Origins of Portage County

Origins of Portage County
Professor Emeritus Maurice Perret

This is from the opening pages of "Portage County, of place and time"

After the discovery of the New World, settlements took root in the most adaptable and suitable locations. The powerful nations of Europe claimed parts of North America as their own. The Spanish settled first in the South at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. On the East Coast, the English founded their first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The French explored the interior and claimed all the territory from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. On the West Coast the Spanish moved toward the center of California, opening missions along the way. The Russians, traveling across Siberia and the Bering Strait, took possession of Alaska and moved along the Southern Coast to California.

Although what is now Portage County was originally part of the French colony, there is no historical evidence that the French settled in Portage County. The nearest French settlements were at Green Bay, a convenient port on Lake Michigan, and at Prairie du Chien, a port on the Mississippi River. The only French influence in Portage County is evident in the name of one stream, the Little Eau Pleine River. In 1763, through the Treaty of Paris, the British obtained control of all land east of the Mississippi, including what is now Portage County. There is no historical evidence that white men traveled through the area. The land was primarily covered with forest and was the hunting and trapping grounds of Indians.

After the Revolution, the region officially became part of the United States, but the British retained control of it until 1812. In 1818 it became part of the territory of Michigan. About that time a French Canadian, John Baptiste DuBay, established a trading post for the American Fur Company on the east bank of the Wisconsin River. It was situated where the river could be forded easily on foot and was, therefore, a strategic Indian crossing from the east to the Black River hunting grounds to the west. DuBay thus became the first white settler in what is now Portage County. Not only was the trading post frequented by Indians and fur traders, but it was a spot familiar to lumbermen who worked the river and to farmers who settled in the region. The site was covered by Lake DuBay when a dam was built in 1942.

The territory of Wisconsin was established by an act of Congress in 1836. That same year a treaty signed with Menominee Indians gave a strip of land called “the Indian strip,” three miles (4.8 km) wide along both shores of the Wisconsin River, to the Americans. In 1839 the land was surveyed by Joshua Hathaway, divided into lots and, in 1840, put up for sale by the U.S. Land Office in Mineral Point. In Portage County “the Indian strip” was renamed “the Pinery” because of its rich timber resources. Sawmills were built on the Wisconsin River and on some of its tributaries. Logs were floated down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi River and to St. Louis, an important market for lumber. Both the Southwest and the Great Plains were in great need of lumber to build houses and other structures. There are some indications that even before 1840, sawmills had been built on the Wisconsin River and possibly on Mill Creek. Rapids on the Wisconsin River made floating and navigation difficult. George Stevens, an Illinois lumberman, concluded that a site before the rapids was a suitable location for a warehouse. He built one on the left bank, and this place became known as Stevens Point.

The first Council and House of Representatives of the Wisconsin Territoiy meeting in Belmont established Portage County. At first the area was small, but in 1841 an act extended its boundaries to make it the third largest county in the Wisconsin Territory which extended east and west across eight townships and north through the central part of the state to the present Wisconsin-Michigan line. In 1846, Columbia County with the town of Portage, was separated from Portage County. Later other southern counties also became new counties.

The village of Plover, located on the trail between lower and upper Wisconsin, was at first named Plover Portage; it became the first county seat when it was detached from the southern counties. Portage County was divided into four precincts: Plover Portage, Grand Rapids, Little Bull Falls and Big Bull Falls. These precincts corresponded to the areas around Plover, Wisconsin Rapids, Mosinee and Wausau. In 1847 there were three more precincts: Stevens Point precinct, DuBay precinct and Eau Claire precinct.

At first the county seat was vaguely indicated as Plover Portage, the area used to bypass the rapids, where a tavern had been built and became the established site of the village. Although Plover had been designated as a county seat in 1841, it was not until 1849-1850 that the courthouse was ready for occupancy, and only in 1857 that the village was incorporated.

