Prairie La Crosse in the 1850s


Entering Prairie La Crosse from the Mississippi River, a pioneer in August of 1854 described the area;

“Indian canoes bordered the shore and brown faces were more common than white. A high bank of white sand almost blotted the view of the village. Oxen was a common sight on the roads and village streets. The roads were terrible. The entire business section was bordered by Front, State, Third, and Pearl Streets. A few farms had been started on the prairie land.”(1)

The village was a bustling little settlement of log cabins and plain boarded houses built on the sand hills near the Mississippi River. The town had grown from five dwellings in April of 1851, to 79 buildings by April of 1853. Buildings were going up on every street. Steamboats landed daily with passengers and freight. Oxen pulled loaded wagons in every direction.

A recent census listed in the La Crosse Democrat April 24, 1853, gave the population as 548. The businesses being:

“…Four general stores; one drug, one hardware, one furniture, and one stoves and tine ware, three groceries, one bakery, one livery, one harness maker, four tailors, three shoemakers, one watch man, four blacksmiths, one wagon maker, one gunsmith, one wood turner, and one sawmill.”

The men were nearly all bearded. The well-to-do wore long black frock coats with high collars and stove pipe hats. The women wore their hair plainly smoothed, and their dresses that touched the ground were high necked and long sleeved. The blanketed Winnebago Indians swarmed about town in their native attire with paint and finery.

The Indians entered any home “without a rap.” They congregated on Third St. where they danced and whooped a great deal.(2) An account written in an early newspaper in 1855 said;

“The Indians did their regular war dance in La Crosse week before last. There were about 20 of them in the ring with half a dozen time beaters, and 30-40 outsiders, mostly squaws and papooses. The men were half-naked, greased and painted, feathered, ribboned, and armed with hatchets, bows, and guns. They danced and pow-wowed and kept up a hullabaloo around town during the day.”


(1) La Crosse Historical Society “La Crosse Co. Historical Sketches”, Series 4.
(2) History of La Crosse, WI 1841-1900, 1951.