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Chapter 29

Lead Mines at Galena Opened to Trade By Shaw in Effort to Repay His 1812 War Debts


THE GALENA LEAD MINES, in what is now Jo Daviess county, in the northwest corner of the state, were from early 1821 until early 1825 in Pike county. Galena was described by the historian, Grimshaw, as in those days being "as lively a place and as populous as any in the state," and as "a precinct of Pike county."
"Fever River P. O.," where now is Galena, was the first post office in northern Illinois.

"At those dates (the 1820s)," says Grimshaw, "Rock Island was a village, Dixon not existing, Galena a small place, but the largest north of St. Louis, and larger than Chicago up to 1836, at the sale of the canal lands. Galena was famed then more than now for her lead mines."

"Fever River Settlement," forerunner of Galena, was yet unborn when John Shaw boated out from the famous mines the first cargo of lead ore in 1816. The mines had been known to the French as early as the first decade of the eighteenth century. In 1816 the site was marked only by a few Indian encampments and the rude furnaces wherein the savage tribes smelted the ore. Shaw thus continues his story of those wilderness days in a region that later became Pike county territory:

"The Indian traders on the Upper Mississippi, purchasing goods at St. Louis, were desirous of making payment by remitting lead from the mines on Fever river, which they had received in trade from the Indians, and which was of their own smelting and manufacture from the mineral. This promised to open up a new field of trade and commerce; but the process of boating up the Mississippi at this period was at times quite tedious. The boats were propelled upstream by means of poles and sails, and with favorable wind, 110 miles have been accomplished in a single day. From twelve days to a month were requisite for a voyage from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien, while the descending trip was made in from six to ten days.

"I had conversed with the Indians at the treaty of Portage des Sioux and at St. Louis, about trading with them, and asking their permission to build a sawmill in their country if I could find a suitable locality, as it was a pine region and pine lumber was then worth $70 a thousand in St. Louis. I now started to carry out these views.

"At the place now called Bellevue, in Iowa (then a part of Missouri Territory), about 15 miles below Galena, and about six below the mouth of Fever river, I stopped and found a water power which I judged would fully answer my purpose. Here a small stream flowed into the Mississippi and some 30 or 40 rods above its mouth was a fine locality for a mill. Logs could be rafted down the Wisconsin and other streams upon which the pine grew abundantly, as I had learned from traders and Indians in that quarter. The Indians had previously informed me that if I should go up for such a purpose, I must obtain written permission of the government. I now had a regular license from Governor Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to trade with the Indians.

"There were then a few Indians encamped at the Bellevue locality and others collected while I remained so that in all there were three or four hundred warriors and many more squaws and children assembled there. I soon discovered but little feeling of friendship on the part of the Indians towards the Americans. I had a talk with them (Shaw spoke Indian and French as fluently as English), reminding them of their promises to me, and my wish to trade at that point and erect a mill there. After I had distributed presents during several days to the amount of $300 in value, and concluding that they had obtained all they could, they said they had been consulting about the matter, and declined to grant my request; that doubtless many whites would pave the way for another, and thus they must firmly deny all; that they must check the advance of the whites for if one should go into their country, others, like swarms of bees, would follow. They constantly begged for whiskey, of which I had none.

"I now proceeded on to Prairie du Chien and there engaged in some little traffic. The place was much scattered and sparsely settled; there were some 50 or 60 dwelling houses, and all the people could speak the English, French and Indian languages, and all imperfectly. There were perhaps three or four permanent traders located there and, during the warm season of the year, some 50 or more would resort there, and later in the fall scatter abroad to their several trading stations on the upper Mississippi and its numerous tributaries. This had been the custom for many years. I do not think there was an American resident in Prairie du Chien. The traders were polite and kind and their hospitality was both general and generous; and while they drank freely, it was regarded as disgraceful to get drunk.

