A Native American exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

We have written 50-plus articles dealing with points of cultural interest in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa, many of which acknowledge white settlement in the early 19th century. Largely missing are Native Americans. In this two-part series the Guys attempt to explore territories once inhabited by Indians.

Except for Iowa, those Midwestern states, plus Ohio, once constituted the Northwest Territory. This is confusing because today we associate the Northwest with the states of Oregon and Washington. To distinguish the first from the second, the former Northwest Territory is referred to as the Old Northwest Territory, or ONT.

Incursions of whites into the ONT began in the 18th century with French traders and Catholic missionaries, followed by English traders and a smattering of east coast colonists. By the early 19th century, what had been a quasi-manageable irritant for ONT Native Americans had become a major migraine. Crisscrossing the ONT repeatedly, the Guys saw a familiar pattern: lots of communities settled by whites between c.1820 and c.1840, dates that coincide with the disappearance of Native American inhabitants. Struck by this pattern, the Guys began to wonder why they left, where the Indians went, and why is there a lack of evidence of their presence. The simple answer is that there is no simple answer.

Innocently ignorant, the Guys decided to explore the Beloit-to-Milwaukee, Wis., corridor in search of anything related to Native Americans. Being neither archaeologists nor anthropologists, the Guys figured that what was or was not discovered would still constitute a creditable Getaway adventure. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

North America was not a Native American Garden of Eden before the arrival of Europeans in the early 1600s. Yes, the environment was largely pristine, because its inhabitants were relatively few in number and their respective cultures did not make exorbitant demands on the land or its resources. Tribal territory was not defined by maps. With a continent at their disposal, tribes could have territorial disputes but these were minor affairs compared to future developments. The arrival of English and Dutch colonists on the east coast wanting land to own and cultivate changed the “ownership” equation (not favorably for Indians). For ONT tribes, it was largely a French affair, as trappers and traders from Canada sought pelts for a lucrative French market. Historically disinclined to emigrate, the French maintained a presence in the ONT that was more about trade than settlements.

Courted by both the French and the English, tribes chose sides during the French and Indian War (1756-1765). Both colonial powers sought dominion from the Ohio to the Mississippi to the upper Great Lakes in the north. The prize was land and commerce. What Indians expected to gain in taking sides remains a mystery. “To the victor belongs the spoils” and their land was the “spoils.” The French and their Indian allies lost. Thirteen years later hostilities erupted again. This time it was American colonists against the English, and again tribes took sides. The American Revolution (1775-1783) is best remembered for battles lost and won in the original 13 colonies, but an important secondary campaign was fought in the ONT. The English and their Indian allies lost, and Congressional representatives of the new Republic were beholden to a male, land-ownership electorate. They wanted land; Native Americans, be damned.

From Beloit to Milwaukee the Guys accepted the probability that conclusive evidence of Native American inhabitation might be missing. They did not expect to find arrow heads or stumble over pottery shards, but thought there was a chance of following in the footsteps of native peoples.

The journey began at the Logan Museum of Anthropology on the Beloit College campus. The Logan’s core collection (3,000 objects) was assembled by Frank G. Logan and exhibited at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition (1893) before it was donated to Beloit College. It is housed in Memorial Hall (1869), built to honor Beloit students and community residents killed in the Civil War.

The Logan is not a typical tourist attraction. Nestled in a pleasant campus setting, it is open to the public, but is essentially a scholarly teaching collection used daily by students and faculty in Beloit’s Anthropology and Museum Studies programs. Presently, its collection contains more than 350,000 objects representative of worldwide native cultures. The artifacts of interest to us Getaway Guys were Ojibwe and Ottawa baskets, though made at a later date by tribes possibly associated with tribes once in the Wisconsin-Illinois region.

The Guys’ next destination was the Rotary Botanic Garden in Janesville. Developed around the remains of a quarry, the Rotary is an interesting and admirable collection of native and exotic flora (flowers, trees and ornamentals). Although native habitation may be open to speculation, the Rotary is near the Rock River and native peoples were known to have chosen camp sites in close proximity to water. Regardless, this botanic garden is well worth a visit for travellers in the Janesville area.

Next on the agenda was the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in the southwest corner of Madison. A large enclosure containing many native tree species, this arboretum is unique in large part because of its origins. The celebrated conservationist/preservationist and UW teacher Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was the driving force behind its creation as a public park and teaching laboratory. A Native American connection may be questionable, but this arboretum, in which was recreated a landscape of native species, employed the Civilian Conservation Corps, an unquestionable plus. In addition to beautiful trees, a number of CCC support buildings are still in use. Leaving the Arboretum and expecting to arrive at Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens in short order, the map-reading Getaway Guys got hopelessly lost. Getting around Boston might be easier. The Olbrich is a winner, however. Consisting of indoor and outdoor delights with extensive gardens and fascinating greenhouses, it is a hidden jewel. As for a native connection, the Guys were just thankful to find it.

In the next issue, readers will see that the Guys finally find an abandoned Native American site and noteworthy archaeological and botanical collections as they venture eastward.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often
overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.