Founding and Early History

The founding of Appleton is the muddled story of Indian chiefs, French explorers, government agents, Methodist ministers, greedy land speculators, wealthy Boston merchants, and one shady character who claimed to be the rightful king of France. It is an involved tale of accidents and blunders, broken promises and financier schemes, some wild dreams that didn't work out and some noble hopes that did.


The earliest known residents of Wisconsin were the Menominee Indians, who settled along the western shore of Green Bay. According to their ancient lore, the Menominee descended from a great bear and other spiritual beings at the mouth of the Menominee River, and took their name from the wild rice that served as a main part of their diet (Menominee means "wild rice eater"). Archeological evidence suggests that the Menominee are actually part of the Algonquin speaking Indians of what is now northern New York, and that they had been chased into Wisconsin by the Iroquois hundreds of years before Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere.

The closest Indian settlement to what is now Appleton is believed to have been a village of the Winnebago Tribe, located on Doty Island, between Menasha and Neenah. Some historians say that the Winnebago are part of the Sioux nation, from the eastern part of the United States (where Virginia and the Carolinas are today), but the evidence remains inconclusive. Nearby were the Fox, or Outagamie Indians, possibly from Lower Michigan. Like the Menominee and Winnebago, they may have been driven from their original homelands by the Iroquois.

Despite the wide extremes of weather, northeastern Wisconsin was an inviting place, covered by thick forests, fertile soil, lakes and streams for fresh water, rivers for easy travel, and abundant wildlife for food. The Indians had no way of knowing that, by the early 1600s, their land had been claimed for the French king and that it was considered, with Canada, to be a part of New France.

The first European to see Wisconsin was Jean Nicolet, a prominent French explorer who had passed many years living among the Indians of Quebec, learning the language and gaining their trust. In 1634, Samuel de Champlain, the Governor of New France, sent Nicolet west on a journey to explore the great interior, and to accomplish two important tasks. The first task was to stop the warfare between the Ottawa and Winnebago tribes, which was hurting the valuable fur trade between the French and the Indians. The second task for Nicolet was to find a water route through the North American continent to the Orient.

According to the records of the Catholic Jesuit missionaries, Nicolet and his seven companions traveled from Quebec via Lake Huron, through the straits of Mackinac into Lake Michigan. Stopping at the shores of what is now Green Bay, Nicolet expected to encounter Chinese or other Orientals, and donned a Chinese damask robe to greet them. But instead of Orientals in elaborate costumes, Nicolet and his crew were met by a small group of Menominee Indians. Believing that Nicolet was a son of the gods, the Menominee celebrated with a great feast in his honor. They told him about their own lands, and of a great body of water that lay farther to the west. Hoping that this was the long-sought water route to China, Nicolet and his party, accompanied by a few Indian guides, headed up the Fox River. Sometime during the spring or summer, they became the first Europeans to pass through what is now the city of Appleton. The expedition proceeded the source of the Fox River, crossed overland to the Wisconsin River, and continued their journey. Within only three days of reaching the Mississippi River -- that great body of water the Menominee had told him about -- Nicolet decided to turn back in order to report his findings to Champlain.

Nicolet never did find a water route to the Orient, but he was able to conclude a peace treaty with the Menominee, promising friendship and cooperation. Following Nicolet's trip, a few fur traders ventured into the area, but their presence had little lasting impact on the Indians. The important visitors were the missionaries who believed it was their moral duty to bring Christianity to the Wisconsin natives. Primarily through the efforts of Father Claude Jean Allouez the Menominee were converted to Catholicism by the late 1600's.

In the years that followed, the French were frequently engaged in warfare with the various Indian tribes of Wisconsin. In 1717, the Fox Indians began to demand payment from any white men passing through the area. In retaliation, the French gathered an expedition of 800 men, consisting of French soldiers and Indian allies. This huge force surrounded two Fox settlements near present-day Menasha and received a quick surrender. To keep a military presence available, the French then established the first permanent fort at La Baye Verte, the French name for Green Bay.

Sporadic fighting between the French and Indians continued throughout the early 1700s. One report is that sometime around 1730, the French carried out an elaborate ambush of the Indians, hiding soldiers in trading boats and opening fire upon Indian villagers near Butte des Morts. The accuracy of this story remains uncertain, but after continued harassment by the French, by the middle of the 1700s, most of the Fox Indians had fled south to Illinois. Within a few years, peace treaties were signed and the Indians became the allies of the French against a common enemy, the British. Between 1754 and 1763, Great Britain and France fought what became known in America as the French and Indian War. Unfortunately for the Indians of Wisconsin, the French lost that war, and were forced to turn all of New France over to the British.

Only twenty years later, the Indians again found themselves on the losing side when they supported the British in the American War for Independence. According to the Treaty of Paris, which ended that war in 1783, the British were to turn over all their forts south of the Great Lakes to the new United States government. Instead of doing that, however, the British remained in America, using their forts to help the Indians in fighting the American settlers who were moving into the area. The U.S. protested, but the new government was too weak to force the British to comply with the terms of the treaty. Under the Jay Treaty of 1794, the British once again promised to leave their forts along the Great Lakes, but once again they broke their promise and remained.

Partly due to the prompting of the British, many Indians resisted the white settlers who were crossing the Appalachian mountain range and moving into the vast area then known as the Northwest Territory. In the early 1800s, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh tried to unite America's Indian tribes against these intruders. Along with his brother, Tenskwatawa (known as "The Prophet"), Tecumseh led an Indian revival throughout much of North America. The Winnebago Indians joined in Tecumseh's movement, but the Menominee did not. In 1811, Winnebago Indian braves participated when Tenskwatawa led an attack on settlers in the Indiana Territory. In the famous Battle of Tippecanoe, the settlers, led by Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison, crushed the Indian revolt. Harrison became so famous and popular from this battle that Tippecanoe became his nickname. When Harrison ran for President in 1840 along with running-mate John Tyler, their winning campaign slogan was "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"

When war broke out between the United States and Great Britain in 1812, the Indians of Wisconsin supported the British. Once again, they backed the wrong side. Though the war had no real winner or loser, under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the British finally abandoned their American outposts and left the Indians under the authority of the United States government.

The last Indian battle in Wisconsin came in 1832. After the Fox and Sauk attempted to prevent a village in Illinois from being taken by white settlers, the Indians were pursued north into Wisconsin. The few skirmishes there became known as the Black Hawk War. That war also ended with the defeat of the Indians, and is famous today primarily because Abraham Lincoln served as a young volunteer soldier, although he later said that the only fighting he did was with the mosquitos.