"Mr. James Aird, a Scotch trader, had been 37 years in the Upper Mississippi country, making Prairie du Chien generally his place of summer resort. Joseph Rolette, Antoine and Michael Brisbois, Francis Boutielle, Jean Baptiste St. Jean, Mons. Tiercourt, Mons. Bennette, Mons. Palen, and many others were among the traders. All these traders had families, and mostly by Indian wives; but Michael Brisbois had a fine French wife. In Brisbois's family was a beautiful girl named Fisher, whos parents, early settlers there, were dead; and Joseph Rolette was said to have married this young girl when she was only ten years of age."

Captain Pike, when he visited Prairie du Chien in 1805, spoke of Fisher as an American and a prominent man of the place, having then the titles of both captain and judge. Rolette, who married his young daughter, was regarded as the largest trader there, and was reputed wealthy.

Continuing, Shaw says: "The marriages of traders with squaws was without ceremony, and to last for only a single trading season. The trader would make the arrangement with the parents of the young squaw to whom he would make liberal compensation; and by making a permanent marriage, the trader's business would be increased. When the trader renewed his engagement for his squaw wife for two or three years in succession, he generally then kept her for life.

"I remained a few weeks at Prairie du Chien, and then returned without molestation to St. Louis, taking down a few skins and hides, but the trip was unprofitable. I learned, while at prairie du Chien, that the people there had chiefly depended upon the traders bringing flour and other supplies from Mackinaw, but their remoteness from the older settlements would now make it necessary to engage in farming, and raising large crops of wheat, and that arrangements were then making for that purpose. I thought it would be a good location for a grist mill, and promised the people that I would erect one, for which there was sufficient water power at Fisher's Coulee, four miles above Prairie du Chien. This promise was gratifying to them, as they had no mode of grinding except sometimes to hitch a horse to a sweep, and grind on a small scale with a band and small stone — hence called a band mill.

"About June, 1816, I returned to Prairie du Chien with a large boat and full load of merchandise and provisions, I then being but a common carrier for others. The post at Rock Island was then occupied, and commanded by Major Willoughbly Morgan; this post was commenced the previous year. On this visit, I believe, I found a detachment of U. S. troops arrived at Prairie du Chien shortly before me; perhaps from 50 to 150 in number, but I have forgotten the name of the commanding officer. This arrival was very unwelcome to the settlement generally. They were occupying or repairing the old fort (Fort Crawford, on the bank of the river, at the upper part of town).

"Having discharged my load, I descended to Fever river, as I had orders from St. Louis merchants to bring down lead from the traders in payment for goods they had purchased there. Reaching a point then known as Kettle Chief's Prairie (doubtless named for the Fox chief Kettle, killed in 1830 by a war party of Sioux and Menomonees) some little distance below where Cassville now is, perhaps 15 or 18 miles, I there met the traders upon whom I had the orders, and some two or three thousand Indians congregated, holding a sort of jubilee just after their corn- planting, swigging whiskey and invoking the blessing of the Great Spirit upon their crop. The traders requested me to go down to the mouth of Fever river and there await them sending the lead down; they were very anxious I should take it down to St. Louis for them, and they had it piled up at the very spot where Galena now is. This I refused, as I could not wait so long; I asked to go up with my boat. This request the Indians refused, saying that ‘the Americans must not see their lead mines,' as they were particularly suspicious of Americans, but did not cherish the same feelings toward Frenchmen, with whom they had been so long connected and associated. Speaking, as I did, the French as fluently as I did the English, the traders declared to the Indians that I was a Frenchman, and all my boatmen, which was true, were French voyageurs; the Indians, with very little persuasion, consented that I might go to their smelting establishments.

"About 200 Indians jumped upon my boat, while others followed in canoes, and we pushed on to the spot. There was no Indian town there, but several encampments, and no trading establishment. There were at least 20 furnaces in the immediate neighborhood; and the lead was run into plaques or plats, or flats, of about 70 pounds each. These flats were formed by smelting the mineral in a small walled hole, in which the fuel and mineral were mingled, and the liquid lead run out, in front, into a hole scooped in the earth, so that a bowl-shaped mass of lead was formed therein. The squaws dug the mineral and carried it in sacks on their heads to the smelting places. I loaded 70 tons of lead in my boat, and still left much at the furnaces. This was the first boat-load of lead from Galena. The Indians had often previously taken lead in small quantities in their canoes to Portage des Sioux and St. Louis for purposes of barter."

