Ontario Welcome Center History Walk: The First Canoeist

© Photographed April 8, 2017
Erected 2015 by Forward Ontario
Ontario, Vernon County, Wisconsin
43.722751, -90.590023
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The First Canoeist
Esau Johnson might have been the first white man to experience the unpredicability [sic] of the Kickapoo River. In 1842, after walking up the river from the Wauzeka area, he hollowed out a log into a canoe intending to travel home and return with his wife and family. But overnight rains lifted the water level three feet. In his diary, Johnson reported that using a pole caused him to continually run up against the banks. Only after switching to a paddle was he able to steer from the rear and keep the canoe on course.
     Johnson claimed to have seen a moose standing in the Kickapoo River. That would not be likely today, but what other animals could you see on a journey down the Kickapoo?
Imagine loading a 35-foot long canoe with all of your possessions and moving with your wife and children up the Kickapoo River for more than 100 miles, pulled by oxen walking along the shore. Often Johnson had to stop and hack his way through the wilderness to move ahead. Leaving the Wauzeka area during the third week of September, [sic] 1842 and arriving two weeks later, he settled about two miles north of Ontario, beyond what is now Oil City, a hamlet at the intersection of Orbit Avenue and Highway 131. Within a few days, he and two other men built a cabin for his family.
     Johnson and his two employees cut about 10,000 logs during the winter, but the next three years were dry and the Kickapoo was not deep enough to float the logs to the market in Prairie du Chien. Although Johnson rigged a dam to raise the water level, attempting to solve part of the problem, he still could not move all of his many logs down river.
     He turned to farming, and his son Lewis is thought to be the first while child born in Monroe County.
Most logging took place over the winter, and logs were skidded down the hills and into the Kickapoo River. Giles White settled in the area in 1853, and [sic] in 1855, he established a sawmill. Also in 1855, he platted out the village of Ontario. Other pioneers joined him, engaging in trades connected to the lumber business. Soon stores and shops opened, and [sic] in 1857, the village was incorporated, one of the first to do so in Vernon and Monroe counties (the boundary between the two counties adjoins the village).
The marker is located along the Ontario Welcome Center History Walk at Palen Memorial Park and is accessible on the northeast corner of the intersection of State Street and Pleasant Street, Ontario, Wisconsin 54651.

Vernon Broadcaster (June 3, 2015): Ontario to celebrate opening of Palen Park on June 13

Click here to view all markers at the Ontario Welcome Center History Walk





The marker is located at the Ontario Welcome Center History Walk.

Looking west into town . . .

View coming into town from eastbound Wisconsin Highway 33.

The marker is located in Ontario, Wisconsin.

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