Often referred to as Wisconsin's second oldest city, Prairie du Chien was established as a European settlement by French voyageurs in the late seventeenth century. The city is located near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, a strategic point along the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway that connects the Great Lakes with the Mississippi.
Early French visitors to the site found it occupied by a group of Fox Indians led by a chief whose name Alim meant Chien in French (Dog in English). The French explorers named the location Prairie du Chien, French for "Dog's Prairie". The American anglicized pronunciation is "prairie doo sheen". Originally this name applied only to the plain upon which the settlement is located, but it was later extended to mean the city as well. The city of Prairie du Chien is located between the Town of Prairie du Chien and the Town of Bridgeport.
The first Europeans to reach Prairie du Chien were the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, who arrived by canoe on June 17, 1673, discovering a route to the Mississippi River. Later travel between French Canada and the Mississippi River passed through Prairie du Chien, although routes via the Illinois River were also used. In 1685, the French explorer Nicolas Perrot established a trading post in the area as part of the large and lucrative French fur trade industry. After Americans entered the trade in the nineteenth century, John Jacob Astor built the Astor Fur Warehouse, an important building in the regional fur trade whose business was done in Prairie du Chien. The significance of Prairie du Chien as a center of the fur trade did not diminish until the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1763, when Great Britain defeated France in the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years War), it took "possession" of the French territory in North America, including Prairie du Chien. The British expanded the fur trade during their occupation of the area. During the American Revolutionary War, the city was used as a meeting point for British troops and their Native American allies. After the American victory, the Treaty of Paris (1783) granted the area to the new United States of America, but the British and their Loyalists were slow to withdraw. Only after the War of 1812 did the city become fully American.
The US was slow to present any authority over Prairie du Chien, but late in the War of 1812 when the government realized the importance of holding the site to prevent British attacks from Canada, it began construction of Fort Shelby in 1814. In July, British soldiers captured the fort during the Siege of Prairie du Chien. The British maintained control over the city until the war's end in 1815. Not wanting another invasion through Prairie du Chien, the Americans constructed Fort Crawford in 1816.
The fort was the site of the negotiations and signing of the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1825 and 1829), by which the Fox and Sauk ceded much of their land to the US. Representing them and the United Nations of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Pottawatomie in the 1829 negotiations was Billy Caldwell, of Scots-Irish and Mohawk descent. He became involved with the Pottawatomie after moving to the US as a young man from Canada.
In 1829, the army doctor William Beaumont carried out many of his famous experiments on digestion in the hospital of Fort Crawford. Beaumont's discoveries are still the basis of current knowledge on the human digestive process.
Col. Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th U.S. President, was the commanding officer at Fort Crawford during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Taylor oversaw the surrender of Black Hawk in Prairie du Chien. Lt. Jefferson Davis, who later became president of the Confederate States of America, was stationed at Fort Crawford at the same time. Here Jefferson Davis met Zachary Taylor's daughter, Sarah "Knoxie" Taylor, whom he married in 1835.
After the fur trade declined in the mid-nineteenth century, Prairie du Chien's attention shifted to agriculture and the railroad. Although the city was first connected to the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad in 1857, the width of the Mississippi River posed a challenge for further expansion of the railroad into Iowa. This problem was temporarily solved by disassembling the trains at Prairie du Chien and ferrying them across the river to be put back on the tracks on the other side. A better solution was found by Michael Spettel and John Lawler, who designed a permanent pontoon bridge to span the river in 1874. Lawler took most of the credit for this invention, and made a small fortune through its operation. Lawler later donated property to establish two Catholic boarding schools in Prairie du Chien, St. Mary's Institute (now Mount Mary College of Milwaukee), and Campion High School in the later part of the century. Campion High School produced several notable alumni including Vicente Fox, Congressman Leo Ryan, Governor Patrick Lucey, actors David Doyle, George Wendt, and Kevin McCarthy, and writer Garry Wills. Campion was closed in 1975.
History of municipal government
Prairie du Chien was incorporated as the Borough of Prairie des Chiens on September 17, 1821 by the secretary of the Michigan Territory. It is the only municipality in Wisconsin other than Green Bay to have been known as a borough, rather than a city, town, or village. The borough existed for a few years before the government stopped operating in 1825
In 1828, the Prairie du Chien area became a part of the Town of St. Anthony, a town which included all of immense Crawford County. (Crawford County itself included all of the western part of Michigan Territory.) In 1849, the Town of Prairie du Chien was created, consisting of most of present-day Crawford County. The city of Prairie du Chien was then incorporated in 1872.