The first settler in the township was John McCain, born in 1814 in Pennsylvania, who arrived in 1846 and built a cabin. McCain was involved in the logging industry and piloted boats on the Chippewa and Mississippi Rivers. He bought hundreds of acres of land and platted a village called Lakeport.
The first claim at the present site of Pepin was made by McCain’s cousin, William Boyd Newcomb, thus supplying the village’s first name, Newcomb’s Landing. In 1846 Newcomb gave up a job as a school teacher and traveled upriver from Fort Madison (Iowa). Like his cousin, he worked initially in the lumber industry, then became a river pilot.
When the village was platted in 1855, it was called North Pepin. The Pepin name may be derived from early explorers Pierre Pepin and his brother, Jean Pepin du Cardonnetes who spent time around here in 1679, because their father (Guillaume dit Tranchemontagne) and uncle (Etiene Pepin de La Fond) had a land grant from King Louis XIII. Virtually all of the village’s initial growth was driven by the logging industry.
The typical businesses cropped up amid great optimism about the village’s future, but the national financial panic in 1857 put the brakes on everything. A bigger problem for the village of North Pepin, however, was low river levels in 1857-58, as the village didn’t have the best steamboat landing, anyway, and low water made it nearly impossible for boats to dock. North Pepin also began losing business to the Beef Slough rafting operation in Alma and lost the county seat to Durand as that town boomed with its railroad business. Folks slogged on, even incorporating in 1860, but the incorporation was abandoned just four years later.
The village found new life with the growth of the local farm economy and reincorporated in 1882 with 340 residents. The Chicago, Burlington, and Northern railroad arrived in 1886, which helped provide connections to markets for the fishing industry. Commercial fishing picked up at the end of 19th century, supplying markets primarily in New York and the South. The peak fishing season was in winter when nets could be dragged under the ice, hauling in large caches of fish. Many of the fishermen worked the warmer months on the river as pilots, captains, or engineers.
Pepin was also home to the Pepin Pickle Company (1904-1937), sawmills, a creamery, a pearl button factory, and a bobsled factory. After the railroad came through, many businesses moved from First Street to Second Street because the noise from the trains scared their horses. The first automobile owned by a local resident appeared in 1908; by 1917 there were 66 in town. There are a few more than that today, as most residents commute to jobs elsewhere.