Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet are celebrities of Midwestern history. Cities and schools are named in their honor and their likenesses appear in art and architecture around the United States. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the event for which Marquette and Jolliet are famous: a canoe voyage down the Mississippi River with five voyageurs in 1673. The anniversary is being widely publicized. My hometown of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, near where the French first entered the Mississippi, is celebrating the event with a carnival. From these commemorations, it might seem that Marquette and Jolliet have always been figures of great historical importance — but the cultural significance of their canoe trip has shifted greatly over the last three and half centuries.
The Debated Claim of “Discovery”
Like other children in my predominantly white hometown, I was told while growing up that Marquette and Jolliet were important because they “discovered” the Mississippi River in 1673. Already by high school, I learned that this was not quite accurate — but not because it neglected the Indigenous nations who had already known the Mississippi for thousands of years. Instead, I learned that the Spaniard Hernando De Soto had “discovered” the Lower Mississippi in 1541, and that other French men, such as Radisson and Groseilliers, had perhaps already seen the Upper Mississippi in the 1650s. Regardless, Marquette and Jolliet were to be commended for making the first written account of the river’s course.
Only as a college undergraduate did I read Marquette’s journal and begin to understand that Marquette and Jolliet were guided and supplied by Native American allies on their journey, traveling water routes that were long established by Menominee, Illiniwek, Quapaw, and other Indigenous nations. Marquette’s account of the voyage makes clear that the travelers not only relied on Indigenous knowledge, but also saw meeting with the people who lived along the Mississippi as the main purpose of their journey. They did not set out to map an empty land — in fact, they set out with a map already started based on reports from Illiniwek people. Marquette and Jolliet traveled to lands that they knew were inhabited because they sought to draw new people into the colonial orbit of France and the Catholic Church. Meeting people was so central to the journey that Marquette could write that the expedition “advanced over 60 leagues since we entered the river, without discovering anything” — until they finally reached the Peoria village of the Illiniwek a week after entering the Mississippi.
Today’s media reports on the 350th anniversary of Marquette and Jolliet’s voyage are making an overdue effort to recognize the centrality of Indigenous people in the expedition, as well as the legacy that the journey had in furthering the European colonization of Indigenous homelands. As Indigenous studies professor Margaret Huettl explained in a discussion with Wisconsin Public Radio, the explorers traveled through “a thriving network of Indigenous economies, politics, and social communities.” Children today hopefully don’t have to reach college before understanding that the 1673 expedition was a meeting of cultures where Europeans followed in the footsteps of Indigenous guides rather than treading new, unbroken ground. At the same time, in commemorating the explorers, today’s reports still dance awkwardly around the notion of “discovery,” acknowledging that the word is misplaced, but struggling to articulate an alternative reason for Marquette and Jolliet’s ongoing significance.
Note: This is a repost of my opinion letter printed in the June 10, 2020, Courier Press. The memorial sits in a federal cemetery managed by the National Cemetery Administration, which opposes any modification to Confederate symbols on its property. More information on the memorial is available from the Historical Marker Database and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Since the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25, Americans across the nation have marched to protest the United States’ long history of institutional racism — from Black slavery and segregation to present disparities in policing and incarceration. In Prairie du Chien, one relic of this white supremacist history endures in the stone and bronze plaque memorializing Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the Fort Crawford Military Cemetery. Lately, cities including Birmingham, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, have begun to remove Confederate monuments in an effort to overcome histories of racial violence. Madison, Wisconsin, removed its Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial from Forest Hill Cemetery in 2017. Prairie du Chien should follow the example of these cities by replacing its own small Confederate plaque with historic markers that better represent local history.
A common objection to the removal of Confederate monuments is that taking them down erases history. The American Historical Association disagrees, noting that “To remove such monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase’ it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” Jefferson Davis briefly stayed at Fort Crawford during the 1830s as a U.S. Army Lieutenant. His time there should continue to be examined in exhibits at the Fort Crawford Museum and books at the library, for we can learn from history only by recognizing both successes and failures, good and evil. That said, the community does not need to preserve a memorial for Davis at the entrance to the cemetery simply because of his brief time here. Prairie du Chien gives no comparable public honor to any other military officer who served at Fort Crawford.
The Summer of 2013 began with floods, washouts, and landslides across the Driftless Area, destroying roadways and inundating homes in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These events bring significant losses and make dramatic news, but they are not new. To the contrary, the Driftless Area’s rugged landscape owes its very existence to millions of years of erosion by floodwater, and that erosion is an ongoing process. Widespread human construction, by contrast, is a recent development in this environment. The repeated rains and landslides of the last decade make clear that communities in the Driftless Area must plan their land use for the inevitable occurrence of further flooding and erosion.
