A history in names: Outagamie County’s Native American past

Danielle Dahlke

Native Americans were the first to occupy what is now the Fox River Valley. Long before fur traders and settlers came to the area, the Outagamie, Souix, Algonquin, Sauk, Mascoutin, Menominee, Kickapoo, and Potowatomi each at one point lived on the Fox. The Outagamie, both the county and the river’s namesake, came to Wisconsin in about 1607, and into the Valley in about 1650.

They called themselves Muskwaki, or Red Earth People, and to their neighbors they were the “people living on the other side.”

The French called them the Renards (Fox in English), and the name stuck not only to the tribe, but also to the river. Some see the river’s name as ironic or undeserved due to the belief that the tribe spent less than a century in the area.

Other sources state that the tribe dominated the area until an incident when Canadian trader Paul Morand and his group supposedly slaughtered 1,000 tribe members; many of the survivers were forced to leave.

After treaties with the federal government in the mid-1820s, all of what is now Outagamie County was assigned to the Menominee, who in turn agreed to give 500,000 acres of the land to the Oneida, a tribe from New York.

The land that the Menominee occupied was eventually given up to the government in 1838. Only a reservation of about 65,000 acres was left to them.

Ten years later, in 1848, Wisconsin was admitted to the union and became a state, and in 1851 Outagamie County was established. The county’s reservation was again divided in 1920 when the Oneida became American citizens, ending any tribal reign over their territory.

Even on the little land still reserved for the Menominee, the emerging white settlers forced them away. The tribe was pushed deeper into what remained of their territory in 1931, and began to succumb to the pressures of the settlers.

They were taught to build homes out of logs and to farm the land in European ways. The people of the tribe did not feel comfortable in the wooden houses and instead gutted them for firewood. They preferred their sensible teepees, using the cabins to shelter their horses.

Although settlement eventually stifled the native tribes, they left behind legends and namesakes throughout the area. Kaukauna, Menasha, Neenah, and Winnebago are just a few examples.