Origin and History
The Meskwaki people (aka Fox people or Red Earth people) are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. They initially inhabited a region in the Upper Saint-Laurent Valley (in present-day Ontario) but, under the pressure of the Wendat People and their French allies, they were soon forced to migrate to the Great Lakes, in present-day eastern Michigan, before moving further west to present-day Wisconsin and particularly along the Fox River in the 1640s. They had three types of leaders: a peace chief, a war chief and a ceremonial chief. The peace chief was the only hereditary leader, other were selected by the people when necessary. However, a council decided issues such as peace and war, selection of hunting grounds and general relations within the nation. The war chief was a ritual role.
The Meskwaki first met the French when they visited the Jesuit mission at Chequamegon between 1665 and 1667. Soon after the trading post at Green Bay drew some to move to the Wolf River, Traders visited their village found few metal tools, five or six hatchets in the entire nation. Soon tensions with the French arose. They opposed the latter’s extending the fur trade to their Dakota enemies and disliked the French policy of suppressing inter-tribal warfare in present day Wisconsin. The Meskwaki were also responding to Iroquois Confederacy overtures of trading with them.
The Fox River, itself was a very important waterway for the French, allowing them to link their trading posts on the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River. By 1698, the French estimated the Meskwaki population to approx. 6,500.
In 1710-1711 a party of over a thousand Meskwaki, Mascouten and Kickapoo moved to Détroit at the invitation of Jaques-Charles Renaud Dubuisson, the commandant of the post. Tensions with the Odawa arose as the newcomers used the hunting grounds of the Odawa. The Meskwaki also opened tentative trade talks with the Iroquois. The Odawa, Potawatomi and their allies agreed to destroy the Meskwaki, Mascouten and Kickapoo and in the winter of 1711 -1712 attacked Mascouten hunters on the Saint-Joseph River. The Mascouten survivors fled to Détroit expecting the French to mediate. However, Dubuisson had convinced himself that he was about to be attacked by the Meskwaki and that they were the agents of a British plot. So started the First Fox War. The Meskwaki and Mascouten withstood a siege of 19 days by the Odawa, Wyandot of Détroit and Ojibwe, twice attempting to make peace. They broke out under the cover of a storm and were pursued for four days. The warriors who surrendered were burned. Some sought refuge with the Seneca (Iroquois). Those who made it back to their main body joined in disruptive attacks on traders forcing the French to send an army against them in 1715, which was a fiasco.
In 1716 a second French expedition of 800 soldiers and Native American allies, was sent against the Meskwaki which after briefly besieging their main village made peace with them, one of the terms of the treaty was that the French promised to return Meskwaki captives to their people. This did not happen and tensions arose again.
Following the Mascouten and Kickapoo, the Meskwaki renewed their war with the Peoria Illinois who they claimed had not returned their prisoners. The Peoria retaliated by torturing all the captured Meskwaki. French voyageurs, soldiers and habitants living alongside the Illinois sided with them against the Meskwaki They also burned or broke the heads of Fox prisoners given them by the Illinois.
The Second Fox War started in 1728 when Governor de Beauharnois decided the British were at the root of the attacks, abandoned any mediation, and adopted a policy of genocide. He sent an unsuccessful expedition against the Meskwaki, although it managed to burn vacated villages and destroy corn fields the Meskwaki subsequently returned to their homeland. The Meskwaki became involved in a war against Nouvelle-France’s allies, the Potawatomi, Illinois, Ojibwe, Wyandot and Odawa, whilst others remained neutral or supported them – the Mascouten, Kickapoo and Winnebago. However, after an argument over French prisoners the Mascouten and Kickapoo defected.
In 1729 the Meskwaki attempted to make peace with the French. However, following their defections in the fall, Winnebago joined Odawa and Ojibwe on an attack on a Meskwaki village killing around a 100. Another party was attacked returning from a buffalo hunt. In October a new Meskwaki village on an island in Little Lake Butte des Morts (near present-day Neenah, Wisconsin) was massacred by the Winnebago. In November an emissary was sent to Saint-Joseph to meet Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers to arrange a meeting in Montréal.
