Crawford County quietly observes 200th birthday

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The rectangular section on the left, drawn on the map above, represents land established as Crawford County in 1818.

By Correne Martin

Crawford County was once so substantial in size that it covered the western half of what would become Wisconsin, nearly halfway up the state, according to Prairie du Chien historian Mary Antoine. It encompassed the land we know today as Iowa, Portage, Dane, St. Croix, Sauk, Richland, Chippewa, Vernon, La Crosse and Clark counties.

On Oct. 9, Crawford County quietly observed its 200th birthday. Much is chronicled in local history about its origination, though the public is generally unaware.

Established in 1818, the Michigan Territorial Legislature created Crawford County in addition to Brown County (the eastern half of what is now Wisconsin). Crawford County included all the land from a line drawn east of the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, and from the northern boundary of Illinois to the southern boundary of Michilimackinac County. 

It was named after William Harris Crawford, Antoine said. Crawford had been Secretary of War and, in 1818, was United States Secretary of the Treasury under President James Monroe. Brown County was named for Major General Jacob Brown, a military leader during the War of 1812.

Decades before, when permanent settlement began at Prairie du Chien in the early 1770s, the prairie was part of the British colony of Canada, according to historical documents. As such, Prairie du Chien was under the governance of the British Colonial Governor in Montreal, with a lieutenant governor in residence at Mackinac.

At the close of the American Revolution, all of the land south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River passed from Great Britain to the United States of America. Antoine elaborated, in 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which set a form of government for the territory north and west of the Ohio River. In the Northwest Territory, land was surveyed into townships, governments established, and eventually new states created. 

The population of the Northwest Territory grew, and as Ohio worked to become a state, the remainder of the territory was designated Indiana Territory. Prairie du Chien became part of St. Clair County and, in 1800, Governor William Henry Harrison appointed the St. Clair county government, which included a militia. Henry Munro Fisher, Bazil Giard and Michel Labatte, all of Prairie du Chien, were made officers of the 7th Company of Indiana Militia. 

More and more people moved into Indiana Territory, so, in 1805, the northern portion became Michigan Territory, and, in 1809, the western section was formed into Illinois Territory. Prairie du Chien was still in St. Clair County but now was part of Illinois Territory. 

By this date, over 300 people lived at Prairie du Chien, Antoine said. The population floated between 300 and 350 and the majority of inhabitants were involved in the Fur Trade. For the next eight years, various residents of Prairie du Chien held offices in the militia and as justices of the peace for the Territory of Illinois. 

In 1818, the southern portion of Illinois Territory became the state of Illinois. Prairie du Chien and all of what would become Wisconsin were now included in Michigan Territory. With the addition of this land to its governance, the Michigan Territorial Legislature created Crawford and Brown counties.

As the only established community in the new county, Prairie du Chien became the seat of government. When Michigan became a state in 1836, the land west of Lake Michigan was formed into the Territory of Wisconsin. By that date, Crawford County had decreased in size, but Prairie du Chien remained the county seat and, in 1836, a territorial courthouse was constructed within the community. 

“A square block of land was donated by B.W. Brisbois as a place for a courthouse,” Antoine pointed out. 

According to records, James Duane Doty was appointed the federal judge, by President James Monroe, for the judicial district covering what is now the state of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Because he was required to live within his district, Doty and his wife moved from Detroit to Prairie du Chien. He regularly held court, in rented rooms, at Prairie du Chien, Green Bay and Mackinac. Doty also served as the first postmaster of Prairie du Chien.

“He lived here for a bit,” Antoine said. “I don’t know why, but he eventually pulled court out of the county and moved it to Mineral Point.” 

With the formation of Bad Axe County in 1851 (renamed Vernon in 1862), Crawford County was reduced to its present size. Prairie du Chien has always remained the seat of government for Crawford County.

“The size reduction happened when population increased in other areas where the new counties formed. People could petition the legislature to become a county,” Antoine said.

As for the early people across the vast county, most were traders and portagers, while others were loggers, miners or native people who farmed and lived off the land. 

“It included land of the Ho Chunk in the south and Ojibwe and Dakota in the north,” Antoine said. She noted, there was no school for the children. “Whatever they learned, they learned at home, tending animals and helping their families grow grain crops and pease.”

The only taxes they paid, she added, were road taxes, to help maintain what little roads there were then. The minimal laws they had were to maintain their fences and keep their chimneys cleaned, or they’d be fined.

To this day, remnants of the original Crawford County that still exist include a few log houses, including some on County K north of Prairie du Chien, St. Gabriel’s Church (1836), the congregation of the Trinity Episcopal church, the remains of Ft. Crawford, and the first Masonic Lodge, which was started by officers within the Ft. Crawford. Though there are others in parts of the former county (like surgeon’s quarters and the Indian agency in Portage), these are gems in Crawford County as it exists today. 

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