Like every state in the United States, Wisconsin history begins with its Native
American peoples. Today, there is much pre-Columbian evidence of the state's
Native Americans, known as Mound Builders, who were the ancestors of the more
socially organized tribes found when Europeans arrived and the modern history
of Wisconsin began. The Mound Builders flourished along the Mississippi
River Valley, especially in southeast Wisconsin, Iowa,
Illinois, and into Georgia.
The most important of these in Wisconsin state history are the Effigy Mounds
(mounds built in the shapes of animals) found not far from Madison.
Several Algonquian-speaking (Menominee, Kickapoo, Miami) and Siouan-speaking
(Winnebago, Dakota/Sioux, Iowa) tribes were living in what is now Wisconsin
by the 16th century. They were later joined by the Fox, Sac, Potawatomi and
The earliest recorded European facts about Wisconsin concern the French. In search of the elusive Northwest Passage, Jean Nicolet set off from Quebec and became the first European to enter Lake Michigan in 1634. He came ashore in Green Bay, where he established a trading post that would later become important in the fur trade. Later, the French explorers Marquette and Jolliet arrived. They were seeking (and eventually found) the Mississippi River they had heard about from the tribes they met. Wisconsin state history shows little French colonization and few settlements, as the French were primarily interested in the fur trade.
The British arrived onto the Wisconsin state history scene in 1763, and, at first, were also interested in little but the fur trade. But it was under British control that the first real settlers began to arrive. Even though they lost the territory to the new United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain retained nominal control until the War of 1812. Shortly after, significant numbers of settlers came to the region. Wisconsin history then began to mirror that of all other United States territories with major Indian conflicts, and more settlers arrived lured by the prospect of lead mining. There was rich lead ore in the southwest part of the state and into Iowa.
Lead ore boomtowns, the biggest being Green Bay, grew up. Lead miners from Cornwall in England arrived, and literally burrowed their homes into the hills as they did in their home country. These miners became known as "badgers," and one of the facts about Wisconsin is its nickname as the Badger State. But the ore was depleted relatively quickly and settlers turned to farming, with the most important new farming settlement being what is now Milwaukee.
1836 saw the creation of the Wisconsin Territory, including all of what is
now Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota
and portions of both North
Dakota and South
Dakota. The history of Wisconsin as a state begins in 1848. It was the 30th
state, and its capital was the new city of Madison. Railroad development is
one of the facts about Wisconsin that played an important part in the state's
nineteenth-century growth. Major cities like La
Crosse and Milwaukee connected with almost every corner of the state, and
the ability to easily move goods by rail contributed to the growth of agriculture.
The first major cash crop was wheat, but dairy farming soon prevailed.
Dairy products play another important role in the history of Wisconsin and today the state is known especially for its cheese. Residents of Wisconsin often refer to themselves as "cheese heads" and you will see the iconic symbol atop the heads of ardent Green Bay Packers fans. Wisconsin history is also entwined with logging, which prevailed in the northern and central parts of the state that was densely forested and not suitable for farming. Eau Claire and Wasau became important sawmill communities. Today, these forested regions provide some of the best outdoor tourist attractions, including the five state parks that make up Wisconsin's Door Country.
In fact, you will find that Wisconsin history is represented everywhere you might travel in the state. Whether you are a history buff or not, the history of this state is there to explore no matter where you go.