In February 1730 the Meskwaki besieged a Winnebago village. After two days the latter asked for a truce explaining they had been forced to join the Odawa and Menominee, and surrendered four Menominee present in the village. However, the Winnebago refused to hand over those who had attacked their hunting party. Firing recommenced. Pierre Paul, Sieur de Marin headed an expedition with nine soldiers and around 36 Menominee warriors to aid the Winnebago. Marin failed to break into the Winnebago village and subsequently repulsed two Meskwaki attacks. Subsequently, Marin succeeded in crossing the lake to the Winnebago village during the night. The siege continued for over a month until the Meskwaki withdrew on March 25 for lack of supplies.
During May 1730 Meskwaki leaders considered their only hope was to travel east and join the Iroquois. In early June 300 warriors and 600 women and children left the Fox-Wisconsin waterway. In July they reached the Illinois River where their hunters encountered Cahokia Illinois hunters., 17 of whom the Meskwaki captured. Entering negotiations at Cahokia one of the Meskwaki diplomats was killed. On return most of the Illinois captives were killed.
Late in July the Meskwaki trekked south onto the Grand Prairie followed by Illinois scouts. On August 4 the Illinois, joined by Kickapoo and Mascouten warriors, skirmished with Meskwaki warriors. In the afternoon more Kickapoo, and Mascouten arrived along with Potawatomi men. The fighting continued until nightfall. Surrounded, the Meskwaki could only fortify their position in the grove of trees alongside the Fox River where their women and children sheltered.
On August 17 the besiegers were joined by nearly 100 French soldiers and another 100 Illinois warriors under Saint-Ange and from Saint-Joseph, Nicolas-Antoine de Coulon de Villers with 300 Sauk, Potawatomi and Miami who were followed later in the day by 28 French and 400 Wea and Piankashaws (Miami) from Fort Ouiatanon. Following largely rebuffed negotiations, some Meskwaki children were taken in by the Sauk.
On September 1 further reinforcements for the besiegers of 200 Wyandot, Potawatomi and Miami arrived. The Meskwaki persisted, despite food shortages. Desperate, on the night of September 8 covered by a storm the Meskwaki broke out and passed through the French lines in small groups. However, they were pursued and at daybreak the following day were caught, surrounded and, outnumbered three to one, slaughtered. The Meskwaki lost 200 men and 300 women and children with the remaining women and children taken prisoner. It was estimated that 450 Meskwaki remained alive, the majority held by French and their allies as captives.
About 50 warriors with a handful of women and children escaped and made their back to their ancestral homeland in what is now Wisconsin. They were welcomed by those Meskwaki who had not made the ill-fated immigration, about 350 mostly elderly, women and children. These made peace with Beauharnois, the French Governor General in September 1731.
However, Beauharnois did not keep his word. In October 1731, 74 Wyandot, 47 (Canadian?) Iroquois and 4 Odawa left Détroit. Winter blizzards reduced the party to 40 Wyandot and 30 Iroquois, who approached the Fox village. During the winter, Meskwaki warrior numbers had increased to around 100. However, they were taken by surprise with their enemy on snowshoes and following the ensuing fight 70 Meskwaki warriors were killed along with 80 women and children. Only 5 Wyandot and no Iroquois were killed.
Approximately 140 women and children were taken captive who were marched back to Détroit. Fifty-six did not make it. Jean-Charles d’Arnaud, an officer at Détroit, wanted the captives killed – ‘nourishing snakes in their bosom’ – and most of the remaining were dispatched by the Wyandot. Seven were released by the Wyandot and Iroquois and with other refugees arrived at the small Meskwaki settlement on the Mississippi. There were two settlements and about 50 warriors, including 10 boys 12 or 13 years old, and those past their prime and 90 women and children. About 20 warriors and 40 women and children journeyed to the French post at Green Bay to plead with Villiers for mercy. Villers was non-committed and these finally withdrew to what is now Lake Pistakee in northeastern Illinois.
Beauharnois considered as none had come to Montréal that they had broken their agreement and in September 1732 a large party of Wyandot with a few Odawa and Potawatomi from Détroit set out to be joined by Mascouten warriors. This time the Meskwaki were prepared. A truce was arranged by the Potawatomi and Mascouten and the Meskwaki promised not to seek retribution and to go to a French post the following spring.
In the spring of 1733 these Meskwaki abandoned their village and sought shelter with the Sauk, at their village on the Fox River at its junction with Green Bay. In late April, Kiala their spokesman, three advisors and two of their wives, met with Villiers, and then accompanied him to Montréal to meet Beauharnois. Here he sent two of the men and their wives on to Québec, where they were imprisoned and deported to the West Indies. The rest were sent back to Green Bay. Beauharnois ordered Villiers to continue the campaign against the Meskwaki.
