top of page

Wisconsin Before the Europeans (and then after...)

I had a lot of fun researching and writing about the presettlement Driftless Area and its valleys. So it is time to broaden out to the state of Wisconsin as a whole. Wisconsin has a surprisingly long history. If we go back far enough - before 1634 - there were only Native Americans in what is now Wisconsin. Go back a bit further and you get to a point before there were Native Americans - we are all immigrants at some point in history. It is difficult to know for sure but it is suspected that Native Americans in Wisconsin date to just after the last ice age glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. Much of Wisconsin's human history is more recent - we gained statehood in 1848 and passed a million people by 1870. By 1900, we had over 2 million inhabitants and passed 3 million in the 1930s, 4 million not long after 1960, in the 1990's, we crossed 5 million, and the 2020 census has us just a bit below 6 million people.

Jean Nicolet commerative plaque at Red Banks WI from 1909.jpg, Public domain image.


Remember back to your grade school days (way back for a lot of us...) and all the time you spent learning about Wisconsin's history and the explorers that "found" the state. Somewhere up there, rattling around your brain are names like Jean Nicolet, Étienne Brûlé, Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet, and the names of other European - mostly French - explorers that helped explore Wisconsin to claim it for European countries. Most of them were sent on behalf of France and Samuel de Champlain, "the father of New France". Each of those names is memorable today because of the places - the rivers, lakes, forests, cities, schools, etc. - named for them. They, of course, did not find Wisconsin - there had been native Americans living here for millennia before the state was "discovered". That history is, of course, not as well documented but there are pieces of evidence all over the state. Aztalan - now a state park - is one of my favorites and has a fascinating history. But that history is everywhere around us, from rock art, to burial mounds, to traditions that native peoples have continued on to today.

James Streakley image of the Aztalan mound, from Wikipedia Commons


If there is a common view of Wisconsin before European settlement, it is probably that of the massive old growth forests with trees so large that it took several lumberjacks - or one Paul Bunyan - to get their arms around it. We have all seen the images from "the cut over" - the time from the late 1800s through the early 1900's when the state's forests were harvested nearly completely. Wisconsin's rivers were used to transport most of these logs to sawmills and later paper mills. And as I wrote about in posts about the Driftless Area, this forest clearing greatly altered the state and opened much of the state for agriculture, the industry Wisconsin is now best known for today. Though farming is difficult - at best - over much of northern Wisconsin, the area most associated with "the cut over", they did try to make it an agricultural area.

This images is from Wikipedia of the St. Croix River at Taylors Falls, MN.


Pre-Settlement Vegetation of Wisconsin


As with previous post, we have to start with the state's geology and glacial history which, along with climate, shapes the vegetation of the state. Until about 10,000 years ago, glaciers dominated the area. Even the "Driftless Area", while not glaciated was heavily impacted by the mile or so thick glaciers that surrounded it on three sides and the cold and the winds that it brought.

Extent of Wisconsin glaciation
The extent of the Wisconsin Glaciation which lasted from approximately 75,000 years before present until about 11,000 YBP.

A great starting point is the Wisconsin DNR's Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin which is available for free online. The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report is another outstanding resource and is also free online - though I cherish my oversized paper copy. Both were created as planning resources which, of course, a lot of history went into. Another place to get us started are the Early Vegetation of Wisconsin and the finer scaled Finley's Pre-Settlement Vegetation maps. These were created by University of Wisconsin scholars based on fossil pollen and historical reports such as witness tree and Public Land Survey data. Another great source is Curtis's book, The Vegetation of Wisconsin where he breaks the state into a number of plant communities.

Wisconsin Land Legacy Report cover.
My paper copy of the 2006 Wisconsin Land Legacy Report - commissioned to help plan for land preservation in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is at a unique latitude where north meets south, at least as far as plant communities are concerned. The tension zone - the southern extent of northern species and the northern extent of southern species - creates an area of great diversity and ecotones - areas where two (or more) different ecosystems come together.

While much of northern Wisconsin is mesic (wet) forest, there are pockets of other habitats due to glacial features, geology, and the effects of Lake Superior. Pine barrens are one of these unique habitats found in well drained soils, typically areas of sand deposits where rainfall quickly percolated through the porous soils creating a vegetation community similar to places with less rainfall. The map above is a little coarse but tells a good bit of the picture.

Finley's presettlement vegetation provides a finer scale analysis. Beech, a species on the decline in the state, was limited to the Eastern part of the state thanks to Lake Michigan's climate moderating effect. Small wetlands - marshes and sedge meadows - dotted the glaciated landscape but many of these have been tiled and converted to agriculture. And just a bit of boreal forest is present in far northern Wisconsin along Lake Superior.

Of course, the presettlement vegetation was greatly changed by settlement. First through forest clearing, then by agriculture. The most untouched part of the state is north central Wisconsin, though that too was largely cleared by loggers before 1938. Some other things that are quite evident:

  • Grasslands are, by far, the most poorly represented habitats today despite being once fairly common. Quite simply, there were the most easily converted to agriculture - a story we see across the rest of the United States and elsewhere. To put a finer point on this, Ipswich Prairie in Grant County is the largest native mesic prairie in Wisconsin at 18 acres.

