Lucy Eldersveld Murphy. Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Illustrations, maps, tables. 326 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-05286-4; $32.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-67474-5.
Reviewed by Katie Lantz (University of Virginia)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860, Lucy Eldersveld Murphy examines the fur trade town of Prairie du Chien, located in modern-day Wisconsin. Although her study spans more than a century, from 1750 to 1860, it focuses on the period after the War of 1812, from 1815 through the 1850s: decades of momentous transformations for the town and for the Great Lakes region.
During the preceding two centuries, the fur trade had drawn Native peoples and European traders into intimate bonds of commerce and kinship. The process altered Native societies and produced a new one: the métis people, of mixed Native and European descent. They became indispensable to Native hunters and European traders and officials by mediating transactions and translating words between the two.
The end of the War of 1812 signaled change for all residents of the Great Lakes region. The fur trade had been in decline for some years. European Americans enforced their national boundary to dominate lands south of the Great Lakes and sent troops to secure the region for settlers who soon followed in great numbers. By building farms, settlers cleared the forests and destroyed the animals that had sustained the fur trade. At Prairie du Chien, métis and Natives had to adapt to an agricultural economy and new American residents. Murphy examines their efforts to do so in Great Lakes Creoles.
Murphy identifies métis living south of the new international boundary as “Creoles.” She chooses a term that prioritizes culture over race, emphasizing the means by which Natives and métis defined and sustained their own identities during a period of rapid change. She argues that American (in the sense of the new nation’s colonial methods, not just the actions of individuals) settlers and officials initially needed Creole support to consolidate their new hegemony in the region. Analyzing territorial laws, Murphy examines how Creoles initially bent aspects of the new institutions to their own benefit. For example, the local government, still influenced by Creoles, passed an ordinance in 1822 that forbade whites from “skulking” about the town. Beset by an influx of American soldiers, Creoles used American institutions to try to control the armed newcomers sent to Prairie du Chien. Yet as more white settlers arrived during the 1820s and 1830s, Creoles became a demographic minority, and their influence waned in the local government.
Murphy also attends to the ways in which gender shaped Creoles’ experiences of US rule. Men participated in politics and law, while women worked as “public mothers” who reinforced community ties through hospitality and healing. But US rule subjected Creole women to coverture laws, which deprived them of the legal rights to their own property that they had enjoyed under the more informal and customary law of the fur trade era.
Murphy primarily asks, how did Creoles retain their distinctive identity? A more pertinent question, and one that she also engages, is how did Creoles become white? Yet Murphy falls short of providing an adequate explanation. In her account, Creoles clung to romanticized Indian values, living in consensus-based communities to defend their autonomy and communal identity. The US government tried to co-opt Creole support in the 1820s, but Murphy’s Creoles uniformly resisted cultural assimilation into Americans’ white settler society. As a price of this resistance, Creole influence faded once Anglo-American settlers became the majority in Prairie du Chien during the 1830s.
Murphy’s own evidence often suggests a different story. In 1825, when some American settlers rejected the right of Creole men to vote because they were “half-breeds,” most Creole men insisted that they were legally white, and therefore entitled to vote. Despite the increasing numbers of white settlers, leading Creoles preferred to live in Prairie du Chien and often sold their holdings in the hinterland. Many also forsook their tribal affiliations as their Native kin sank into poverty on shrinking reservations—a crucial step to claiming identities as white Americans. Ambitious Creoles capitalized on the white side of their heritage, reaping political rights and economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
Murphy’s designation of American métis as “Creoles” obscures their ties to métis elsewhere, and therefore slights the significance of racial difference to her story. The postwar US-Canadian border of 1815 arbitrarily bisected the fur trade’s métis population, who shared a cultural identity. Canada’s métis people persist to the present day as a distinctive group, while that identity has faded in the United States as the government categorized their heirs into “Native” and “non-Native” categories. The imposition of new racial categories explains the ways in which American métis adapted to the arrival of American colonial presence in Prairie du Chien. Even if American métis wanted to define themselves by their culture, race mattered to the increasingly numerous and dominant Americans. Métis south of the border recognized the advantage of claiming a white identity in an American society premised on racial divisions. Forced to choose between assimilation or poverty, most of Prairie du Chien’s métis chose assimilation, and all of the political rights and advantages that came with it.
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Katie Lantz. Review of Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld, Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860.
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