In September Villiers went with Troupes de la Marine and Native American warriors to the Sauk camp and demanded the Sauk to send out the Meskwaki. The Sauk refused. Shots were exchanged in which Villiers ad one of his sons were killed. Threatened with being besieged the Sauk and Meskwaki withdrew and fled up the Fox River. On September 20 they were overtaken at Little Butte des Morts (near present-day Appleton). Despite heavy casualties the Sauk and Meskwaki fought them off and continued towards Wisconsin.
In August 1734 Beauharnois sent Nicolas-Joseph des Noyelles with 84 French accompanied by 200 Canadian Iroquois and Wendat to destroy the Meskwaki. Warned of the invasion the Sauk and Meskwaki retreated to the Des Moines River in present day central Iowa. Over the winter the expedition floundered. After reaching the Sauk and Meskwaki village short of food, Noyelles withdrew to the Illinois country. Both the Dakota and Iowa assured the Sauk and Meskwaki that they could remain as long as they wanted. In 1736 many nations interceded with Beauharnois to stop his campaign. In 1737 some Meskwaki moved east to establish a settlement in north-east Iowa.
In 1738 Meskwaki and Sauk leaders from Rock River travelled to Montréal where Paul Marin was allocated to them. He was to consolidate them at the site of their former village at Green Bay. Marin went with Meskwaki back to Rock River but they refused to move. Meskwaki warriors joined the Dakota in raids on the Peoria but Mekaga, a leader, told Marin that they had warned the Peoria. The returning warriors were ostracised and as a result left and formed a small separate village near the Dakota, at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Reluctantly in the fall of 1741 the Meskwaki and Sauk moved to Little Lake Butte des Morts, with 10 lodges on the Chicago River and 3 going to Milwaukee., which pleased the French.
In the summer of 1742, a delegation of Meskwaki and other western nations accompanied Marin to Montréal and although Beauharnois had been conciliatory peace remained elusive. In the same year their village was attacked by a Menominee war party but the Meskwaki did not retaliate. The Meskwaki were also being attacked by the Ojibwe and Odawa and in 1743 told Marin that if the French did not intervene, they would retaliate.
In 1749 Jacques-Pierre de Taffanel, Marquis de La Jonquière replaced Beauharnois and Marin requested and was permitted to establish a trading post, Fort Marin, on the upper Mississippi (near present-day Frontenac, Minnesota). The Meskwaki and Sauk returned to the lower Rock River in 1750 and built a village at the confluence of the Rock River with the Mississippi. From here they would raid the Illinois and Osage peoples.
In July and August 1754 Meskwaki emissaries were amongst 1,200 attendees at a conference brought together by the Odawa at Michilimackinac to discuss the impending conflict between France and Great Britain and cleared the way to go to war together against the British.
Role during the War
In 1755 a few Meskwaki warriors from Rock River were among the 637 Native American warriors that took part in the Ambush on the Monongahela, where they attacked along the flanks of the British column winning the day.
On April 6 and 7, 1757, 40 Meskwaki warriors, who were living with the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois), went to Niagara to make an alliance with the French. They then set out for a raid.
Later during the year, between July 1 and 12, the Meskwaki attended a council of nations to which the Ojibwe of Pointe Chequamegon refused to take part due to the enmity with the Meskwaki. On July 28, Bougainville lists 20 Meskwaki warriors from Rock River taking part in Montcalm’s expedition against Fort William Henry. The siege of Fort William Henry started on August 4 and lasted until August during which time Native Americans were deployed as an observation screen in woods around the perimeter of the cleared land. Later, returning via Montréal on August 29 1757 the Marquis de Vaudreuil settled the differences between the Meskwaki and Ojibwe. The two nations accepted his mediation and departed as friends
In 1759, a few Meskwaki warriors took part in the defence of Québec as part a force of around 2,000 Native Americans, mostly from the Saint-Laurent nations. On July 26, a 2,000-man British scouting party searched for a river crossing above the Montmorency Falls led by General Wolfe personally. As the British slowly moved through the forest cover along the river they were totally unaware that they were being watched by Charles Langlade and 400 Native Americans. Potentially Meskwaki warriors were part of this force. They lay in ambush whilst reinforcements were sent for. After laying undetected for 5 hours and none forthcoming, losing patience with the French, the Native Americans fired a volley. The British panicked and fled but were rallied by their officers and counter-attacked. The Native Americans evaded back across the stream. Fifty-five British soldiers had been killed and wounded. Wolfe abandoned attempts to cross above Montmorency Falls.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Meskwaki dress known to the author from the mid-18th century. The following is surmised.
