History: War of 1812

Since the late 1600s, Prairie du Chien had been the center for the French fur trade of the Upper Mississippi. When the British gained control of the prairie in the mid-1770s, they too realized its importance. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris of 1783 made Prairie du Chien part of United States territory, but the fur traders who lived at Prairie du Chien continued to ally themselves with British-Canadian trading companies.

As early as 1805, the United States realized the importance of Prairie du Chien and the influence the British traders had among the American Indians of the region. Lt. Zebulon Pike, U.S. Indian Agent Nicholas Boilvin, and Missouri Governor William Clark all advocated that a United States fort be built on the prairie. With a fort, the United States could control the region, establish trading agreements with the Native Americans, and break the power of the British traders. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, William Clark decided to lead an expedition from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien.

In the spring of 1814, Governor William Clark and United States troops arrived at Prairie du Chien, and Clark immediately ordered the construction of Fort Shelby on a mound near the Main Village. The fort was completed by early July.

Determined to oust the Americans and regain the prairie, residents of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien joined a British force led by trader William McKay, which, with its Indian allies, traveled from Mackinac along the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to Prairie du Chien, arriving on July 17, 1814. When the Americans refused to surrender, the British force lay siege to Fort Shelby. After three days, the Americans were running out of water, supplies, and ammunition. When the British threatened to set Fort Shelby on fire, the Americans surrendered the fort. The British force had won the Battle of Prairie du Chien. The fort was renamed Fort McKay and enlarged, ensuring British dominance of the western Great Lakes and upper Mississippi.

Despite British success on the battlefield, the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 ended the war and restored Prairie du Chien to the United States. The British withdrew permanently from the Prairie in May 1815, leaving Fort McKay to burn to the ground. In the aftermath of the war, the United States would seek to establish its ownership of the Upper Mississippi River by constructing new forts through the region — including Fort Crawford.

Fort McKay, as painted by Peter Rindisbacher.