Pioneers were lumbermen, attracted to the region by the quality of white pine and the accessibility to water as a means of transporting lumber to markets. With the acquisition of tracts of wooden land, lumbermen with the help of laborers began to log the land. Sawmills were established along the streams. Food and equipment were transported from southern Wisconsin and Illinois. Some laborers, who also came from those areas, recognized that the surrounding soil would be profitable farmland to provide wheat, corn, vegetables and meat for lumber camps. Immigrants from the east also established farms on the open land of the southeastern part of the county. Roads were built to connect logging areas, taverns were opened at crossroads and some of them eventually developed into villages.

In 1849 the county board divided the county into three townships: Plover, Middletown and Bull Falls. Plover occupied the southern part; Bull Falls (which later became the core of Marathon County) occupied the northern part and Middletown occupied the middle section between Plover and what is Mosinee today. In 1850 Marathon County was formed, annexing the northern part of Middletown. The township of Plover was divided into Plover and Grand Rapids.

Although Plover was the county seat, Stevens Point was in a location more favorable to development. It was near the landing on the Wisconsin River from which boats could go as far north as the rapids at Mosinee. Stevens Point became the center of the county attracting businessmen, professional men and craftsmen. The village had been platted in 1847, and it already comprised an area called the Public Square. The federal census of 1850, the first official one for Portage County, gives information about the population at that time. It lists households giving names, sex, age, occupation, if the individual had attended school that year, if the individual was over 20 years and unable to read or write and the value of the real estate property. A special note indicated if the individual was not white. In Portage County the only record of a non-white was a five-year-old mulatto girl, born in Wisconsin. There were no records of Indians, although Jean Baptiste DuBay was of mixed blood as shown on his monument in the Knowlton cemetery:

1810 - 1887

Either DuBay himself, or the census taker, Anglicized the name to John B. DuBay. Records show that neither he nor his wife were able to read or write, and none of his six children had attended school during the year the census was taken. However, DuBay was a lumberman, and according to a real estate value of $10,000, he was the richest man in town. Another lumberman, J. L. Moore, living in the town of Plover, listed the same wealth in real estate. But in the town of Stevens Point, only 25 persons, including DuBay, listed real estate with a total value of $39,025. Twenty-eight persons in Plover listed real estate for a total of $39,650, and in the town of Grand Rapids only 15 had real estate for a total of $16,225--ranging from $25 to $3,000.

Despite its imperfections, the 1850 federal census is useful. By comparing the following federal census with those taken every ten years until today, the development of the population and changes in its characteristics can be noted.

Census Data

The 1850 census lists 17 as the number of persons who died in Portage County during the year ending June 1, 1850--among them nine children under ten, and five between 18 and 23 years. Although child mortality was high, there were families (mostly farmers) with five, six, seven and even ten children.

One man, 63 years of age, lived with his wife and two sons (all born in Vermont). One of the sons had a wife from New York State and three children born in Wisconsin. In a house next door lived another son, also born in Vermont, with a wife from Pennsylvania and two small children born in Wisconsin. An Irishman had a wife and five children born in Vermont and two children born in Wisconsin. Others born in the East, with wives from the respective state, had children born in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois or Wisconsin.

The most numerous age groups (20-29 yrs. and 30-39 yrs.) consisted largely of single men. Some of these men had trades, but most were laborers, often living as groups in the households of lumbermen. Others lived with tavern keepers in hotels.

Lumbermen and laborers were not permanent settlers. When they had cut the best timber, they moved on. It was believed that farmers who came as pioneers would establish farms that would remain in the family for generations. But this did not happen--very few people listed in the 1850 census left descendants in the area.

There were about 450 family names listed in the townships of Plover and Stevens Point in the 1850 census. However in the 1983 telephone directories for Stevens Point, Almond, Amherst and Rosholt, only about 100 were the same names as those in the 1850 census, and most of those bore no relationship to the pioneers. Thirty-two more names were found in the Wisconsin Rapids directory, but again there were no more than one or two families who had linkage to pioneer ancestry in Plover or Stevens Point.