The Driftless Area is prone to flash-floods and landslides in part because of its unique topography, which has a higher degree of slope than surrounding regions. The following map (view map at high-resolution) is colored by slope to highlight this distinction, with steeper hillsides shaded more brightly than level land. The Driftless Area stands out immediately as the bright swath across the center of the map:
The steep terrain of the Driftless Area increases the speed at which run-off collects into drainage channels, ordinarily an advantage, as it dries uplands quickly and prevents water from pooling into stagnant ponds and bogs. During heavy rains, however, water collects more rapidly than some narrow channels can accommodate, leading to sudden flash floods that erode banks and scour new channels. In the meantime, the saturated hillsides — especially those with inadequate vegetation — lose strength and give way, leading to landslides. These are the very processes that created the jagged valleys and steep slopes of the Driftless Area, a landscape forged in unison with running water.
Upon a New Year’s Eve some centuries ago, on an ice-locked island in Lake Michigan, a motley troupe of old fishermen donned grotesque costumes and trudged into the snow. As they ambled about their moonlit village, they rapped on the door of each cabin, presenting a frightening sight to the families within at their firesides, and singing each household a medieval chanson:
Bon jour, le Maître et la Maîtresse,
Et tout le monde du loger.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-le nous;
Nous vous demandons seulement la fille aînée.
This was the French custom of La Guignolée — New Year’s Eve begging — and all that the singers sought, if a host could give no more, was the eldest daughter of the house: la fille aînée. Each home was ready with other gifts, however — for the chanteurs were always expected that night and fêted in exchange for their entertaining song and dance.1 Thus the elderly Mackinac Island fishermen preserved a dying tradition of their medieval French forbears, and the nineteenth century settlers of America’s Old Northwest ushered in another New Year.
All New Year’s customs seem a smidgen strange. For the sake of no more than a new calendar, even in our modern age, we drop everything — crystal balls, shoes, peaches, carp, you name it — to celebrate with champagne and Scottish song. These observances often seem like nothing but the scrag end of Christmas, one last tenuous excuse for revelry before packing up and buttoning down for winter. In the Old Northwest, however, New Year’s was among the most anticipated and most fondly recalled of all the holidays — more so even than Christmas.
In 1962, the U.S. Congress authorized construction of a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River at La Farge, Wisconsin. The dam would protect La Farge and its downstream neighbors from the Kickapoo’s devastating flash floods. It would also create a 1,780 acre reservoir — “Lake La Farge” — that proponents hoped would draw tourists in search of fishing, boating, and lakefront recreation. Over a hundred farmers and landowners were made to sell their real estate to the federal government beginning in 1969 to make way for the planned reservoir. Construction crews set to work rebuilding Wisconsin Highway 131 around the anticipated lake. In 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on an earthen dam at La Farge.
As work progressed, increased environmental scrutiny revealed problems. Studies showed that a dam would not only alter the local ecology and threaten endangered species in the Kickapoo Valley, but also take a severe toll on local water quality. The expense of maintaining the reservoir also raised concerns. In 1975, with the dam partially in place and half of the affected highway rebuilt, a failed cost-benefit analysis led the Corps of Engineers to halt the project. The cost had been $18 million, coupled with the destruction of the valley’s farming community — an unambiguous example of poor foresight and government waste.
Though Lake La Farge was never filled, the incomplete dam and an abrupt corner in Highway 131 remain as visible reminders of the failed project. Likewise, the property acquired for the reservior remains largely vacant, though it at last found use in 2000 when it was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Ho-Chunk Nation and the State of Wisconsin for the creation of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The lake that never was thus remains fixed on the mental map of many Kickapoo Valley residents.
I created the map above to define the extent of the planned lake more clearly. The map is based on elevation data I had downloaded from the USGS NED for my Driftless Area Map, and it simulates the area that would have been flooded if Lake La Farge had been filled to the proposed elevation of 840 feet above sea level. The base layer of the map is a mosaic of 2010 aerial imagery from the USDA National Agricultural Imagery Program. The map does not account for sediment deposition and other landscape changes that the dam could have wrought, but it offers a general picture of how “Lake La Farge” might have fit into the modern landscape.
This September marks the beginning of fall term for more than 180,000 students across the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. The return to school is an opportunity for reunion and renewal, for the discovery of new possibilities and the re-evaluation of old ideas — including the idea of public higher education itself. If this idea is to remain relevant in the years to come, then we must value public universities as something more than a monetary cost to taxpayers and a dollar discount to tuition payers. At the foundation of any real public state university there is a deeper value: service and accountability to the people who make up the state. One need not look farther than the development of the University of Wisconsin itself for an illustration of what this ideal means.
The University of Wisconsin and the State of Wisconsin were created in the same stroke. Article 10, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 declared:
“Provision shall be made by law for the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of government, and for connecting with the same, from time to time, such colleges in different parts of the state, as the interests of education may require.”
