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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Explorers and Settlers
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: Brown County.

Green Bay, located along the banks of the Fox River, is the oldest settlement in Wisconsin. Early French voyageurs and coureurs de bois probably knew about the site and named it Baye des Puants because the Puants, a Winnebago tribe, resided there. Not until 1634, however, did Jean Nicolet, commissioned by Champlain, arrive at La Baye and claim the region for France. For more than 30 years little happened at La Baye, but in 1669 Father Claude Allouez, a Jesuit missionary, founded a mission there. In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet left St. Ignace to open up a water route to the Mississippi. They sailed from Lake Michigan to Green Bay and then went down the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to the Mississippi. After this journey, because of its strategic position on the water route to the Mississippi, La Baye became an important fur trading center and rendezvous. In 1684, the French Government appointed Nicolas Perrot commandant of the region, and he built a crude frontier fort and trading post at La Baye. Soon, many traders, trappers, Indians, missionaries, and French soldiers settled there.

During the first half of the 18th century, the settlement was involved in constant warfare with the Fox Indians, and the French built Fort La Baye in 1716 to keep the area open for trade. In 1728, the Indians destroyed it, but the French rebuilt it 5 years later. At the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, the British occupied Fort La Baye. They called the settlement Green Bay (La Baye Verte) because the water and shore assumed green tints early in the spring. During the British regime, the fur trade reached its height and Green Bay developed into a prosperous farming community. After 1783, when the United States acquired the Northwest Territory from the British, French and British traders continued to live in the settlement and opposed American interference. Not until after the War of 1812 did Americans share fully in the fur trade of the region, when John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company gained control.

Located at Green Bay is the oldest extant house in Wisconsin, the Roi-Porlier-Tank Cottage.


Location: Crawford County.

Located on a broad terrace overlooking the Mississippi, 3 miles north of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, Prairie du Chien is the second oldest settlement in Wisconsin—the first being Green Bay. Prairie du Chien was a vital station on the route between Canada and the vast French-claimed heartland of North America.

Soon after Louis Jolliet and Père Jacques Marquette passed nearby in 1673 while journeying down the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, the site became an important gathering place for French and Indian trappers, traders, and hunters. In the mid-1680's, Nicolas Perrot erected Fort St. Nicolas there, but a permanent French garrison was never assigned. In the mid-1700's, French stragglers may have settled at the site and named it for a Fox Indian chief whom they called Le Chien ("the dog"). A land claim made by three French Canadians in 1781, however, is usually considered the date of the first permanent settlement.

For more than a century, the settlement was a base for the French commercial exploitation of the entire region west of the Great Lakes. In spite of the British occupation during the War for Independence and for a short time in 1814, and subsequent American rule, no notable change occurred in commercial activities at Prairie du Chien. Both British and American trading companies prospered, even though the settlement changed hands.

No structure survives from the French period. The important surviving buildings date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Historical interest is centered in the older part of town, on St. Feriole Island; at Villa Louis, administered by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; the Brisbois House; and the Astor Warehouse. Other more recent sites of interest include the second Fort Crawford, the Dousman Hotel, and the Diamond Jo Steamship Line warehouse. All of these buildings, as well as the city of Prairie du Chien, are eligible for the Registry of National Historic Landmarks (relating primarily to the advance of the frontier, 1763-1830).


Location: Brown County, 10th Avenue and 5th Street, Green Bay.

This cottage in Green Bay is the oldest extant residence in Wisconsin. It is typical of those built by early fur traders in the old Northwest. The original section was built in 1776 by Francis Roi, a French trapper, several years after France had lost Wisconsin to Great Britain. Roi incorporated a huge fireplace, built of wattle and daub—an unusual method of construction in French America, but quite common in Canada. In 1805, Jacques Porlier bought the cottage and used it as his residence. During the War of 1812, English officers used it to hold conferences. Nils Otto Tank, a Norwegian, purchased it in 1850 and had it clap-boarded, plastered, and painted. He also added low wings on each side. Originally located on the west bank of the Fox River, the cottage was moved to its present site by the Green Bay Historical Society and the South Side Improvement Association. It is open to the public all year.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005