It was on this trip up Fever river to the lead mines in 1816 that Shaw first encountered Black Thunder, noted chief and counsellor of the Sauk and Foxes and generally considered one of the most remarkable Indian orators of his day, ranking with Logan and Cornstalk of old. Shaw, speaking of Black Thunder on another occasion, said: "He was considered the ablest speaker of the Sauks and Foxes of his time. I heard him speak when I went up Fever river in 1816, and several times afterwards; and I can testify to his great ability as an orator. He was medium size, with strong expressive features, and a brilliant eye, particularly piercing when animated with his subject while addressing his audience."

Shaw was present on another memorable occasion when Indian oratory was at its best, on the Mississippi beach on the site of present Keokuk, when, following the disaster to the Sauk Foxes in the Black Hawk war, the noble chief, Ke-o-kuck, addressed the remnants of the vanquished tribe; Shaw confessed himself as deeply moved by the chieftain's words that caused the warriors whom he addressed to weep as children.

"In the course of that year (1816)," continues Shaw's narrative, "I made two other trips in trade to Prairie du Chien; also trips in 1817, 1818, 1819 and 1820, making nine trips in all. I am not certain of more than one other trip up Fever river for lead. The traders, now making all their purchases at St. Louis, would carry down their own lead and take back supplies of new goods suitable for the Indian trade. After the peace of 1815 and all was quiet in the Northwest, the channel of Indian trade completely changed, from Mackinaw, where it had so long continued, to St. Louis, as it was found far more accessible.

"In 1818, I built a grist mill, as I had promised, at Fisher's Coulee, four miles above Prairie du Chien. It had but a single run of stones, and eventually proved a source of expense to me, but a matter of great convenience to the people. Lieut. Col. Talbot Chambers went up to Prairie du Chien in 1817, in my boat, and assumed command of the garrison. Colonel Chambers loved to make a display, was fond of drinking freely, and was naturally tyrannical and overbearing - and when intoxicated, was desperate and dangerous. Once, when inflamed with liquor, he chased a young female into the house of Jacques Menard, with no good motive for doing so, when Menard reproached him; upon which Chambers ordered a file of 25 soldiers to tie him up, strip, and give him 25 lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails, well laid on.

"While the preparations were making for carrying this inhuman order into effect, a son of Nicholas Boilvin, a bright and handsome youth of some ten years of age, ran up and commenced crying and pleading in behalf of Menard, not wishing to see one of the citizens thus humiliatingly punished in public. After two or three blows were struck, Colonel Chambers ordered the drummer to cease. Menard was a clever citizen, cultivated a large farm and had a worthy family of quarter-bloods.

"Colonel Chambers inflicted corporeal punishment in several instances; and finally, for cutting off both ears of one soldier, and one of another, was tried and cashiered; and then descended the Mississippi, went to Mexico, and joined the army there, and had risen to the rank of colonel in that service, and was in the Mexican army at the surrender of the City of Mexico to General Scott. It was in consequence of Colonel Chambers' petty tyrannies, the civil law not being much in force or very effectual, that I abandoned all idea of settling at Prairie du Chien, and all the designs of improvement I had formed and sold my mill at a sacrifice.

"In 1819, I proceeded up Black river to the first fall, about six feet descent, and erected a sawmill on the southeastern bank of the stream. (This was above modern LaCrosse in Wisconsin.) I had barely got it fairly going when hundreds of Winnebagos came there in a starving condition, and importuned me constantly for everything I had for eating and wearing purposes, and I was thus left without supplies, and returned to Prairie du Chien. The next spring I went up there again, and found the Indians had burned the mill; I then rafted down a quantity of pine logs I had cut the previous year. These were the first mills erected in western Wisconsin. (This region was then a part of the territory of Michigan.)"

Shaw, in the next chapter, concludes his personal memoirs as related in his dim old age to Dr. Draper. Near the end of his narrative he relates a circumstance that definitely identifies the Colonel John Shaw of Marquette county, Wisconsin, as the John Shaw who founded Coles' Grove, the first county seat of Pike county.