Around 1720 Meskwaki men’s hair was described as being cut to within one inch of the head and left hanging only one little tress about a foot long either on the right or left side. A 1730 drawing shows a Meskwaki man with a large patch of short hair at the back and crown of the head, with a long braid on the crown of the head, a scalplock, which was plaited and wrapped to stand upright. This style could have persisted into the French and Indian War period. Meskwaki may have, with a shaved head, a long braid or braids at the crown of the head.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences.
A circular roach of red dyed deer hair sewed around a woven base secured with a bone spreader may have been worn. It is fixed to the head by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a bone or wood socket into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Tattoo and Paint
Tattooing of the face and body was practised by Meskwaki men as an alternative to painting. Tattoos were in the form of linear patterns and also some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure ingrained with powdered charcoal.
It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.
Ears and Nose
Meskwaki men are likely to have pierced ears. However, there is no evidence that they detached the helix of the ear as did those men of nations to the east of them. Even so, some may have. Earrings were made of silver, brass and sometimes tin. These could have pendant solid silver ball and cones or thin sheets of brass cut into triangles for example.
It is likely that some Meskwaki men pierced the septum of the nose and wore a silver ring through it, which itself could have a silver or tin pendant dangling from it.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass beads were likely to have been worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells and silver disc. Latterly, as allies of the French silver officer’s gorgets may have been issued to war leaders.
Silver bracelets and armbands were probably worn.
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Meskwaki men was the breechclout. J. C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment although likely to be applicable to the Meskwaki that ‘The loincloth is made of deerskin or cloth obtained from Europeans. It is a quarter or third cloth that the men wind between their legs. The piece of cloth is held in place around the hips with a cord. The two ends of the loincloth are folded over in front and in the back, with the end in front longer than the one in the back.’
Meskwaki men are likely to have followed the fashion for half leggings, fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, broaches and braid. Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin could be worn.
Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave of or of deerskin.
The porcupine was absent from Meskwaki territory so it is likely that garters or other items were less often decorated with quillwork. They are likely to have obtained porcupine quills in trade.
Meskwaki moccasins were made of smoked buckskin. From a 1730 drawing they appear to have been constructed with a vamp over the instep.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermillion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
The Meskwaki warrior in the 1730 drawing shows that when not worn it was tied by the sleeves around the waist. This method of carrying may have been practised by other men through the north-east woodlands before combat. A warrior would strip to the bare essentials on such occasions.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
Blankets and Robes Trade blankets, usually of blue or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with bands of ribbon, and skin robes were worn for warmth.
Meskwaki warriors are likely to have hung from the belt holding the breechclout their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which could be the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel.
By the beginning of the Seven Years War the standard trade musket that armed the Meskwaki was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal either obtained in trade. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. It is also possible that the Meskwaki obtained a few English-made fusils. A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of the deerskin probably with a rounded bottom, from animal skins with the hair left on, otter or badger for example, or perhaps of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads. Straps were likely to have been made of deerskin, or woven fibre. A knife was carried in a sheaf (which, rarely may have been decorated with quillwork) hung around the neck.
It is also possible that some Meskwaki warriors carried bows and arrows as their principal arm at the time of the French and Indian War. The 1730 drawing shows a warrior with a bow in hand and a quiver slung over his right shoulder.
A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt on the hip.
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Callander, Charles, Fox: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 636-647.
Edmunds, R. David and Joseph L, Peyser, The Fox Wars: The Mesquakie Challenge to New France, Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1993.
Hamilton, Edward (trans. and ed.) Adventures in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Kinietz, W. Vernon, Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615-1760, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977, pp. 169.
McDonnell, Michael A, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2015, pp.165-167.
Meskwaki Nation – A History of the Meskwaki People
Trap, Paul M., Charles Langlade in the French and Indian War, Masters Thesis, Western Michigan University, pp. 73-76.
Ward, Matthew C., The Battle for Quebec, 1759, Stroud: The History Press, 2009, pp.47,
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Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of the entire article