Brief Early History of Superior, Wisconsin

An 1883 perspective map of Superior, Wisconsin, by Henry Wellge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Much of Superior’s history parallels Duluth’s, but of course Superior has been around longer than the Zenith City. After the Ojibwe had settled in the region and set up a central encampment on what is now Madeline Island, the French started arriving. In 1618 voyageur Etienne Brulé paddled along Lake Superior’s south shore where he encountered the Ojibwe and found copper specimens. The copper samples, along with a glowing report of the region, he brought back to Quebec. Not long after that, French traders and missionaries began settling the area, and a Lake Superior tributary was named for Brulé. Among them was Father Claude Jean Allouez, who is often credited for an early map of the region; Superior’s Allouez neighborhood takes its name from the Catholic missionary. By 1700 the area was crawling with French traders, who had developed a working relationship with the Ojibwe. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the area came under British rule, but that ended with the America Revolution and the Treaty of Peace in 1783. Treaties with the Ojibwe would give more territory to settlers of European descent, and by 1847 the U.S. had taken control of all lands along Lake Superior’s south shore.

In 1854 (some say 1853) the first claims were staked at the mouth of the Nemadji River, and that same year the village of Superior became the county seat of the newly formed Douglas County. Just two years later 2,500 people called Superior home. But the town’s population stagnated from the financial panic of 1857 through the end of the Civil War, and the building of the Duluth Ship Canal in 1871—followed by the Panic of 1873—crushed Superior’s economic future. In 1885 when Robert Belknap’s and General John Henry Hammond’s Land and River Improvement Company established West Superior and began building elevators, docks, and industrial railroads. Superior City and West Superior merged in 1890, in the middle of a population boom city between 1887 and 1893, when another financial panic halted progress. Since then its growth has ebbed and flowed along with Duluth’s, but it remains about one fourth the size of its twin across the bay.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.