The braided streams of the Upper Mississippi River, history, scenic beauty and abundant natural resources entwine to make Prairie du Chien a place of captivating allure. Situated near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, successive Native American cultures lived and prospered here for more than 10,000 years. European contact began in 1673 when Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet mapped a water route from Montreal to the Mississippi. They first recorded the Wisconsin River as “Meskousing” and established a canoe route that remained a major fur trade artery for more than two centuries. Following the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, explorers, missionaries and fur traders crossed Wisconsin to the Mississippi River and to the site that would become Prairie du Chien.
At the end of the French and Indian War, New France was ceded to Great Britain and control of the profitable fur trade was taken over by British-Canadian traders. The bulk of fur trade labor continued to be carried by French-Canadians, and in remote villages like Prairie du Chien, their culture remained dominant.
In 1781, three French-speaking Prairie du Chien residents petitioned the British Governor at Michilimackinac to purchase the village site from resident Mesquakie Indians. The land sold by the Mesquakie, also known as the Fox, stretched from the confluence of the Wisconsin River to a point where the bluffs arc back to the west and meet the Mississippi River, a length of about nine miles. The Mesquakie living here were associated with the Dog – or “chien” family – and hence the fertile plain had been named Les Prairie des Chien–shortened to Prairie du Chien.
Prairie du Chien was well known as an important fur trade gathering place for fur traders working along the scores of minor waterways throughout the region. Each spring and each fall the village population swelled as traders and voyageurs assembled on the prairie. These gatherings were known as rendezvous and were renowned for their festive games, gambling and other diversions. The community was culturally diverse with many Métis families, where French-speaking men and Native American women raised large families of mixed-blood children.
An incremental transition to American identity and control began in the early 1800s with a major turning point occurring during the War of 1812. American troops from St. Louis, led by William Clark, built Fort Shelby in the Main Village of Prairie du Chien in an attempt to gain control of the British fur trade still active in the region, and sway the Indians away from their allegiance to the British. The fort provoked the only battle to take place in what is today Wisconsin, where more than 650 British-Canadian soldiers, militia and Indian allies opposed a vastly smaller force of Americans. The battle ended with the American force surrendering the fort, and the British establishing Fort McKay on the prairie. The treaty that concluded the war resulted in an end to the British trade and influence in the upper Mississippi region.
After the War, American soldiers fortified their western frontier with a chain of forts including Fort Crawford constructed at Prairie du Chien in 1816. The fort was the site of the Great Council and Treaty of 1825, which established boundaries for the Indian nations. As part of the Winnebago Uprising of 1827, Red Bird was imprisoned in the fort. Five years later, American soldiers pursued Black Hawk and his band of Sac across Wisconsin. Black Hawk was surrendered to Zachary Taylor, commandant at Fort Crawford, which has been relocated to the mainland. With the end of hostilities, the United States signed more treaties at Prairie du Chien, relocating Indian tribes. With land available, settlers from the eastern United States and Europe were drawn to Prairie du Chien and the upper Mississippi.
Prairie du Chien continued to grow and prosper throughout the 1800s. It became an important steamboat stop in the 1830s, and the first railroad to cross Wisconsin connected Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien in 1857. The coming of the railroad prompted an unprecedented building boom including the historic downtown, today concentrated on Blackhawk Avenue. There was much focus on new industry and education with a broad range of ethnic diversity. Slowly, the old fur trade village gave way to a regional center for agricultural, commerce and transportation.
In the depths of the nation’s economic depression of the 1930s, area residents rediscovered the fascinating past of their storied town, the oldest community on the upper Mississippi River. Streets were re-named to honor historic figures associated with Prairie du Chien and the city embraced heritage tourism as an economic and commercial pursuit. The Villa Louis, the Dousman family home built on the site of the first Fort Crawford, was opened as a historic site. It has been restored, displaying the richness and colors of the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. The Military Hospital, the only building remaining from the second Fort Crawford, was restored and is open with exhibits on the military history and aspects of the community’s history of Prairie du Chien.
Like the river itself, the history of Prairie du Chien is old, varied and endlessly fascinating, inviting a pause for reflection and for romance.