Recent plat books, especially farms in Almond and in the town of Pine Grove, bear names found in the 1850 census. Examples are Beggs (spelled Baggs in the census), Clark, Johnson, Larson, Precourt and Sanders. Archibald Beggs came from Ireland, married in Vermont, and according to the 1850 census, had seven children living at home. Antoine Precourt emigrated from Canada, married in Maine, and at 29 years, had three children living at home. David Sanders and his wife, both from New York State, had ten children living at home; H.H. Young and his wife was from Maine, with four children living at home. Elisha Larson, age 30, and his wife, age 20, came from Norway. All of the proceeding were listed as farmers.

W. Koilock, aged 29, and Francis, aged 17, and probably his sister, came from Canada. In the 1850 census, Kollock was listed as a tavern keeper with a wife from Illinois. However on the plat map of 1876, this same Kollock was said to be a farmer who owned a piece of land. Today there are still Koliocks with farms in the towns of Pine Grove and Almond. It is probable that some men listed as laborers in the 1850 census became farmers and that their descendants still live on farms in Stevens Point or in nearby villages.

Although it is likely the 1850 census missed some people, it still indicates Portage County as sparsely settled at that time with a total of only 909 inhabitants, compared to the 1980 census which counted 57,420 inhabitants in Portage County. Immigrants came from the east and homesteaded in southeastern, eastern, northeastern and western parts of the county.

Between 1850 and 1860, there was an enormous increase in the population in Portage County, larger than in any other decade thereafter. Census figures increased from 909 to 7,507. During this decade more immigrants came from Europe to the United States than in any previous decade. In the years ending December 31, 1860, 2,968,194 people from foreign lands arrived by ship in the United States. In the previous decade, ending September 30, 1849, there were 1,427,337 immigrants; in the decade ending December 3 1,1839, there were 538,381 immigrants, and in the decade ending September 30, 1829, there were 128,502 immigrants. Realistically the numbers should be increased by the immigrants who came through Canada and decreased by the number of people who were merchants, and visitors who traveled in and out of the country. Passenger arrivals in the United States have been officially recorded in custom houses since September, 1819.

Some light can be shed on immigration into Portage County from a booklet published in 1857 by Albert G. Ellis and J.G. Tracy, entitled “Stevens Point - Handbook.” The book’s foreward addresses the public: “The design of this little work is to lay before the reader some of the more prominent features of the country of the upper Wisconsin River, the business which has led to its occupancy and settlement.. .the capacity for sustaining a population...” Ellis was United States Land Office agent. He wanted to attract settlers, stating that in Portage County, “The northern and northwestern portions are mostly timbered containing considerable quantities of choice government land still in the market--75 cents per acre. The supply of pure timber is said to be inexhaustible.”

It was during the decade between 1850 and 1860 that most of the towns in Portage County were organized: Eau Pleine in 1851; Almond and Amherst in 1852; Stockton in 1855; Pine Grove, New Hope, Linwood, Lanark and Belmont in 1856; Hull in 1858 and Sharon in 1859. Stevens Point was incorporated as a city in 1858.

In the 1860 federal census, the following facts about Wisconsin can be found. Wisconsin’s population: 772,693 whites; 1,171 free-colored; 613 Indians and 494 half-breeds, making a total of 775,881 inhabitants. Of these, 247,177 were born in Wisconsin. At that time 31,185 people born in Wisconsin moved west and south especially to settle in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and California. Of Wisconsin’s total census, 498,954 had been born in the United States and 276,927 were foreign-born. Of those born in the United States, about half were born in Wisconsin; 120,000 in New York State; 55,000 in New England and 68,000 in the northern states, east of Wisconsin.

