A long, wide prairie stretches north from the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. It was probably an important trading area before Europeans arrived, a tradition that continued when it anchored the western end of the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, a key transportation route for fur traders, voyageurs, and missionaries that connected Montreal and the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Each spring and fall, Indians and traders assembled to rendezvous and to conduct business.
When Jonathan Carver passed through in 1766, he found a thriving village called La Prairies les Chiens that “contains about three hundred families; the houses are well built after the Indian manner, and pleasantly situated on a very rich soil, from which they raise every necessary of life in great abundance.”
The town’s name apparently dates back to the 1730s when fur traders encountered a Meskwaki camp on the prairie. The Chief’s name was Alim, which meant dog, so the French traders translated the word into its French counterpart: chien. After France ceded its North American lands in 1763, Britain gained considerable influence in the area.
Prior to 1781, no Europeans owned land around Prairie du Chien, even though many traders and former voyageurs had homes in the area. In 1781—in the middle of the Revolutionary War—the British governor, after negotiating with resident Meskwakis, granted nine square miles to Pierre Antaya, Augustine Ange, and Basil Giard.
After the Revolutionary War win gave America control of the region, Prairie du Chien was far from the minds of the new American government. American explorer Zebulon Pike reached Prairie du Chien in 1805, but no other American military forces would reach Prairie du Chien until the War of 1812. In spite of their loss, British traders continued to dominate commerce in the Northwest. When George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States in 1789, there was not a single American trader at Prairie du Chien.
Slowly, the American government began to assert control over the distant western lands. In October 1796, they took control of Mackinac Island from the British, opening up the vast Northwest Territory to American exploration and trade. Civilian government in Prairie du Chien began in 1802 with the appointment of a Justice of the Peace. At that time, most of the one hundred or so residents were of French-Canadian or mixed-race ancestry and worked as traders or farmers. Several American Indian communities grew in close proximity.
During the War of 1812, the British had nearly unchallenged control of the Northwest Territory, aided by strong alliances with several Indian nations because of their long-standing trade relationships (and no attempts by the American government to build alliances). A handful of resident Americans at Prairie du Chien built Fort Shelby in June 1814, but it was quickly captured by the British and renamed Fort McKay. The British held Fort McKay until May 1815, when American forces finally forced them out; on their retreat, they torched the fort.
British control of the fur trade finally ended with when the Americans won the War of 1812, although some British traders remained active for years. With the British out of the business, John Jacob Astor moved in and consolidated control through the American Fur Company, building a monopoly that lasted until his retirement in 1834. The lucrative fur trade in this region faded away by 1848.
After the War of 1812 ended, Americans moved to establish a military presence and civilian government at Prairie du Chien. In June 1816, General Thomas Smith arrived with six companies and supervised construction of Fort Crawford on St. Feriole Island near the ruins of Fort Shelby/McKay. In 1818, Crawford County was established as part of Michigan Territory with Prairie du Chien as the county seat.
In August 1825, the US government convened a large council of Indian nations at Prairie du Chien to demarcate land boundaries for each nation, although the US would later move to negotiate (or just take) land within these defined boundaries. Among the American Indians leaders who attended were Wabasha, Red Wing, and Little Crow (all Dakota), Keokuk (Sauk), and Decorah (Ho Chunk). Black Hawk, however, did not attend, so many Sauk did not feel represented.
The following year, the soldiers were transferred to Fort Snelling (near St. Paul) and Fort Crawford was abandoned. A brief Indian uprising in the fall led to a renewed Army presence and by the summer of 1827, Fort Crawford was occupied again. During an official visit to the fort that year, General Edmund Gaines noted that continual flooding was ruining the fort and that its location on the island made the soldiers vulnerable to numerous diseases. He recommended relocating it.
Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor (a future US President) arrived in 1829 to command Fort Crawford. He supervised early construction of a new stone fort that was located on the mainland safely out of the Mississippi River’s reach. Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America, served as a lieutenant under Taylor. Davis developed a crush on Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, but Zachary didn’t approve; he didn’t want his daughter marrying a military man. Davis resigned from the Army to marry Sarah, anyway. They both contracted malaria when they were visiting Davis’ sister in Louisiana. Jefferson survived but Sarah did not. They were only married three months.
Taylor left Fort Crawford in 1830 but returned 1832 (the same year a cholera epidemic killed 100 soldiers) to command troops during the Black Hawk War. This time he stuck around a little longer, serving until 1837. The fort declined in importance after the Black Hawk War, and the last US soldiers left on June 9, 1856.
As the fur trade waned, Prairie du Chien became an important port for shipping wheat and lumber and started to attract new residents. The Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad arrived in 1857 (completing the first rail line across Wisconsin); the new jobs attracted Irish immigrants, who were then followed by waves of Bohemians and Germans. The more established French families turned to farming, mostly on the northern part of town, gradually losing their cultural traditions through assimilation and intermarriage.
Prairie du Chien remained a key grain shipping point until after the Civil War when St. Paul (Minnesota) took most of that business. Even as Prairie du Chien lost river commerce, however, rail traffic stepped up. Some other industries that came and went: clamming/pearl button manufacturing, cigar factories, and woolen mills.
A fire in 1873 shifted the business district to its current location along Blackhawk Avenue. When artesian wells were discovered near the end of the century, Prairie du Chien became a spa destination. Many of those wells are still in use, although they are no longer drawing spa tourists. After the big flood of 1965 and several smaller ones in subsequent years, the Army Corps of Engineers used Prairie du Chien as a test case for its first flood protection program that did not involve building taller levees. Under this new approach, the Corps purchased property in flood-prone areas and moved residents to higher ground. Between 1978 and 1984, 121 properties were purchased and its residents relocated. Some people their homes with them; in one case, an entire block of six houses was moved.
Random Fact: Prairie du Chien has been through 40 major floods since 1785.