Effigy Mounds
Historic Resource Study
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European Contact

The Upper Mississippi Valley, including the area encompassed by the monument, was a strategic military and fur-trading zone throughout the period of European contact and American settlement. In fact, what is now the state of Iowa was integrated into the French fur-trading network long before it became part of New France. In 1673, Joliet and Marquette journeyed up the Fox River from Lake Michigan, portaged to the Wisconsin River, and floated downstream to the broad expanse of the Mississippi River. Marquette noted, "The river is narrow at the mouth of the Wisconsin, and the current is slow and gentle; on the right is a considerable chain of very high mountains. It is in many places studded with islands." [39] In this area, just a mile west of the Mississippi River, rested the bluff of what was to become Iowa. Joliet and Marquette did not encounter Indians in present day Iowa until they reached the southern portion of the present state, where they befriended a village of Illinois Indians before returning back to the Great Lakes. Their expedition had mapped out the first feasible route to the Upper Mississippi Valley interior, opening the way for the French advancement into the region. No mention, however, was made of the presence of mounds in the region. [40]

In 1685, Nicholas Perrot, a French trader who in 1684 had been named commandant of the region of La Baye, headquartered in what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin, traveled to the Upper Mississippi Valley to promote peace and trade with the local Ioway Indians. Perrot established a string of forts, or trading posts, along the Mississippi River, including Fort St. Nicholas just above the mouth of the Wisconsin River and a short distance south of Prairie du Chien. Perrot achieved remarkable success in negotiating a series of alliances and treaties, culminating with a 1689 treaty agreed to at Fort St. Antoine on the Upper Mississippi in which tribes acknowledged all of the lands drained by the Upper Mississippi as the possession of France. Perrot engaged in extensive trading with Indians east and west of the Mississippi River, and his fort near Prairie du Chien became a central meeting place for Upper Mississippi Valley Indians and traders. However, by 1700 the fur trade in the region was beginning to decline, Perrot was recalled to Canada, and a long period of instability began. [41]

Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, France's control over the Upper Mississippi Valley was tempered by the aggression of Indians in the region. The Ioway Indians, for whom the state is named, were established in the Upper Mississippi River Valley when the first European explorers arrived in the 1600s. Settled mainly near the Upper Iowa River in what is now Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties, the Ioway were the preeminent Indian group in the region west of the Mississippi during the 1700s. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the aggressive Sauk and Fox tribes had replaced the Ioway as the dominant group in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. In 1738, Pierre Paul Marin, constructed Marin Fort at the mouth of Sny Magill Creek in order to secure trade with the Sauk, Fox, and Winnebago Indians, and contain growing Sioux aggression. [42]

The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, eliminated the French as a colonial power in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The treaty partitioned the mainland of North America between Spain and England along the Mississippi River, with the Spanish acquiring the territory west of the river. The Spanish never successfully extended their authority into the Upper Mississippi. English political authority and economic power flowed into the resulting vacuum largely by means of French Canadian traders, who remained influential in the region. [43] During this period, the small village of Prairie du Chien flourished. Located on a floodplain approximately two miles wide and eight miles long miles, just above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, Prairie du Chien held a strategic importance in the area, serving as a meeting ground for traders and Indians. As one historian described it:

It was a focal point in an area where a colorful pageant of the Middle West unfolded—the coming of the French, the supremacy of the English, Spanish influence in the Trans-Mississippi country, the establishment of military posts by the United States, and the founding of American communities. [44]

Just as its proximity to the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers made the area around Prairie du Chien attractive to the region's prehistoric and Indian residents, its strategic location and the abundance of fur-bearing mammals drew fur traders to the site.

An influential, if controversial, figure in the Upper Mississippi River Valley during this period was Jonathan Carver, a Massachusetts surveyor who traveled through the region between 1766 and 1769 and published a purported account of his journeys that became a popular success after its publication in England in 1778. In spite of his borrowings from other writers, and in spite of his incredible and in some cases monstrous stories of Indian life, Carver's account offers an important glimpse of the Upper Mississippi Valley in the middle of the eighteenth century. In October 1766, Carver reached the Mississippi River by way of the Fox- Wisconsin waterway and noted, as had Joliet and Marquette nearly one hundred years earlier, the high bluff above Prairie du Chien. He describes an Indian town of approximately 300 families occupying the terrace below the bluffs, and notes that "this town is the great mart, where all the adjacent tribes, and even those who inhabit the remote branches of the Mississippi, annually assemble about the latter end of May bringing with them furs to dispose of to the traders." [45]

Carver was the first to report the place as "La Prairie les Chien" (Dog Plains), named after its original Fox Indian inhabitants by French traders. Upon leaving Prairie du Chien, he also mentioned that "A little further to the west, on the contrary side, a small river falls into the Mississippi, which the French call le Juan Riviere, or the Yellow River. Here the traders who had accompanied me hitherto, took up their residence for the winter." [46] From here, Carver took passage up river in a canoe, but his account indicates that traders were accustomed to establishing winter quarters at Yellow River, where they established the first temporary settlements in what eventually became Allamakee County.

Carver also provides one of the earliest descriptions of burial mounds near northeastern Iowa. While seventeenth and eighteenth century French explorers and traders made occasional references to mounds, no mention was made of the existence of effigy mounds. This perhaps was due to the fact that the effigies, situated in low relief above the terrain, likely were covered with heavy vegetation and not obvious landscape features.

In 1781, French settlers Pierre Antaya, Augustin Ange, and Basil Giard bought land from the Fox Indians to establish a fort at Prairie du Chien. By this point, French from the Illinois Country and French and English-speaking Canadians had begun to build their homes upon the prairie. Traders, voyageurs, and merchants from Montreal paddled up and down the waterways, bringing goods for the fur trade and forging strong ties with the American Indians. From 1795 on rumors that Spain had secretly agreed to cede Louisiana back to France fueled American desires to acquire the territory west of the Mississippi. Retrocession of Louisiana to France occurred in 1801, and in 1803 Napoleon sold the entire area to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. [47]

The arrival of Europeans in the region meant a profitable trade for Iowa's American Indians. Initially, both sides gained from the trade: pelts for the Europeans and manufactured goods for the Indians. However, it also led to continuing conflicts over territories and resources. By the late 1700s, the fur trade was a well-established "big business," profiting countries, companies, traders, and Indians alike. As the trade became lucrative, forts and trading posts were established to facilitate, secure, and protect French interests. Conflicts increased as rival foreign companies vied with U.S. companies for their share of the fur trade. The advent of liquor as a trading currency, coupled with increased use of credit, worsened relations between the government, tribes, and traders. As hostilities increased and white settlers pressed farther into the river valley, the United States government began moving the Indians west. As the fur trade shifted westward, Upper Mississippi Valley tribes dependent on the trade lost their most important means of entry into the European and American capitalist economies.

View from Hanging Rock
View from Hanging Rock.
Courtesy of National Park Service

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003