Although American Indians lived in the area of present day Columbia County for several thousand years, the written history of Columbia County began with the accounts of French explorers. They explored, named places and established trading posts but left few enduring marks on the land, as their only real interest was in the fur trade rather than agricultural settlement and were never present in large numbers.
From the journals of French Canadian Louis Joliet and French priest Pere Marquette, explorers who traveled the Fox River from Green Bay, portaged the bit of land, at what is now the city of Portage, on or about June 16, 1637, to the Wisconsin River, on their way to discovery of the Mississippi River. They were the first known white men to make the journey. Their “discovery” of the portage was the link American Indians had used for centuries connecting the great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Portage and the Government canal at Portage are located near the original portage trail.
British control brought few changes. Their single interest here was the fur trade.
After the war of 1812 the American Army established control. In 1816 Astors’ American fur company was in business in Columbia County. Eventually, to protect the fur trade and the settlers that migrated here, Fort Winnebago was built in 1828 in what is now the township of Fort Winnebago. The last remnant of the fort is the Surgeons’ Quarters located outside of Portage on Highway 33 East. Perhaps the most prominent individual stationed at the fort was lieutenant Jefferson Davis. He served with distinction at Fort Winnebago, later was appointed by President Pierce to his cabinet and eventually became the President of the Confederate States of America.
It was in 1792 that the first white inhabitant, Laurent Barth, a French Canadian, established himself at the portage to transport goods between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. He had gotten a permit from the Winnebago Indians to do business there. Wallis Rowan was the first white settler who “took up land” for the purpose of cultivation in what is now Poynette.
Another familiar person at portage was Pierre Pauquette. Born in St. Louis in 1796, his early years were spent among the Indians in the far western fur trade. Subsequently he became the agent of the American Fur Company at the portage. His help as a translator aided Father Samuel Mazzuchelli to convert many to Catholicism. Inspired, Pauquette erected a small log church in 1833 or 34, which stood near the corner of Adams and Conant Streets in Portage. This was the first church built in Wisconsin between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Pauquette was assassinated in 1836 near where the current Catholic Church is in Portage by an Indian with whom he had had some trouble. In about 1850 Wallis Rowan and others in what is now the town of Poynette applied to Washington D.C. for a post office. They wanted to name their community after their admired friend Pauquette as an enduring tribute. The application was filled out in long hand. It was misunderstood in Washington and Poynette it is.
The old Indian Agency House on the hill opposite the fort, which is still standing, was built for John H. Kinzie, the sub-Indian agent. His wife, Juliet, wrote a wonderful volume of memories of her live at the Agency House from 1830, called “Wau-Bun.”
The soldiers were eventually evacuated in 1845 to fight in the war with Mexico. Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War gave the order to sell the fort to the public in 1853.