It is believed that in 1635 Jean Nicolet, the French explorer, was the first recorded European settler to have visited this locality as he skirted the shores of Lake Michigan heading south from Green Bay.
Native Americans following their trail from Milwaukee to Green Bay could always tell where they were when they reached the mouth of the Sheboygan River. They called this spot Schwab-we-way-kum, Native American terminology for "great noise underground." The theory is that the rushing sounds of the falls upstream prompted this description and this is a more generally accepted version of how Sheboygan got its name.
When the European settlers first came, there were probably about 1000 Native Americans living in the county, composed mainly of Pottawatomies, Chippewas, Ottowas, Winnebagoes and Menominees. Their villages and camps were clustered on the bank or shore of practically every lake or stream, with the largest villages situated along the shore of Lake Michigan. After this territory began to interest the pioneers, treaties were made with the Native Americans. On September 26, 1833, in a treaty made at Chicago, the Native Americans relinquished all claim to the lands on the west shore of Lake Michigan, including what is now Sheboygan County, though many Native Americans remained here for many years.
Sheboygan County has three birthdays. On December 7, 1836, an act of the territorial legislature detached the area from Brown County. This was less than a year after Wisconsin became a territory and nearly twelve years before it became a state. It was not until two years later, December 17, 1838, that the legislature passed a law organizing the county government and providing for the first election of officers, which was held March 4, 1839. December 17, 1838 should properly be considered the county's birthday.
Sheboygan County's boundaries have never changed from its original organization. The first town was the Town of Sheboygan, organized March 8, 1839, with its boundaries extending to those of the county. As new towns were formed they were set off from the Town of Sheboygan. In early times Sheboygan County had a commission form of Government. The governing body was a board of three commissioners elected by the people of the county at large.
In 1848 the supervisor system was made compulsory, but Sheboygan County had voluntarily accepted it some years before. So rapid was settlement that the county had all of its present number of 15 towns by 1855. By 1870 the county board consisted of supervisors chosen from each town, incorporated villages and each ward in the cities. In 1965 the county was divided into 39 supervisory districts, based on population, with one supervisor elected for a two-year term in each district. In 1982 the number of supervisory districts changed to 34. The city of Sheboygan has always been the county seat.
The first permanent settlement in Sheboygan County, it is claimed, was made in the fall of 1834 when William Payne and Col. Oliver Crocker built a sawmill near the confluence of the Mullet and Sheboygan Rivers at the present site of Sheboygan Falls.
A study of names of the first pioneers established them to have been of English ancestry or so-called "Yankees" from New England. First came trappers, then surveyors, followed by businessmen. They were followed in the 1840's and 50's by large migrations of Germans, Dutch, and Irish who came directly from Europe. The Settlers started clearing the land and raising crops--the work they had learned in their native land. With the increased interest in agriculture, dairying emerged as a principal industry in the county. These hardy immigrants faithfully carried on the work that the American Pioneers of New England stock had begun. The present wealth and prosperity of Sheboygan County shows how well they succeeded. Cheese-making moved from the farmhouse and dairy barn in 1858 with the first cheese factory being located on the Fond du Lac Plank Road, two miles west of Sheboygan Falls. By 1875 there were 45 factories producing over 2,000,000 pounds of cheese. At one time there were 116 factories in the county. Today the number of operating factories has dwindled and the bulk of the dairy products are produced in cooperative and corporate dairies. A great concentration of dairying continues in Sheboygan County. While the number of dairy farms is decreasing, herd sizes are becoming larger.
Many factories contributed in making Sheboygan County a prosperous manufacturing center almost from the beginning. A wealth of natural water power from lakes and streams flowing generally south-easterly into Lake Michigan attracted numerous saw mills and flour mills. Many of the immigrants were artisans with skilled trades and with the abundant supply of raw materials, it was natural that early manufacturing utilized the abundant forest resources. In the 1850's implements and engines were being made in Sheboygan and a tannery prospered. Up to the Civil War Sheboygan Falls out-ranked Sheboygan as a manufacturing center. Two outstanding developments characterized the era between 1880 and 1890. One was a phenomenal growth in population, and the other was a development of large scale industry. In 1875, Sheboygan had a population of less than 7000 and this mushroomed to 16,300 by 1890. Currently, Sheboygan County has a population of approximately 115,000. Woodworking continued to dominate the scene, producing such products as lathes, windmills, spokes, sashes, doors and window blinds, clothes, reels, rakes, carriages, wagons and barrels. The manufacturing of enamel-ware emerged as an industry of great importance in the 1880's in the form of small kitchen cooking utensils and large kitchen and bathroom fixtures. The latter industry has become the largest employer of labor in the county with outlets throughout the world.
Various immigrants had their cultural and economic effect on the community. Thrifty and industrious, they earned and saved money with which to build homes and communities of which they can justly be proud. Great music lovers, they also formed singing societies and these groups still conduct festivals and dances. Slavonic Catholics and Lithuanians arrived on the Sheboygan scene early in the twentieth century, and these ethnic groups have added to the heritage of the county.