History: 1923 Wood Co., Wisconsin's Early Settlement

Poster: History Buffs


----Source: History of Wood County, Wisconsin compiled by George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and others : illustrated. H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1923, CHAPTER VII.

----1923 History of Wood Co., Wisconsin's Early Settlement




The first step in the civilization of Wood County was taken nearly a century ago. The event has been described by a former historian, writing 42 years ago for the "History of Northern Wisconsin" (1881), and who, in addition to documentary evidence, not improbably had the opportunity of interviewing one or more persons who were personally cognizant of the facts. His account, therefore, as being doubtless correct in its main features, will be here repeated, in substance where not verbatim, with additions from other sources.

In the winter of 1827, Daniel Whitney of Green Bay, obtained a permit from the Winnebago, granting him the privilege of making shingles on the Wisconsin River. He employed 22 Stockbridge Indians, his nephew, David R. Whitney, and another man, being employed as superintendents. Colonel Childs was engaged to take the party up the river and supply them with provisions. He conveyed them to the mouth of Yellow River, where he left them. On his return he was informed by Major Twiggs, commanding officer at Fort Winnebago, that Whitney's men must be sent out of the country, and, if he went up the river he would get into trouble. Disregarding the advice of Twiggs, Childs went to where the men were working and found that they had made about 200,000 shingles. Soon after this Major Twiggs sent a force up the Wisconsin, took away a part of Whitney's shingles and destroyed the rest, by which act Whitney lost about $1,800.

In 1831 Daniel Whitney obtained a permit from the War Department to erect a saw mill and cut timber on the Wisconsin River. In 1831-32, assisted by his nephew and A. B. Sampson, he built the first mill at the place known as Whitney's Rapids, below Pointe Basse and about ten miles below Wisconsin Rapids; or, to locate it more definitely, it was on Government Lot 1, Section 10, Township 21 north, Range 5 east, the same section in which the Nekoosa Paper Mill now stands, the mill being on Lot 5. Messrs. Grignon & Merrill, having obtained a similar permit, built a mill at Grignon's Rapids in 1836. These two establishments were ,the first lumbering plants on the Wisconsin River and in Wood County.

"The treaty of 1836, by which the title of the Menominee Indians was extinguished to a strip of land six miles wide, from Pointe Basse 40 miles up stream, was obtained especially to open the country to the lumbermen. The high price and quick demand quickened the business and the river was explored from Pointe Basse to Big Bull Falls that year. The occupation and clearing of the most eligible sites quickly followed. Two mills were soon established at Grand Rapids, one at Mill Creek, and others on the same stream. The Indian title to the land was extinguished in 1848. This opened the whole of the Upper Wisconsin country to the settler. The timber then included white, yellow and Norway pine, rock and soft maple, nearly all the varieties of oak, balsam fir, white and red cedar, spruce, hemlock, ash, poplar, basswood and hickory. A wide market was immediately available, embracing not only that near home but practically all the states west of the Mississippi, and the business progressed and developed rapidly." The United States Government had trouble with the whites cutting timber where they had no authority to do so, and in February, 1839, the government authorized Joshua Hathaway to make a survey along the Wisconsin River from Pointe Basse (now Nekoosa) to Wausau. The survey covered the territory three miles back from the river, and the field notes and survey records were returned to the government in May, 1840. This was known as the Three Mile Survey, and it was not until 1851 and 1852 that the land further back from the river was surveyed. When placed on the market and offered at nominal prices the number of settlers began to increase. Where once stood one log shanty, hamlets and villages began to spring up, some of which in time developed into cities. Settlers from eastern and other states flocked to Wisconsin, manufacturing and general industries grew rapidly, giving promise that before many years the region would become one of the first states in the Union.

The Indian title to Indian lands on the upper Wisconsin was extinguished in 1848, which opened the whole upper Wisconsin country to the settler. In 1852 the lands were brought into the market at the land offices at Menasha and Mineral Point. The Stevens Point land office was opened in 1853 and was soon doing a flourishing business. Gen. A. G. Ellis of that place, in an article published in the Third Annual Report of and Collections of the State Historical Society for the year 1856, described the.Stevens Point district as embracing a strip of land 30 miles in width on either side of the Wisconsin, from the Dells to its source-about 170 miles long, and stated that the aggregate of sales from July 5, 1853 to March 31, 1857, was 1,435,560 acres. He also went on to say, "At Mineral Point and Menasha, previous to the opening of this office (Stevens Point) the sales were probably about 300,000 (acres), as within the bounds of this district-say 1,630,000 acres in all. Not one-twentieth part of this was purchased for lumbering purposes, but for agriculture and that alone. Some two-thirds of it is occupied by settlers who are now opening farms." In the same article Gen. Ellis said of Wood County, "Its northwestern portion lies on the head waters of several streams as Mill Creek, Yellow River and Black River, all of which rise from the most beautiful spring brooks and water several townships of the most charming hard-timbered lands in all this region. They are rapidly being settled up with bona-fide farmers."

