Among the early settlers were two French traders named Godfrey who were employed by the Astor Fur Trading Company. Their families farmed and trapped in the area before moving to Prairie du Chien. The village was initially known as Winneshiek’s Landing in honor of the Ho Chunk chief who made regular visits to trade with the French. Chief Winneshiek died in 1848 at Lansing and was reportedly buried atop a bluff just north of town that is named after him.
The village was laid out in 1854 by Moses Strong and renamed for Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who, in 1541, became the first European to see the Mississippi River. The town’s proprietors included several doctors who originally sought to create a village that would be settled only by people who shared their New England roots. The bustling sawmills in the mid-1850s, however, needed laborers more quickly than you can say chowdah, so they had to settle for a more varied group. Most of the new arrivals were Norwegians and Germans. Unlike some of its neighbors to the south, De Soto lacked a good spot for a steamboat landing. Using that famous frontier ingenuity, in 1867 a few dozen men from town used the cover of night to construct a wing dam, which was technically in violation of federal law. The dam, off Woodbury’s Island, was meant to divert the flow of the river so it would dig a deeper channel near the village. It worked. Four grain elevators were soon built and De Soto became an important shipping point for grain, at least until the railroad reached nearby Viroqua and grain shipping shifted there. Shoemaking propelled the town into the national limelight when, in 1884, local cobbler Patrick De Lap was proclaimed the oldest shoemaker in America.
The De Soto Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized in 1896 by thirteen local residents, five of whom were named Ole. Four years later, they built a small Gothic Revival frame church atop Powers Hill on land donated by Ole Nasseth. When the basement was added in 1933, the church became a hot spot for lutefisk suppers. Services, conducted only in Norwegian until 1918, were held once a month on a Monday because of the difficulty of securing a pastor. When the Mississippi River bridge washed out in 1946, the pastor, who was serving congregations in Lansing, Ferryville, and De Soto had to cross the river in a boat—a rowboat, to be precise—which he did for a while before being worn out by the constant back-and-forth. The church was wired with electricity in 1948 but never got running water. The congregation built a new church in 1966 and sold the old church to a local farmer.