RBOH – Social Calls by Canoe, 1833

Another in our occasional series of Random Bits of History, illustrating life as experienced by the early Mequon settlers and their contemporaries. Today’s RBOH is an example of how strong early Wisconsin women could be, and how they used that strength to maintain community and social relationships across the vast distances between military posts.

Jonathan M Clark served with the U.S. Army’s 5th Regiment of Infantry at Fort Howard, Green Bay, Wisconsin Territory, from 1833-1836. The Fifth Regiment was responsible for four major outposts in the Old Northwest: Ft. Dearborn (Chicago), Ft. Howard (Green Bay), Ft. Winnebago (at the Fox and Wisconsin river portage) and Ft. Crawford (at Prairie du Chien).

We expect a soldier’s life on the frontier to be spartan and difficult, and in many ways is was. Generally speaking, enlisted men like JMC were unmarried and lived in together in the post’s barracks. But quite a few of the regiment’s officers were married, and brought their spouses—and children—to live with them on post or, occasionally, in homes in the adjacent village. As “officer’s ladies,” these women often lived separate lives from the civilian women of nearby settlements, such as Green Bay. So they formed their own bonds to provide mutual aid, comfort, society and entertainment while living in some of the army’s most isolated outposts.

And they did not let their social bonds break, even when friends were transferred to other forts. Here are some examples from about 1833:

The social amenities of life were not neglected in the least degree by the few ladies who gave grace by their refining presence to fort life. Calls were made and returned then as now, and a lady took her position in a canoe to make or return a call on an acquaintance, —at Fort Crawford down the Wisconsin, 118 miles distant, or down the Fox to Fort Howard, about 175 miles away,—with less ado and trouble in arranging her toilet for the occasion, than is sometimes experienced by our ladies of today in making a party call across the street. I have frequently heard a gentleman who was accustomed to escort ladies on such occasions, and paddle the canoe, and who made his bridal tour in that manner from the old Agency house to Green Bay, speak of the rare delight of these trips in a birchen canoe.

Turner, Andrew Jackson. “The History of Fort Winnebago,” in Army Life in Wisconsin Territory, offprint from Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. XIV (1898), page 91. Accessed via Internet Archive/Hathi Trust, 2020. The Wisconsin Historical Collections are also available from the Wisconsin Historical Society (link to Vol. 14 (1898)).

Yep, the ladies—and their gentlemen—would paddle birchbark canoes as far as 175 miles, up- and down-river, to enjoy their friendships and maintain a sense of community. Or even, as mentioned above, to take a honeymoon (“bridal tour”).

Stay safe. Be well.


UPDATE: This post was scheduled to go live on Tuesday morning, March 2. For some reason WordPress sent out the link to blog followers, before I could proofread. So I’m making this visible today for all, but watch out for typos…

For more on JMC’s Army days, here and here are good place to start, then see our Index or enter “Army” in our Search box for more.