Among the foreign born, about 123,000 were from Germany; 44,000 from Great Britain; 18,000 from British America (Canada and Newfoundland) and 21,500 from Norway. Among occupations, fanning was by far the most important with about 94,000 farmers and 31,500 farm laborers. There were 28,000 laborers without their specific occupation named and 1,500 lumbermen. The rest were divided among approximately 280 occupations.

The published book of the 1860 federal census does not give many details on the counties. The population of Portage amounts to 7,507 (4,015 males and 3,488 females) in one table but 7,359 (3,934 males and 3,425 females) in another table. No explanation is given for the discrepancy.

It is possible to form a picture of the county at that time from manuscripts of the census takers. Plover had lost its importance and Stevens Point had now become the central place of the county and the only city. In Plover there were still a hotel, two clergymen, a physician, two lawyers, county treasurer, two saloon keepers, some merchants, craftsmen and laborers. At the same time Stevens Point counted among its citizens: several professional men, merchants, craftsmen and two brewers, both from Germany. There was also a daguerreo artist (a photographer) and an Englishman who gave as an occupation--gentleman.

The first railroad line in Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, was built in 1850. Companies began building lines to serve the whole state in order to provide transportation to the east and especially to the west, which was considered “the promised land.” But in 1860, no railroad line had reached Stevens Point and the river was used as a waterway for boats and for rafting logs. There were stagecoaches to various localities and consequently the census numbered among occupations: river pilots, raftsmen and a ferryman who lived in the city.

In the city at that time the number of females was almost equal to the number of males. Among the adult single females were teachers, seamstresses and servants.

Although many Stevens Point residents were natives to Wisconsin, many adults came from New York State or from New England. In many families, the father and the mother came from different states, and in some cases one of them was born in a foreign country. Although there were a number of foreign-born residents, they did not seem to form groups according to their ethnic origins.

Almond and Amherst became small centers with some services; there were stores, a church, a school and saloons. The good land on the outwash plain in the south and southeast were settled by farmers who came primarily from New England, New York, Canada and the British Isles. There were some Irish farmers who settled in the towns of Stockton, Belmont, Almond, Lanark, Plover, Buena Vista and Pine Grove. It does not appear that farmers came in groups from other towns or districts. The census indicates that most farmers moved from their place of birth and married women from other states. It seems that farmers first settled in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois where they had one or several children. They moved further west, settled, and had other children until they finally came to Wisconsin where their youngest children were born. The immigrants who came later settled in the central and northeastern part of the county where glaciation had taken place and farming was more difficult. There were few flat areas and dense woods. In the northwestern part, settlers occupied land that had been forested. Lumbermen had taken out large trees, leaving settlers the work to clear space for farming.

The towns of Sharon and New Hope are good examples of settlement in areas that were unoccupied before. In Sharon the 1860 census lists 454 inhabitants, of which more than half were born in foreign countries. There were 82 dwellings--in this case, a farm with its buildings and inhabitants of the farmer, his family, relatives and laborers. Sixty-six heads of households were farmers: nine born in America (six in New York State, one each in Maine, Vermont and Pennsylvania), 20 born in Germany (Prussia, Bavaria, Baden, Hanover, Hamburg), 16 from Ireland, six with Irish names from Canada, six from Poland, two from England and two from Norway.

Almost all farmers were married and had children, some born in Wisconsin and others born in one of the states between the coast and Wisconsin. In the case of Matthis Simonis for example, he and his wife were born in Prussia, five children were born in New Jersey, three in Pennsylvania and three in Wisconsin.

Only four people indicated occupations other than fanning or as laborers--one lumberman from New York, two carpenters (one from Canada and the other, the son of a farmer and living with the family) and one teacher from Vermont living on a farm. With the exception of the families of American farmers, lumbermen and teachers, all other native Americans were children of foreign immigrants. There were clearly three different groups in which families created bonds through language: Germans, Poles and Irish

(Return to top) (Return to Archive Main Page)



See our Permissions page for use and copyright information.