access by outsider men to the land and resources they held. Creole women, after all, were at the heart of the sprawling kinship networks that stitched together extended families in the eighteenth-century Great Lakes region and that nested Creole communities within this broader Indigenous world. In the 1820s, these networks came under attack when grand juries indicted Creole couples for fornication and adultery because they had been married according to the custom of the country, and not according to American law. Remarriage according to American legal custom brought with it formal incorporation into the American legal system, but it also stripped Creole women of the right to hold their own property or to make contracts independently from their husbands. If women shouldered the high costs of incorporation into the American body politic, Murphy also shows how some women circumvented such restrictions and forged more public roles. In fact, women's charity...