Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wausau, Wisconsin - A Brief History

A Brief History of Wausau | Wisconsin Historical Society

Wausau is located in central Wisconsin, 150 miles north of Madison, on the Wisconsin River in Marathon County. That river location first drew French fur traders who appreciated its accessibility for exporting furs.

EnlargeView up the Wisconsin river with Wausau in the background.

Wausau, Wisconsin

View up the Wisconsin river with Wausau in the background. View the original source document: WHI 36003

Aside from French traders who passed through Wausau, the area had long been home to Indians. The Ojibwe Indians, who gained control of the Wisconsin River Valley after defeating the Sac, Fox, and Ho-Chunk tribes, hunted for game and grew corn, potatoes, oats, rye and barley in the area before they were removed by the U.S. government in 1836.

George Stevens (1790-1866) settled in Wausau, or Big Bulls Falls as it was originally called, in 1837. The area, surrounded by lush pine forests, became a center of lumbering soon after settlement. Stevens built the area's first lumber mill in 1839. The Wisconsin River transported lumber and powered the mills.

The completion of the Wisconsin Valley Railroad in 1874 led to Wausau's economic expansion. As the lumber industry declined, Wausau began to export quartz, iron and paper. Rich farmlands in the surrounding countryside produce apples, plums and strawberries. There are also several successful poultry and dairy farms.

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Source: WHS Library-Archives Staff, 2009