  • Southern Wisconsin has seen a pretty significant decline in wetlands. While I always see Wisconsin having lost about 50% of its wetlands, that number looks to be much higher in southern Wisconsin.

  • Acres in agriculture and pasture look to be down a bit from their highs in the 1930s. Basically, we tried to farm a lot of land that just was not very good farm land. The growing seasons too short, the soil too sandy, or the combination of the two. Today the biggest loss of agricultural land is to urban and suburban areas.

Post-Settlement Wisconsin


One fun way to explore these changes are through historic and current aerial images which are available through the State Cartographer's Office. The images below are in a slideshow, the first is a recent aerial image, the second is an image from the 1930s or 1940s.

These images are from the Portage area, where Aldo Leopold and his family had their "Shack" and today, the Aldo Leopold Foundation preserves that property and another on Levee Road. This is a trip I can not recommend highly enough.


Evident through these photos is how much more agriculture was present in 1937 when the historic photo was taken. If you have read Leopold's Sand County Almanac, you will be familiar with the futility of farming this part of the sand counties, at least before center pivot irrigation.

The Coloma area (Waushara County), one of many places in the state, where center pivot agriculture and how it has changed the landscape is quite evident. Also evident is the increase in the size of agricultural fields. The images also show that we have more trees today than we did over 80 years ago.

My old stomping grounds of Jefferson and Dodge counties near Waterloo. The area is home to many glacial drumlins and wetlands, though most of the wetlands have been drained by ditches (which are not generally visible at the scale of these images). My dad talked about how, in the late 1960s, he could shoot a couple of wild pheasants before school. Wild pheasants today are about a rare as hen's teeth. Going back in time further, Greater Prairie Chickens would have been common. Looking at the aerial images, there are a lot more trees today than there were in the 1940's through 1970's. Acreage dedicated to agriculture probably has not changed significantly but the fields were smaller with more grassy fence lines.

Buena Vista Grasslands area, Portage County, home to the state's largest Greater Prairie Chicken population. This area has largely been drained and converted to agriculture - though the aptly named, "Swamp Road" is still there. Today, this is in a cranberry growing area. Otherwise agriculture is relatively difficult in the sandy soils - though it was attempted as it was in much of the state. This is the area of those "trout ditches" you have probably seen on regulation maps.

These images are from the Driftless - which I have written a good bit more about elsewhere - but wanted to include them to show the similar changes here. This is the headwaters of Timber Coulee - orient yourself with the Snowflake Ski Club. There are many areas with mature forests today than in 1939 when the second image was taken. The current image also supports a hunch I have had about how contoured fields have been lost or at least combined into larger fields.

Spooner, which everyone knows blows, in Washburn County, takes us further north but the same trends hold. We see less agriculture today than in the historic image and more forest. Spooner is in the northern forest area but really is along the border where a number of different forest types existed.

The Hurley area in Iron County, once one of the toughest places on Earth, about as far north as you can get in Wisconsin. Agriculture was attempted - and largely abandoned. The image also shows one of the more significant land use changes - conversion to golf courses. At its peak in the 1940 census, Hurley had 3,375 citizens; today there are fewer than half the 1940 population.

The Woodruff and Minoqua area of Oneida County. If there has been a major land use change in much of Northern Wisconsin it is to a tourism-based economy. The rather vast northern forests (Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, White Pine, and other trees) are probably the most intact of the historic forests although we have very little old growth in the state. The "cut over" was rather complete in Wisconsin and we have second and third growth forests in much of northern Wisconsin now. Areas of birch and aspen have likely seen several cuttings by now.

The Green Bay side of Door County around Sister Bay - want to talk about the expansion of tourism, Door County is the most shining example. Once dominated by forests of beech and other trees, the county was converted to agriculture and was quite productive due to the moderating effect of the lake.


I could play with this aerial image viewer all day. Go ahead and give it a look and I bet you fall down the same rabbit hole that I did.


The Wrap Up


Today, our landscape is a mix of history and the new species we have brought it, for better or worse. In many places, our native ash trees are gone thanks to the Emerald Ash Borer and the increase in trees may be due to buckthorn or other non-native species. We are starting to see the effects of climate change on our vegetative communities. In many places were are seeing less agriculture than there once was but that agriculture has gotten larger - both in the size of the fields and in the average number of cows and other animals per farm which has more than doubled in just the last 15 years. Irrigation has greatly changed parts of our landscape, particularly where sandy soils were left behind by glacial lakes and the effects of when those lakes drained.


Our state has this great diversity of habitats - from forests to prairies. And a huge diversity of wetland types. The effects of the Great Lakes, glaciers, the cut over, and other historic events are still evident today. While, like most everywhere, we have seen some homogenization of the landscape, there are still some remnants of the unique habitats our state once had in greater quantities. Get our there and enjoy and explore. Or for now, maybe the aerial image viewer will do it for you.

372 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page