The historical distinction of Portage lies in its unique geographical location between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Here, the two rivers, one flowing north to the St. Lawrence, the other south to the Mississippi, are separated by a narrow neck of land over which, for two centuries, Indians, missionaries, trappers, traders, adventurers and settlers traveling the waterway had to portage their canoes and heavy packs from one stream to another. The settlement which grew here because of the resulting traffic was first knows as “Wau-wau-onah”, Winnebago for “carry on the shoulder”. During the French occupation, it was simply “le portage” (from porter: to carry). This was eventually anglicized to Portage.
So far as we know, the first white men to visit Portage were the explorers Fr. Jaques Marquette and Louis Joliet who portaged here on June 14, 1673, en route to exploring and mapping the upper Mississippi. They were followed by Hennepin and Duluth, who left blazed crosses on the trees and by Perrot, LeSeuer and Jonathan Carver, who found a busy portage business in furs being carried on here by Lauant Barth. Barth arrived in 1792, built a trading post and carried on the first transport activity. He was the original permanent settler. He was followed by Jean Lecuyer, son-in-law of Chief Dekorra, who handled the Fox terminal with a team of oxen. In 1810, Francis Leroi took over the entire business enterprise. Large keel boats bateaux and canoes often weighing 10 ton could be dragged over the mud and bog for $10 empty, plus $.50 per 100 lbs. of merchandise.
In 1824, the Prairie du Chien headquarters of the American Fur Company hired Pierre Pauquette, a man of French and Indian descent, to manage its affairs here. He was a giant in stature and strength, and because of his honesty and integrity, was trusted by Indian and white men alike. He could speak both Winnebago and French fluently and became invaluable to the government as an interpreter at treaties and councils.