As the glaciers finally retreated from this region 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, people called Paleo Indians began to populate what is now the Oconto area. The Paleos were probably hunting large herd mammals, such as Caribou, as they dealt with the cold tundra-like terrain.
Over the next few thousand years the climate warmed and populations grew. Over this time the water levels of what is now Lake Michigan varied greatly. At times, the Bay of Green Bay was an open valley with great rivers flowing through it, then waters rose to a level as much as twenty feet higher than today, flooding much of what would one day become Oconto City.
As the water levels stabilized about 6,000 years ago a people known as the Old Copper settled near the mouth of the Oconto River which was then at what is now called Susie’s Hill. There they also buried their dead, creating eastern North America’s oldest dated cemetery.
In 1669 Father Claude Allouez, a Jesuit missionary, wintered among the Oconto River, and brought Chistianity to the Menominee and others leaving here. French traders dealt in beaver and other furs giving goods such as knives, axes, beads and blankets in exchange. Northeast Wisconsin was part of New France that included the Great Lakes region and Canada.
After defeat of the French by British forces, Oconto became part of the English colony of Canada. In 1793 this region was turned over by treaty to the new country of the United States. However, local people of European and Indian lineage remained loyal to England and in the War of 1812 many fought against the U.S. and helped the British reoccupy the upper Great Lakes.
Following the war, the British again agreed to surrender this area to the Americans and shortly thereafter American soldiers entered the Bay of Green Bay for the first time.
These people used raw copper to make a great variety of tools and ornaments becoming among the earliest metal workers in the Americas. By 2500 years ago the waters had receded to modern elevations and the river settled into roughly its present course. Among the early people were ancestors of the Menominee who inhabited this region when the first Europeons arrived in the mid AD1600s.
In 1827, commercial lumbering began along the Pensaukee river and over the next two decades there would begin the transformation of the region into the industrial and agricultural settlements we know today. George Lurwick arrived along the Oconto River in 1836 and built a home and sawmill at what is now Susie’s Hill. He became Oconto’s first private land owner.
By the 1860s Oconto became a major industrial and commercial center focused on lumber products, with as many as 12 sawmills operating at one time. In the early 1850s Oconto was slected as the County seat of what was then a much larger Oconto County. Oconto’s first election was then held in its oldest standing historic home built in 1850 at 1345 Main Street.
By 1871 the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad made Oconto one of its hubs and lines ran west to Stiles, Oconto Falls and beyond and north to Peshtigo and Marinette. The same year the railroad line was built through Oconto, a major fire swept through northeastern Wisconsin. On Oct. 8, 1871 a great conflagration burned the outlaying areas around Oconto but the City was spared. Neighboring Peshtigo was not so lucky and over 1200 lives were lost there.
Fishing and Water Life
Oconto’s harbor, moved to its present location in 1875, became a major port with sometimes many as 100 ships laying in anchor waiting to be loaded and unloaded. Commercial fishing was also an important early industry with local fisherman and their families setting up operations along the lower Oconto River and adjacent areas along the Bay shore.
Commercial lumbering continued as the major industry until the early 1940s. Boarding houses served hundreds of factory workers and lumber jacks. Around the year 1900 Oconto’s population was much higher than today.
By the late 20th century various industries replaced lumber including a recreational boat manufacturer and pickle company. Oconto’s retail businesses continued to service area customers. As commercial fishing waned, recreational use of the River and Bay became a new focus of Oconto.
Citizens are committed to preserving Oconto’s historically significant architecture, open space, and traditional design elements, and most of all, Oconto’s small town Fishing lifestyle.