Viroqua

By Clay Riness 

It takes only a web browser and one’s fingers to discover some notable facts about Viroqua’s early history … e.g., that in 1846, Moses Decker became its first resident and that he and his sons built the first buildings. That there was a fierce rivalry between Viroqua and the now-sleepy hamlet of Springville to become the county seat—a battle won, in the end, by the former. That its original name was Deckerville, then Farwell, in honor of Leonard J. Farwell, the second governor of Wisconsin who served from 1852 to 1854. (The name was changed to Viroqua, we think, in 1854.) Or, that on July 28, 1865, a devastating tornado ripped through the ridgetop town killing 17, injuring 100 others and damaging or demolishing 42 buildings. The news was covered nationwide and was included in The New York Times.

However, Viroqua harbors a long-lived mystery. That is, where’d the name come from? There are a variety of theories, none of which are fully provable. I had the pleasure of joining 81-year-old history buff Joanne Hornby at the Vernon County Historical Society’s museum to wade through stacks of historical documents, and what we found was fascinating.

So, let’s get this out the way first. Yes, there are numerous variations of the mythical Indian maiden legend, including her being the daughter of the famous Sauk warrior Black Hawk, or the daughter of a “Winnebago chief.” Of course, in all variations she plunges herself from Courthouse Rock, falling to her death. In one version she even rides her horse over the precipice. Joanne and I had more than a chuckle over the many varied accounts of this classic tale of love and death. But, we know we can rule out these theories because, in fact, in no traditional Native American language is the word Viroqua found, not even as a name.

The name is, however, found in our own language. Beginning in the 1840s, the paddle-wheel steamboat Viroqua, based in the Muskingum River valley (a tributary of the Ohio River in Ohio), was pressed into service. The river was an important commercial route in the 19th century, and the Viroqua would clearly have carried passengers and freight westward to the Mississippi River, and then north, making stops in Prairie du Chien and La Crosse. It is quite plausible that some early residents of Viroqua were brought to the region via the steamboat Viroqua, and perhaps one of them suggested the name for any number of reasons. Maybe someone wanted to honor the boat for delivering them safely to their new home. Or, maybe it was because the name was unusual, or that someone simply liked it and others agreed. Joanne is quick to remind us that a lot of people did settle here from Ohio, so …

Another theory is that the name was chosen from a character in the 1848 novel “Viroqua, or, The Flower of the Ottawas, a Tale of the West,” written by Emma Carra. In the short novel, romance comes to an English officer and Viroqua, the daughter of the chief of the Ottawa Nation. Hmm, did Carra borrow the name from a steamboat or did a steamboat borrow the manufactured name from her novel? Either way, it seems, the city’s early settlers may have borrowed it, too.

Finally, here’s another prospect. A similar word, Veragua, was a very common name in Spanish literature. Thomas Defrees, the first judge of Bad Ax County (now Vernon), was a student of such literature, and some documents show that he suggested the name. It’s certainly possible that Viroqua’s name was originally Veragua, but was changed through human error because handwritings were easily misread. Such a misspelling could happen at local or state levels, and even in Washington, where clerks filed official documents. Now, the funny part of this theory: The word veragua translates literally as “mildew on cloth” … not exactly the prideful, noble vibe I’d be going for, that is, if I were naming a town.

Well, there you have it. My money’s on the steamboat angle, but we’ll never know for sure. What say you?