History of Portage | Discover our city's rich history!

History of Portage

Remembering Our Past
By Ina Curtis, Author and Historian (1973-1979)

The historical distinction of Portage lies in its unique geographical location between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. Here, the two rivers, one flowing north to the St. Lawrence, the other south to the Mississippi, are separated by a narrow neck of land over which, for two centuries, Indians, missionaries, trappers, traders, adventurers and settlers traveling the waterway had to portage their canoes and heavy packs from one stream to another. The settlement, which grew here because of the resulting traffic, was first known as “Wau-wau-onah,” Winnebago for “carry on the shoulder.” During the French occupation, it was simply “le portage” (from porter: to carry). This was eventually anglicized to Portage.

So far as we know, the first white men to visit Portage were the explorers Fr. Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet who portaged here on June 14, 1673 en route to exploring and mapping the upper Mississippi. The two men were followed by a slew of others, including Lauant Barth, who arrived in 1792, built a trading post and carried on the first transport activity. He was the original permanent settler. With the American occupation of the Northwest Territory, the government began to protect its interests by building a string of forts along the now famous Fox/Wisconsin water route. Indian resentment over invasion of their lead mine regions and their exorbitant tolls levied on transport goods resulted in the establishment of Fort Winnebago in 1828 to ensure peace and fair business practices.

With the end of the Blackhawk War, European immigration brought to Wisconsin a flood of settlers eager for cheap land. The portage point continued in importance for trade and transportation, and Portage itself grew rapidly as a thriving farm community. The lumber industry brought a tide of hardy woodsmen and rivermen to Portage during its heyday. Agriculture and  industry soon took over the lumbering days.

Today the city is a progressive community treasuring the story of its past and anxious and willing to share it with visitors and guests. You will find that while visiting Portage many of our historic sites have been placed on the Historic Register of Places. A self-guided tour of downtown Portage, which includes a map and building description, is available at the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce office.