Wisconsin’s founders called for a public university in the state constitution, and established the seat of learning as one with the seat of law, because they had an ideal of cultivating productive citizens, and educated citizens, and cultured citizens, but above all else, citizens — participants in a democracy and shapers of law, not mere subjects either of crown or wealth. John Lathrop, the first UW Chancellor, expressed this concept eloquently at his inaugural address on January 16, 1850:
“The American mind has grasped the idea, and will not let it go, that the whole property of the state, whether in common or in severalty, is holden subject to the sacred trust of providing for the education of every child of the state. Without the adoption of this system, as the most potent compensation of the aristocratic tendencies of hereditary wealth, the boasted political equality of which we dream is but a pleasing illusion. Knowledge is the great leveler. It is the true democracy. It levels up—it does not level down.”1
As it grew, the University of Wisconsin only strengthened in its commitment to knowledge as true democracy. In 1894, when economics professor Richard T. Ely was attacked by in the national press as an anarchist and socialist radical for his research interest in the growing labor movement, the UW Board of Regents convened hearings to investigate, and concluded them by issuing a famous defense of the professor and the freedom to pursue knowledge:
“We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”2
Some twenty years after the regents made this proclamation, their “sifting and winnowing” statement was affixed in bronze to University Hall (since renamed for UW President John Bascom), becoming an enduring reminder of the commitment to truth.
In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin had begun to redefine the ways in which knowledge could be disseminated and truth be put to the service of democracy. Under the leadership of Charles Richard Van Hise, UW President from 1903 to 1918, the university advocated what became known around the United States as the Wisconsin Idea: a notion often summarized in the slogan “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state,” meaning that the role of the public university should be public service to all the people of the state and their government — not only the researchers and students on campus. Theodore Roosevelt remarked on this ideal that:
“In no other State in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin. … I found the President and the teaching body of the University accepting as a matter of course the view that their duties were imperfectly performed unless they were performed with an eye to the direct benefit of the people of the State; and I found the leaders of political life, so far from adopting the cheap and foolish cynicism of attitude taken by too many politicians toward men of academic training, turning, equally as a matter of course, toward the faculty of the University for the most practical and efficient aid in helping them realize their schemes for social and civic betterment.”3
The “work for the community” that Roosevelt observed one hundred years ago had a wide scope. Sure, the University of Wisconsin at the dawn of the 20th century offered tuition-free admission to Wisconsin residents, paid for by state taxpayers and federal grants — but this was only typical for a public university of the period. What set Wisconsin apart were the university’s efforts to reach beyond traditional student instruction to improve life across the state.
[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].
The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: “WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING.” The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.
In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation’s theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.
Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called “the guiding spirit” of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case’s parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town’s leading general store. Her parents’ position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield’s famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield’s own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.
At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry’s troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players’ visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation’s community theaters.7
The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.
Note: This article documents flooding that occurred in April 2011. As of May, Prairie du Chien is once more dry and green, and all the parks and historic sites mentioned below are now open for visitors.
The Father of the Waters is reenacting a familiar natural drama at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Swollen by spring rain and melted Minnesota snow, the Mississippi River will carry over 1.5 million gallons of water past town each second during the peak of the Flood of 2011. While the power of the river is awe inspiring, the latest flood is nothing new. At Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi is immersed in history.
On April 11, 2011, floodwater began to creep across the foundations of Fort Crawford, one of Prairie du Chien’s most significant archaeological sites. Built in 1816, Fort Crawford was a federal military installation intended to secure control of the Upper Mississippi River for the United States. It was also situated on an island in the middle of a floodplain.
One year after Fort Crawford had been built, Major Stephen H. Long made an inspection of the post. “In regard to the eligibility of the site upon which Fort Crawford is erected,” wrote Long, “very little can be said in favor but much against it. … The site has been repeatedly subject to inundation, which is always to be apprehended when excessive floods prevail in the river.”
Major Long’s apprehensions proved well-founded. In 1823 he returned to Fort Crawford along with William Keating, who noted:
The river bank is here so low and flat, that by a swell which took place in the Mississippi the summer before we visited it, the water rose upon the prairie, and entered the parade, which it covered to the depth of three or four feet; it penetrated into all the officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, so as to render it necessary for the garrison to remove from the fort and encamp upon the neighboring heights, where they spent about a month. The waters having subsided, at the end of that time, they returned to their quarters; the old men about the village say that such an inundation may be expected every seven years.
Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster’s Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival’s own words:
What’s earth, what’s life, to space, eternity?
‘Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;
And what is it to gain a hero’s name,
or build one’s greatness on the rabble’s roar?
‘Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.
James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival’s early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.
Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that “I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival,” and another observed, “I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.”
After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.
Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled “The Suicide.” The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:
How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e’er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon’s woe.
Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.
The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.
And thou, sweet drug!—can’st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o’er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.
Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.
Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.
Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, “I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him.”
More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.