Friday, June 10, 2022

The Wisconsin Frontier by Mark Wyman

When Wisconsin was the Wild West
Published in 1998 as part of the Indiana University Press series A History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier, The Wisconsin Frontier is a comprehensive history of the Badger State from the early 17th century, when White explorers first arrived, to 1900, when Western expansion had progressed to the point where Wisconsin could no longer be considered the American frontier. During this time span, the events that shaped the state were largely driven by interactions between Native Americans and Whites. Author Mark Wyman delivers a detailed and balanced history that gives both sides equal consideration and emphasizes the cooperations and conflicts between the two parties in the settling of the state’s lands and the exploitation of its resources.

I was born and raised in the Green Bay area, the history of which Wyman covers extensively because it was the first point of European contact and integral to the fur trade. This book refreshed my memory and taught me more about all the hallowed names that passed through that region—Jean Nicolet, Claude Allouez, Louis André, Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, etc.—as well as the area’s Native inhabitants—the Winnebagos, Foxes, Sacs, Potawotamis, Kickapoos, Ottawas, Oneidas, and more. It was surprising to learn of the prevalence of slavery, of both Blacks and Indians, in Green Bay in the late 18th century. The northern Lake Superior coast, in the area of Ashland and Bayfield, is also much discussed for its importance to the French fur trade. The other major center of activity in early Wisconsin was the Prairie du Chien area, for its access to the Mississippi River and the lead mines of Southwestern Wisconsin. Milwaukee doesn’t really take off until the flood of European immigrants in the 19th century. Roughly the first third of the book focuses largely on the fur trade, Wisconsin’s initial reason for being. Wyman then goes on to examine the mining boom, settlement and agriculture, the waves of immigration from various nations and faiths of Europe, and finally the timber industry.

Through each stage of development discussed in The Wisconsin Frontier, Native Americans are present and accounted for. Wyman rightly portrays them as active agents in the historical events, business dealings, and intercultural transactions that took place rather than merely as passive victims to be pushed aside. Wisconsin does not have quite as brutal a history as some other states, but it does have its fair share of shameful episodes in Indian affairs—broken treaties, forced migrations, violent altercations—which Wyman discusses in frank and sober terms. His writing is neither judgmentally preachy nor romantically flashy but very matter-of-fact, articulate, and loaded with fascinating detail. Wyman concludes the book on a depressing note with the Indians either driven from the state or confined to reservations and much of Wisconsin’s rich natural resources having been destroyed by rapacious hunters, miners, and loggers.

The intended audience for this book seems to be undergraduate college students and general readers interested in the history of the state. For such nonacademic (without PhDs in history) audiences, there has been a trend among publishers to eliminate notes (foot-, chapter-, or endnotes) for fear that tiny numbers in the text may intimidate readers and hinder book sales. In keeping with this intelligence-insulting practice, this book only provides a few notes per chapter. It really should have had complete notes citing the sources for all the information, quotes, and statistics presented. Instead, it provides a bibliographic essay that is harder to read and less useful than a traditional alphabetical bibliography would have been. If you find an interesting nugget of information in the text and really want to learn more, the lack of detailed citations makes it difficult if not impossible to track down the source.

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