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Columns

Reflections: Shallow Fox River a challenging 'highway' for fur traders

Fox River Trail marker in Violet Patch Park along the banks of the Fox River near Oswego.
Fox River Trail marker in Violet Patch Park along the banks of the Fox River near Oswego.

It would have been a grand sight seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River as the winter fur trapping season ended, the water sparkling as it dripped off red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water; and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?

If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.

But the truth is, the Fox River always has been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.

Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player.

In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a sort of shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher – Starved Rock – ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to central Illinois deciding to go all the way to Chicago instead of taking the chance of finding enough water in the Fox.

There was a recognized canoe route from Lake Michigan up the Root River, which enters the lake just south of Milwaukee, and then over a 9-mile portage to Muskego Lake in southeastern Waukesha County, Wisconsin, which empties into the upper reaches of the Fox River. The portage was marked on maps into the first quarter of the 19th century.

But when Father Jean François Buîsson de St. Cosmé and his party of missionaries considered trying the route in the fall of 1699, they found the Root River practically dry, and supposing the Fox would have as little water, decided the situation, as he wrote to his superiors in Canada, “compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou.”

Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root-Muskego Lake-Fox route apparently was used by some hardy travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.

The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by local Indian groups. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s likely that villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.

But the thing is, during the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which in turn moved to their winter hunting grounds so as spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times. Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox, from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.

The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and British traders starting in the early 18th century. In the late spring, groups, called brigades, of freight canoes traveled from Montreal up the Ottawa River into the northern Great Lakes to western trading posts to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried and packed into 90-pound bundles, called pieces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season and loaded the canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the East Coast.

By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birchbark freight canoes and were using Mackinac boats: sturdy double-ended rowboats that could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, the trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The fur-bearers had all been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur suppliers, had been forced west of the Mississippi by government policy and northern Illinois rapidly was being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.

But while the Fox River may not have been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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