Fort Crawford Museum is operated by the Prairie du Chien Historical Society and is housed within the reconstructed hospital building that was once part of a U.S. military base called Fort Crawford. The museum displays exhibits and preserves the history the Prairie du Chien and the important medical advancements achieved by fort's doctor, William Beaumont, who conducted 56 experiments on the human digestive system. His work proved invaluable for our understanding of the system.
Fort Crawford was actually two forts; the museum is where the second fort was located. The first one, garrisoned between 1816-1832, was located directly north of the Villa Louis house on St. Feriole Island. Some of the foundations are still visible today. The second was built in 1832 and occupied until 1856. The second fort is a National Historic Landmark and also placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Zachary Taylor, later U.S. President, and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, were both stationed at the fort.
Prarie du Chien was an important strategic location during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was already a center of fur trading between European, mostly French, traders and Native Americans. The Mississippi River and the Wisconsin River met here and back then traveling on water was the best means of getting around and shipping goods and materials to other parts of the country. The Mississippi provided a way to travel from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and the Wisconsin allowed travel eastward towards the Atlantic through the Great Lakes.The British gained control of the area and the trade in the mid 1700s but lost it after the American Revolution. However, the fur traders in the region still supported the British. The Unites States government ordered the construction of a wooden fort, called Fort Shelby, on St. Feriole Island in 1814 (two years after the start of the War of 1812). The British captured the fort then later surrendered and burned it down that same year. The first Fort Crawford was built on the same location and was again made of wood. The river, however, regularly flooded the fort which rotted the wood and men became sick as a result. The second Fort Crawford was built on higher ground and made of limestone. The troops's primary role at both forts was to serve as peacekeepers between the white settlers and Native Americans. By the 1900s the fort had been abandoned and in ruins. In 1934, a Works Progress Administration team rebuilt the hospital building. In the 1960s, the State Medical Society of Wisconsin opened the Museum of Medical Progress to honor the work of Dr. William Beaumont. In 1996, the Prairie du Chien Historical Society acquired the museum and changed its name to the current one.