"La Portage" Gets a Visit
from the British.

By Mark Tully

Though no battles were fought there, the Fox/Wisconsin Portage was an important site during the years of the American Revolution. This narrow, swampy strip of land formed a "Continental divide" of sorts -- separating the north-flowing Fox River and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence watershed from the south-flowing Wisconsin River and the Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico watershed. The portage had been used by local Indian populations since pre-history, and was "discovered" by Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1668. Many traders and explorers followed in their wake, and by the mid-1700's the Fox/Wisconsin Portage had become an important junction point for the burgeoning fur trade industry.1 In 1766, Jonathan Carver was sent by Robert Rogers (the notorious leader of Roger's Rangers and then commandant at Michilimackinac) to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Carver arrived at the portage on October 11, 1766. and wrote:

"Arrivd at the Great Carrying Place between the Sax's [Fox] River and the Ouisconsin. This portage wants a little of being two miles from one of these rivers to the other. One half of the way is a marsh which makes the carriage much more difficult. The other part is very good going, being a sort of oak plain [oak savanna]. The Sax River from the Winebaygoe Lake upwards has many windings and turnings, some places a hard current but no rapids. Its length about 200 [175] miles in its course, the breadth from five yards at the carrying place to forty rods [just over 200 yards] where it falls into the [Green] Bay." 2
British, French, and Indian traders used the Fox/Wisconsin Portage all through the American Revolution, paddling their valuable furs from the wilderness west of the Mississippi up through Green Bay and on to Michilimackinac for transport to Quebec. Protecting this trade route was of vital importance to the British, and was one of the principle reasons for maintaining the military post at Michilimackinac.

portage mapRight: Detail of a 1719 Map of the Fox/Wisconsin portage (upper left, marked with a cross). Note that at this time Lake Michigan is called Lake Illinois. Chicago is labeled as "Chegakou". All sorts of interesting data on the local Indian populations, plants, animals, and trade goods run around the edges of this map. All of this information is in French. This and several other old maps are on display at the Indian Agency House in Portage, Wisconsin. Facsimile copies are available through the visitor center gift shop.

In 1780, a contingent of the 8th (King's) Regiment traveled to la portage from Michilimackinac, enlisting the loyal Indians and traders along the way for an attack on Spanish-held St. Louis. This expedition was a reprisal to George Rogers Clark's attack on Vincennes, and was intended to put an end to his activities along the Western frontier.

Accounts vary as to the number of British soldiers actually present at la portage, but there were at least two; Serjeant E. F. Phillips (who had been promoted to lieutenant in the Indian service), and a private soldier -- a "Highlander" who spoke Gaelic and acted as a cypher.3 These two ( and possibly a few more) were at the Fox/Wisconsin Portage for several days collecting Indian allies, canoes and provisions. Emmanuel Hesse, a former officer in the 60th (Royal American) Regiment, arrived from Prairie du Chien to conduct the expedition down the Wisconsin and then along the Mississippi River. The British forces attacked St. Louis on May 26, 1780, but the assault failed largely due to the Indians' lack of initiative. The expedition retreated up the Illinois River and across the Chicago Portage into Lake Michigan.4

The Fox/Wisconsin Portage remains an important historical site today and is well worth a visit. The modern city of Portage is situated on top of much of the old portage route, but the Marquette trail north of town follows the Fox River along parts of the original path. The scenery along the river in this area has changed very little over the centuries, and still closely matches Jonathan Carver's description of the area.

Some interesting historical sites have also been preserved in the area of the old portage. The Old Indian Agency House (ca. 1832), and Surgeon's Quarters from Fort Winnebago (ca. 1819) still stand and offer very interesting tours. Both sites were restored and are operated by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America. The sites are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Though both sites date from the early 19th-century, there are several very old maps and late 18th-century artifacts on display at both locations. Of particular interest is an old musket in the kitchen of the Old Indian Agency house (see article page 8).

The Fort Winnebago Cemetery across the road from the Surgeon's Quarters also holds the graves of two American Revolution veterans -- Alexander Porter (1757-1833) and Cooper Pixley (1769-1855). Porter fought in the earlier years of the Revolution, and Pixley was a member of the New York Levies raised later in the war.

Both sites are located just north of Portage, Wisconsin off of Highway 33 East. They are open May 15th through October 15th from 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM. There is a small admission fee. When planning your summer vacation, think about taking a quick side-trip along Highway 33 to check out the old portage and these interesting historical sites.

NOTES:

1) Kellogg, Louise Phelps, The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Old Northwest, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925.
2) The Journals of Jonathan Carver, edited by John Parker, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976.
3) See Commanger and Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six, Harper & Row, 1967, p. 1052. Also see Waller, George M. The American Revolution in the West, Nelson-Hall, 1976, p. 106.
4) The Old Northwest in the American Revolution, an Anthology, edited by David Curtis Skaggs, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977, pp. 196-206.