The first log house in Wood County, which of course was the first house of any kind here, unless an Indian wigwam might be so called, was built by Mr. Whitney at Whitney's Rapids, and served the triple purpose of a trading-post in his traffic with the Indians, a house of entertainment for travelers, and a personal residence. Whitney was a generous, open-hearted man who took pains to make everybody who stopped with him as comfortable as his situation would permit, though, as may be imagined, the accommodations he was able to afford were very limited. Travelers, in the absence of beds, were obliged to sleep as best they could. They would wrap their blankets about them and lie on the floor, their sleep being often delayed or disturbed by hungry wolves, who sometimes came right up to the cabin and howled in frenzied chorus as they caught the scent of the human prey which they were unable to reach. Mrs. Whitney, wife of David, was the first white woman in the county. She was a woman well able to endure the hardship and perils of pioneer life, and was noted for being able to command the respect and fear of the Indians. Upon one occasion she entrusted herself and two children with two of them in a bark canoe for a journey of 150 miles in order to reach her husband, who was lying very sick.

The first important business of the pioneer settler upon his arrival in Wood County was to build a house. Until this was done he had to camp on the ground or live in a wagon. The style of a home entered very little into his thoughts. It was a shelter that he wanted, and a mere cabin or hut was sufficient, so long as it answered the purpose of a home. The furniture of the pioneer's cabin was generally of the most primitive description, unless he and his wife had brought with them their old household supplies, which, owing to the distance some of them had come, was very seldom the case. It was, however, very easy to improvise tables, chairs and bedsteads. The former could he made of split logs; the latter constructed as follows: A forked stick was driven into the ground diagonally from the corner of the room and at proper distances, upon which poles reaching from each side could be laid, the wall ends of the poles either resting in the openings between the logs, or driven into auger-holes. Either bark or boards could be used as a substitute for cords or slats.

Among the things calculated to annoy and distress the pioneer was the prevalence of wild beasts of prey, the most numerous and troublesome of which was the wolf. There were two species of this animal which troubled the pioneer-the large black timber wolf and the smaller grey wolf, which usually inhabits the prairie. At first it was next to impossible for the settler to keep small stock of any kind. Sheep were not deemed safe property until late years, when their enemies were supposed to be nearly exterminated. Large number of wolves were destroyed during the early years of settlement when they were hungry, which was usually the case, particularly during the winter. They were often too indiscreet for their own safety, and would approach within each shot of the settlers' dwellings. Smaller animals, such as panthers, lynx, wildcats and catamounts, were also sufficiently numerous to prove troublesome. The trials of the pioneer were innumerable, and the cases of actual suffering might fill a volume of no ordinary size. Timid women became brave through combats with real dangers. Patient mothers grew sick at heart with the sight of beloved children failing in health from lack of the commonest necessaries of life. The struggle was a constant one for the means of sustaining life itself.

For a few years the pioneers of Wood County were so occupied with their struggle for a living that they had no time or opportunity to pay attention to the things pertaining to the cultivation of the higher nature to education, religion, or any of the refinements of life; but these things were not wholly forgotten, and when the opportunity came it was eagerly embraced.

In 1842 the Rev. J. S. Hurlbut, a Methodist missionary, began his labors in the county. He held a meeting and preached his first sermon in a building in Centralia, now that part of Wisconsin Rapids on the west side of the river. After that he held meetings wherever the people would have them, often journeying for miles through an almost trackless wilderness, sometimes pursued by wolves, to hold services for some family who had sent him an invitation. Some of these journeys were made on horseback, but he oftener went on foot.  

In the same year in which he began his ministry here, 1842, Mr. Hurlbut also established the first school in the county, with himself as teacher: It was held in a log house in Centralia. The eagerness with which the people strove to establish all the machinery of civilization at a very early period in the history of the county is proved by the fact in 1856 an attempt by a number of leading citizens then settled in the county to found a college, and what was called "Grand Rapids University" was actually incorporated March 31, that year, by Henry F. Black, Orestes Garrison, Joseph Wood, John H. Compton, Henry Jackson, R. C. Lyon, A. B. Sampson, T. B. Scott, George Neeves, Henry Clinton, Henry Rubree, J. L. Mosher, W. B. Naylor, Daniel Baker and William Kline. This was before the organization of the county, as the record states that it was to be "located in the Town of Grand Rapids, County of Portage." Its purpose is stated to have been "to teach English literature, ancient and modern languages, mathematics and natural sciences, the art of teaching and the application of science to agriculture and the mechanical arts." This was a truly ambitious program, for that day rather too much so, as requiring greater financial resources than were available, and it seems soon to have dropped out of sight, for the above is the only mention that can be found of it.

The population of Wood County in 1860 was 2,425. Within the memory of people now living the early settlers used to trade pork and flour to the Indians for their ponies, securing some nice animals for eight or ten dollars' worth of supplies. Fifty cents then bought a nice hind quarter of venison, while vegetables, crab apples and other fruit often went in exchange for a bow and arrow, a pair of mittens or moccasins. The Indians in turn had wild cranberries, maple sugar and other things to trade.

Between 1879 and 1889 there was a large German immigration into Wisconsin, the immigrants coming chiefly from Bavaria. They were mostly Catholics and the majority had means enough to buy land. Five hundred and seventy-two of these families settled in Wood County, chiefly at or near Marshfield, and in 1890 there were 18,127 Germans in the county.  


[Wood Co., Wis. Biographies]  [Wood Co., Wis. Main Page]