Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ancient Land and First Peoples

A Short History of Wisconsin

Ancient Land, First Peoples | Short History of Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeMap showing the topography of the state.

Relief Map of Wisconsin, 1910

Published in the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey by Lawrence Martin. View the original source document: WHI 41291

The Wisconsin landscape we know today emerged about 13,000 years ago when the last glacier of the last ice age retreated. It left our region bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, and Lake Superior on the north. The physical geography of Wisconsin includes eastern lowlands, southern prairies, western valleys, and northern forests. These landscapes blended into one another in the state’s interior.

A gentle dome of highland forests rose in the northern third of the state. Rivers and waterways drained from it in three directions. The Chippewa and Wisconsin rivers flowed west into the Mississippi. The Wolf and Fox rivers flowed east into Lake Michigan, and the Brule and Montreal rivers into Lake Superior.

Paleo-Indians, the First Inhabitants

The first known inhabitants of Wisconsin were the Paleo-Indians. They lived as hunters and gatherers between 10,000 and 6500 BCE. They hunted wooly mammoth, mastodon and bison. Archaeologists have found stone tools from BCE 5000 throughout the state, and sophisticated copper implements dating slightly later in northern Wisconsin. In addition, mastodon remains have been unearthed in Kenosha and Crawford counties dating from about BCE 12,300

EnlargePainting of two children building an effigy mound.

Effigy Mound Builders

A watercolor painting of prehistoric Indians building an effigy mound. Painted by P. Hefko. View the original source document: WHI 33815

Woodland Indians, the Effigy Mound Builders

The Woodland Indians (BCE 700 to ca. CE 1300) were the first to make pottery, domesticate plants, and build earthen burial mounds here. Between CE 600 and 900, they adopted the bow-and-arrow as a weapon and began raising corn. They also began burying their dead in uniquely shaped effigy mounds resembling birds, mammals or people. This Effigy Mound Culture constructed these distinctive burial mounds across the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin.

Mississippian Culture, Creators of the Aztalan Settlement

About 1000 CE people from the present-day St. Louis area migrated to Wisconsin forming the Mississippian Culture, which lasted roughly from CE 1000 to 1200 in Wisconsin. The Mississippians traded pottery and other goods throughout the Mississippi Valley. They also built fortified towns consisting of an open plaza surrounded by platforms and enclosed within wooden palisades. The most notable is Aztalan located in Jefferson County.

The Mississippians left Wisconsin about CE 1200, succeeded by a culture known as the Oneota. The Menominee, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Dakota (Eastern Sioux) appear to be descendants of the Oneota.

More Tribes Migrate to Wisconsin

Later, a number of other tribes migrated to the region. The earliest were the Ojibwe (Chippewa). They came to Lake Superior from the eastern Great Lakes in about CE 1500.

Book cover for Lizzie Kander and Her Cookbook.

'Native People of Wisconsin'

By Patty Loew

Introduce young readers to the early histories of Wisconsin's Indian Nations. Read more about the book

In the mid-1600s, eastern tribal warfare (Iroquois wars of the 17th century) drove the Sauk, Meskwaki (Fox), Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Miami and Huron into Wisconsin from their homelands in Ontario in Canada, New York, Ohio and Michigan.

When the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century, they found many different peoples, each with their own language, customs and beliefs, trying to share the Wisconsin environment.

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Browse these history essays to take a quick tour through major events in Wisconsin history, from prehistoric times to the 20th century.