The first European to settle in Wisconsin was Augustin de Langlade, heir to a family of French nobility. De Langlade had been part of the military campaigns against the Indians of the Fox River Valley in the 1720s. Impressed by the physical beauty and the opportunities of the New World, de Langlade remained at the French outpost at Mackinaw (in what is now Michigan's Upper Peninsula) and became involved with the thriving fur trade. In 1728, deLanglade married Domitelle, the sister of Chief La Fourche, the leader of the Ottawa Indians. Their son, Charles, was born at Mackinaw in 1729. As fur traders, father and son traveled frequently on the Fox River, often passing through what is now Appleton.
During the French and Indian War, Charles de Langlade, like his father before him, served as an officer of the French army. Following the British victory in that war, Charles transferred his loyalty to the winners and served the British as the superintendent of the Indians and leader of the militia in Green Bay. When the American Revolution began, Charles was commissioned as a captain in the British army. His brave service in that conflict was rewarded by the government of Great Britain with an annual pension that continued even after the Americans took control of the region. In 1754, Charles de Langlade married Charlotte Bourasse, the daughter of a retired French explorer.
According to some reports, Augustin de Langlade and his wife and son were living in Green Bay as early as 1745. Those reports cannot be confirmed, but it is known that by 1764, Augustin, Charles, and their wives had established a permanent home and farm in Green Bay. Many believe that a daughter was born there to Charles and Charlotte. Named Domitelle, she would have been the first person of European descent born in Wisconsin. In 1773, when she was only 13 years old, Domitelle married another fur trader, Pierre Grignon. Their seven sons and two daughters became the most important family in the Fox River Valley, and one of their sons became the first person to live where Appleton is today.
Throughout this time, the fur trade was the dominant activity of the region. Muskrat, fox, otter, and mink were some of the animals trapped for their fur, but the really prized pelt was that of the beaver.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a felt hat made from the fur of a beaver was the epitome of male fashion. Only men of great wealth and station could afford the hats, which were so valuable that they were often passed down in wills. It was the popularity of the beaver hat more than anything else that brought Europeans to Wisconsin and the Fox River Valley. The beaver trade was so important that the pelts became a primary unit of exchange. In the late 1600s, one beaver pelt could be traded for one pound of tobacco, or four pounds of shot, or one kettle. Twelve beaver pelts were worth a rifle.
The first person of European descent to live in the Fox River Valley was Dominique Ducharme, a French Canadian fur trader. In 1790, Ducharme built a wooden house and trading post on the north bank of the Fox River, where the city of Kaukauna stands today. Three years passed, however, before Ducharme purchased the land from the Menominee Chief, Tobac Noir. In a written agreement that became Wisconsin's first deed, Ducharme paid two barrels of rum for a tract of several hundred acres. This land was later purchased by Augustin Grignon, one of the sons of Domitelle and Pierre Grignon, and a grandson of Charles de Langlade. Augustin enlarged the original Ducharme house, and went on to build Wisconsin's first gristmill and first sawmill. In the late 1830s, Augustin's son, Charles, constructed the Grignon Mansion, an elaborate three-story frame house. Among the features in the house is a long stair railing made of cherry wood, which was shipped from New York City and brought up the Fox River in canoes. The Grignon Mansion still stands today, as an historic site open to the public.
While one branch of the Grignon family settled in Kaukauna, another branch continued working along the Fox River as fur traders. Hippolyte "Paul" Grignon, Augustin's brother, knew the river well from serving as an agent for the American Fur Company of Milwaukee. All who worked the river were familiar with the series of rushing falls known as the Grand Chute. A common landing spot for river travelers was a small piece of flat land just slightly upstream of the falls, on the river's north bank. It was here, beneath the towering bluffs, that Paul Grignon chose for the site of his home and business. Just to the west of what is now Appleton's Lutz Park, Paul, in 1835, built a trading post which he named White Heron. He then brought his family from Green Bay: his wife, Lisette, and their two young children, Minor and Simon. Years later, Simon would recall making that trip, walking with the family's possessions through grass taller than his head. When settled in their new home, the Grignon family became the first people of European descent to live in what is now the city of Appleton.