Often called Wisconsin's second oldest city, Prairie du Chien was established by French voyageurs in the late 17th century. The city is located near the confluence of the Wisconsin River and the Mississippi River, a strategic point along the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway that connects the Great Lakes with the Mississippi.
Early French visitors to the site found it occupied by a group of Fox Indians led by a chief whose name, Alim, meant "Chien" in French, or "Dog" in English. As a result, the French explorers named the location "Prairie du Chien", which is French for "Prairie of the Dog". Originally this name applied only to the plain upon which the settlement is located, but it was later extended to mean the city as well. The city of Prairie du Chien is located between the Town of Prairie du Chien and the Town of Bridgeport. Though the origin of the name is French, it is pronounced as in English, "prairie doo sheen".
The first European visitors to reach Prairie du Chien were the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, who reached the city by canoe on June 17, 1673, and discovered a route to the Mississippi River. Much further travel between French Canada and the Mississippi River passed through Prairie du Chien, although routes via the Illinois River were also used. In 1685, the French explorer Nicolas Perrot established a trading post in the area as part of the massive French fur trade industry. The significance of Prairie du Chien as a center of the fur trade did not diminish until the mid 19th century. The Astor Fur Warehouse was the building for the fur trading in Prairie du Chien.
In 1763, Great Britain defeated France in the French and Indian War, and took possession of the French territory in North America, including Prairie du Chien. The British expanded the fur trade during their occupation of the area. During the American Revolutionary War the city was used as meeting point for British troops and their Native American allies. After the Treaty of Paris (1783) granted the area to the new United States of America, the British and their Loyalists were slow to withdraw. Only after the War of 1812 would the city become fully American.
The U.S. was slow to present any authority over Prairie du Chien, but late in the War of 1812 the U.S. realized the importance of holding Prairie du Chien to prevent British attacks from Canada, and began construction of Fort Shelby in 1814. In July, the fort was captured by British soldiers during the Battle of Prairie du Chien. The British maintained control over the city until the war's end in 1815. Not wanting another invasion through Prairie du Chien, the Americans constructed Fort Crawford in 1816. The fort was the site of the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1825 and 1829).
In 1829, army doctor William Beaumont carried out many of his famous experiments on digestion in the hospital of Fort Crawford. Beaumont's discoveries are still the basis of our knowledge on the human digestive process.
Col. Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th U.S. President, was the commanding officer at Fort Crawford during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Taylor oversaw the surrender of Black Hawk in Prairie du Chien. Lt. Jefferson Davis, who later became the president of the Confederate States of America, was stationed at Fort Crawford at the same time. It was at this fort that Jefferson Davis met Zachary Taylor's daughter, Sarah "Knoxie" Taylor, whom he would marry in 1835.
Outside the walls of the fort, early nineteenth century life in Prairie du Chien was still dominated by the fur trade. Prairie du Chien's most notable traders during this time were Michel Brisbois, Joseph Rolette, Nathan Myrick, and Hercules L. Dousman. Dousman especially was able to establish a fortune in the fur trade. This money, combined with income from investments in land, steamboats, and railroads, propelled Dousman to become the first Millionaire in the state of Wisconsin. Dousman died in 1868, and his son, H. Louis Dousman inherited much of his fortune. In 1870 Louis Dousman used his inheritance to construct a luxurious Victorian mansion over the site of the former Fort Shelby. When Louis died unexpectedly in 1886, his family renamed the home "Villa Louis" in his memory. The Dousman Family continued to occupy the home until 1913. Nearly forty years later, in 1952, the mansion became Wisconsin's first state-operated historic site.
After the fur trade declined in mid nineteenth century, Prairie du Chien 's attention shifted to agriculture and the railroad. Although the city was first connected to the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad in 1857, the width of the Mississippi River posed a challenge for further expansion of the railroad into Iowa. This problem was temporarily solved by disassembling the trains at Prairie du Chien and ferrying them across the river to be put back on the tracks on the other side. A better solution was found by two men named Michael Spettel and John Lawler, who designed a permanent pontoon bridge to span the river in 1874. Lawler took most of the credit for this invention, and made a small fortune through its operation. Lawler would later donate property to establish two Catholic boarding schools in Prairie du Chien, St. Mary's Institute (now known as Mount Mary College, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin), and Campion High School in the later part of the century. Campion High School especially was known for its educational quality, and it produced several notable alumni including Vicente Fox, George Wendt, Congressman Leo Ryan, Governor Patrick Lucey, actors David Doyle and Kevin McCarthy, and writer Garry Wills. Campion remained open until 1975.
Prairie du Chien is located within the Mississippi River Valley, upon a long triangular plain that is bounded on the west by the Mississippi River, on the south by the Wisconsin River, and on the east-northeast by a series of tall bluffs. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city of Prairie du Chien has a total area of 6.3 square miles (16.4 km²), of which, 5.6 square miles (14.5 km²) of it is land and 0.8 square miles (1.9 km²) of it (11.83%) is water. While the city's area encompasses most of the plain upon which it sits, portions of the plain extend outside city limits. Just north of the city limits, where the plain forms part of the Town of Prairie du Chien, there is a small unincorporated settlement known locally as "Frenchtown". The plain also extends outside the city southward into the Town of Bridgeport. Here the plain ends, becoming the swampy Wisconsin River Delta.
Both inside and outside the city limits, backwaters of the Mississippi River occasionally break across the far west side of the plain to form small islands. While most of these islands are far too small and flood prone to have ever been inhabitated, one larger island just west of downtown Prairie du Chien formed the city's fourth ward until a 1965 flood prompted a mandatory relocation of the island's residents to higher ground. During the relocation project, most buildings with no special historical significance were removed. Now called "St. Feriole Island", the island today serves as a city park.
Today Prairie du Chien is noted because of its five National Historic Landmarks and its nine sites on the National Register of Historic Places. The five National Historic Landmark's were the first such Landmarks designated in the State. Its close proximity to Effigy Mounds National Monument and Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa and Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin, along with its rich history and location alongside the Mississippi River make Prairie du Chien a popular destination for tourists. The Prairie Villa Rendezvous, which attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a 19th century fur trading camp, has been held in the city every Father's Day weekend since 1975 and attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. In 2001, Prairie du Chien gained brief national attention for its first annual New Year's Eve celebration, during which a carp from the Mississippi River was dropped from a crane over BlackHawk Avenue at midnight. The "Droppin' of the Carp" celebration has been held every New Year's Eve since.
In addition to these popular attractions, hunting and fishing have long been popular in and around Prairie du Chien, and the opening of Cabela's fourth outlet store in the city during 1998 firmly established the city as a destination for sportsmen.
There were 2,376 households out of which 29.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.7% were married couples living together, 10.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.0% were non-families. 33.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 17.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.28 and the average family size was 2.92.
In the city the population was spread out with 24.2% under the age of 18, 11.4% from 18 to 24, 24.3% from 25 to 44, 21.8% from 45 to 64, and 18.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 100.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 97.3 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $34,038, and the median income for a family was $43,444. Males had a median income of $29,595 versus $20,183 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,680. About 6.4% of families and 8.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 11.7% of those under age 18 and 4.8% of those age 65 or over.