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Indian Trails and Wagon Roads

In May 1829, the first Europeans traveled by land across the state of Wisconsin, from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.  Records of the trip reveal that much of the course followed established Indian trails.  Indian trails were once abundant in Wisconsin, linking Indian villages with major waterways, as well as hunting and fishing grounds and settlements.  As such, the trails, together with the region's waterways, served as the earliest corridors of travel, communication, trade, and warfare.

Indian trails often followed earlier trails created by deer and other animals.  They typically followed easy grades, wound around hills and other obstructions, and crossed rivers and streams at shallow crossings.  When possible, these trails followed streams and rivers, which provided escape routes and drinking water.   In open areas, the trails offered views of the surrounding areas so that animals could see if enemies were near.  Indians followed these animal routes for the same reasons, and European settlers would soon do the same.  As the trails became worn from human use, they were marked by Indians for future travelers.  A broken twig served as a pointing finger; a stroke of the axe or blaze on a tree served as a signal to turn in that direction; a sapling bent across the trail was a warning signal; a stick in the mud meant that there was no bottom; and a feather on a bush or located along the side of the trail meant that there were friends ahead or nearby.

Early fur traders, missionaries, and explorers made extensive use of the established network of Indian trails.  Settlers arriving in the region during the first decades of the nineteenth century widened many of the trails into roads suitable for ox carts and wagons.  By 1829, lead miners had blazed several meandering wagon roads through southern Wisconsin for hauling lead to the Mississippi River and Milwaukee for shipment to eastern markets.  The established Indian trail between Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Howard (Green Bay) was eventually straightened by settlers and used as a wagon road.  Even this improved road was difficult to follow and the trip from Chicago to Green Bay took four days.

Although the locations of many of the old trails are known and recorded, remnants of only a few trails remain visible.  Traces of most trails have been destroyed by agricultural practices, highway construction, and urban development.

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