Long before the coming of the Europeans, the area that is now Appleton was inhabited by the Menominee Indians. The Outagamie Indians, also known as the Fox, lived nearby, as did the Winnebago. Early French explorers such as Duluth, Hennepin, and LaSalle floated up the northerly-flowing Fox River into the Indian lands. In the mid-1600s French trappers and traders traveled the waterway of the Fox River in search of furs, particularly beaver pelts. They were followed by Catholic missionaries, including Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet, who passed by in 1673 on their search for the Mississippi River. Later, soldiers crossed the area as they made their way to the three forts that were built on the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, and settlers followed in 1835. That year, Hyppolyte Grignon and his family opened the White Heron trading post just above the Grand Chute. They were followed soon after by John and Jeanette Johnson, whose house became the first hotel, trading post, church, and hospital.
After the building of a canal around the river rapids, steamboats bearing travelers and cargo became a common sight. Wheat farming in the surrounding area gave way to the dairy farms, for which the region is now famous.
However, Appleton itself was first established as the site for a university. At that time it was one of three villages clustered together, the others being Grand Chute (site of the treacherous river rapids) and White Heron. When Amos Lawrence, a Boston Methodist, donated money for a "university in the wilderness" to be constructed in 1847, he decided to honor his wife's family, the Appletons, in naming the new site.
Outagamie County was founded in 1851, and Grand Chute was named the county seat. As neighboring settlements developed, they decided to incorporate under the single name Appleton in 1853. By the next year the new village included a paper mill, two sawmills, several flour mills, and a newspaper. As the center grew, it was incorporated as a city on May 2, 1857.
The power of the Fox River was harnessed in 1882 with the establishment of the world's first hydro-electric plant. The paper mills that developed along the river, and the support industries that grew along with them, played a major role in the economy of the "Paper Valley" that continues into the present day.
New Englanders were the first settlers of the region, but Dutch, German, and Polish settlers had become part of the city by the early twentieth century. More recent immigrants, the Hmong-Laotian refugees from the period of the Viet Nam War, have made their mark on the area's culture since the late 1970s.
Appleton today is a prosperous community founded in an appreciation for education, maintaining a certain "small-town charm" in the midst of economic prosperity and downtown revitalization.
Historical Information: Outagamie County Historical Society and Museum, 330 E. College Avenue, Appleton, WI 54911; telephone (920)735-9370