Historians agree that the first people to inhabit Wisconsin were the Mound Builders. Evidence of their habitation can still be seen in the area, especially along the Mississippi and Kickapoo Rivers. Low mounds in the shape of animals or birds, conical shapes, and relics, such as stone axes, arrow heads, implements and utensils, are the only ties to these ancient peoples in the history of the Driftless Area of Wisconsin
Early explorers came to Wisconsin in the 17th century. Jean Nicollet was the first European to reach Wisconsin, but he did not come to the southwestern region as he searched for the Northwest Passage. Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette came closer on their explorations of the Mississippi River, entering just below Prairie du Chien. First claimed by the French, the lands that are now Wisconsin became part of British colonial territory. In 1764 the first permanent settlement was made at Green Bay.
The Fur Trade’s Influence on the History of the Driftless Area
It wasn’t until 1783 that a few intrepid fur traders settled in Prairie du Chien, establishing the second oldest settlement in the state. In 1787, Wisconsin became part of the Northwest Territory, governed first by Indiana, then Illinois, then Michigan, before it finally became the 30th state in 1848.
Crawford County was one of Wisconsin’s nine original counties, established in the Michigan Territorial legislature in 1818. It was named after William H. Crawford, President James Monroe’s treasurer at the time and formerly Secretary of War. (Ft. Crawford, established in 1816 in Prairie du Chien, was also named for him.) Originally, the county covered the entire western half of Wisconsin’s present area. In 1836 it was transferred to the newly-formed Wisconsin Territory as Michigan prepared for statehood, and has gradually been subdivided into its present area. In 1853, the population was 3,000. Prairie du Chien, a long-time military post, was named the county seat.
Vernon County was renamed from Bad Axe County in 1862. The inhabitants of the county felt the name created a unpleasant impression, and at the suggestion of Judge William F. Terhune, changed to Vernon, implying the “greenness of its wheat fields, and carrying a suggestion of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.” Bad Axe County had been formed 11 years before, from portions of Richland and Crawford County. The county seat, Viroqua, was established in 1852. In 1850 there were less than 700 inhabitants.
The Kickapoo River was noted for its excellent stands of pine, and lumber mills were established along its banks. Copper and lead were found in Crawford County. Wheat was an easy crop to grow, and Springville and Towerville had excellent flouring mills. Immigrants brought their customs and practices to the area—Norwegians, Czechs, Bohemians, and Irish all added to the rich cultural heritage, histories still celebrated in the villages and towns today.