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Island History - - Island History - Island History
Island History
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Islanders have a long, long tradition of making things - both utilitarian and artistic - which goes back at least 350 years. The earliest written history places French explorers and voyageurs in the area by 1660, but Native American oral traditions place the Ojibwe on the island at the time of Columbus. We do know that Native Americans, whether Ojibwe, Ottawa, Huron, or Sioux, occupied the islands and Chequamegon Bay area for hundreds of years prior to the coming of Europeans. And these indigenous peoples made everything they used - clothing, tools, weapons, transportation and shelter - from the natural resources they found around them, in their immediate environment.

Although the first Europeans brought with them factory or artisan made clothing, tools and weapons, they quickly discovered that without certain native-made objects, they would have a very hard time surviving in the wilderness. So those early French explorers, missionaries and fur traders adopted indigenous ways of doing things. They traveled the Great Lakes in hand-made canoes and were sheltered by the portable wigwam. They kept themselves warm and dry with animal skins and furs and ate an Indian diet.


Fort La Pointe
  Fort La Pointe  

The French, British and American fur trades lasted on Madeline Island from around 1693 until the early 1840s. During this 150 year period, cultures melded and handmade traditions continued. The Ojibwe, who had always combined the utilitarian and the artistic in everything they made - traditionally with quills, feathers, claws, teeth, shells and colors made from berries or earth - began using European made materials to fashion their clothing, for example. Instead of stitching dyed and flattened porcupine quills to their buckskin dresses, Ojibwe women sewed a dress from wool trade cloth using scissors, needles and thread, and decorated their new outfits with multi-colored glass beads. The made-by-hand tradition continued; only the raw materials changed.

By the early 19th century, new immigrants began arriving on Madeline Island, with other ways of making things by hand. Scandinavians who came to fish the waters of Lake Superior or clear the timber from the woods of Northern Wisconsin built their homes from materials available locally, like logs. Later, with the establishment of mills and quarries, home builders could use lumber or brownstone to construct a home or a place of business. With local materials, the settlement at La Pointe grew from a seasonal wigwam encampment with a few scattered log buildings, to a bustling town of homes, churches, schools and businesses.

To travel from the island to the mainland, you needed a good wooden boat. And for those residents whose livelihood depended on fishing, a seaworthy craft was all-important. On the island, from the mid-19th century right up until the present, building boats by hand is a time-honored tradition. Even the first ferry boats were wooden vessels built in the early 20th century by local craftsmen.

With the advent of summer tourism in the mid-1890s, artists began to discover the beauty of Madeline Island and the surrounding region. Whether trained at an art institute or university - like museum founder Bella Capser - or self taught in the folk tradition - like painter Joe Klesak - the fine art tradition continues to this day. There is no medium that has not been used to interpret Madeline island - oil and watercolor painting, on canvas, paper, recycled cardboard or plywood; sculpture in welded metals, still made each summer by sculptors wrestling steel; photography, via family snapshots, by kids with home-made pin hole cameras, shot from the air, or finely printed in sepia tones in an artist's built-by-hand darkroom; papier mache, seen to best advantage each year in the July 4 parade; wool and cotton yarn, woven into beautiful rugs and scarves by island artisans working at Woods Hall Craft Shop; or clay, pit fired on a Madeline Island beach.

Making things by hand, both useful or beautiful, and many times both, is ingrained in the island way. It was practiced over 350 years ago by the first people and will continue into the future for as long as artists and craftspeople choose to live on or visit this magical place called Madeline Island.

Courtesy of Steve Cotherman, Director, Madeline Museum

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MISA - Madeline Island School of the Arts
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La Pointe, WI 54850
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