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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Fond du Lac [brief history]

Definition: Fond du Lac is located at the foot of Lake Winnebago and is the largest city and county seat of Fond du Lac County. When white settlers first came to the area in the 17th century, they found Ho-Chunk Indians sharing the site with their Menominee and Potawatomi neighbors. French traders gave the city its name, Fond du Lac, from its obvious geographic location; the name means "the base (or foot) of the lake."

In 1836, Fond du Lac nearly became the capital of the newly formed Wisconsin Territory, losing by a single vote to Madison. The city's location made it an important community in early Wisconsin, and influential leaders such as territorial governors James Duane Doty (the man largely responsible for Madison's selection as capital) and Nathanial Tallmadge helped to nurture its development. Tallmadge, for example, organized railroads, founded schools, and established an agricultural society in the city.

Many of the area's first settlers were Yankees, but between 1850 and 1880, German, Dutch, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants began settling in greater numbers. By 1870, Fond du Lac was the state's second largest city, a major railroad hub, and the county was second only to Dane County in wheat production.

In the early 20th century, Fond du Lac continued to be a commercial center for agricultural products from the surrounding area. During World War II, German POWs worked in local canning factories. The first classes met on the campus of the two-year University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in 1968. One of the largest employers in the city today is Mercury Marine, maker of outboard motor engines.

[Source: WHS Library-Archives staff, 2009 ]

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