The history of Shawano county prior to 1843 would rightly be the history of the Menominee and Chippewa Indians. They hunted and fished the rivers and lakes of this region for hundreds, if not a thousand, years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. A few Europeans wandered near the region two centuries earlier, Jean Nicolet, a Frenchman, who landed near Green Bay in 1634 while seeking a route to the Orient; and the French explorers Pierre Radisson and Medart des Grossilliers established a dwelling at Chequamegon Bay in 1659, where missionaries later constructed a mission. In 1673 Father Marquette and Jean Nicolet again journeyed through the region, but did not settle. Few if any Europeans actually walked on the soil that would become Shawano county until Samuel Farnsworth came to the region in 1843. He came to this location having paddled up the Wolf River in a canoe from New London. He found this region to be a vast forest with fine stands of pine, hemlock, cedar, and maple.
Samuel Farnsworth realized the potential that lumbering held for this land. He returned to Oshkosh and legally acquired the land to erect a sawmill at the junction of Wolf River and the Shawano Lake outlet. A year after his first visit to the Shawano area (1844), he dispatched a crew lead by Charles D. Wescott to transport machinery and provisions north to the Wolf River site. The equipment was barged up the Wolf River by Indian crews who labored using long poles to propel the barges. On the 10th of November, 1845, the first steam-powered boat, The Manchester, arrived at what is now Shawano on the Wolf River.
By the year 1851 logging had spread out from the Shawano area to other rivers that flowed into the Wolf. Besides the Charles Wescott lumbering enterprise, other companies saw the forests as rich supplies of lumber and logging camps sprung up north of Shawano. In the year 1853 the population of the region had grown to 254 inhabitants and "Shawanaw" County was established as a separate county from sections of Oconto and Outagamie Counties. The name Shawanaw comes from the Indian Sha-wa-Nah-Pay-Sa which meant "lake to the south" in Menominee and Chippewa. The change in spelling of Shawanaw to the present spelling of Shawano occurred in 1864. Shawano became the county seat. Once established, the Shawano area grew steadily. In 1855, the population had grown to 300 and by 1860 the region held 829 inhabitants. During the first ten years the settlers that came to Shawano County were primarily people from the New England states and Canada. As the community grew and the land became logged off, Germans came in large numbers to clear the land of stumps, drain the swamps and establish their farms that remain to this day as splendid picturesque landscapes.
The large influx of Germans started to arrive in Shawano County in the late 1860s. A majority were Pomeranians from the Northern reaches of then-Prussia (Germany). Their homeland was Pommern, a strip of land on the south shore of the Baltic, land and climate not at all different from central and northern Wisconsin. They adapted perfectly to a region that resembled their homeland and carved wonderful farms from a forbidding landscape populated with millions of stumps and even more glacial rock and boulders. Joining these European pioneers were also Bohemians, Norwegians, Irish and, to a lesser degree, English and French.
In 1870, Shawano County had grown to 3,165 people. The village of Shawano became incorporated in 1871. Shawano became a city by Chapter 278, Laws of Wisconsin, which was passed March 19, 1874, comprising the same lands included under the village charter. The county continued to receive an influx of immigrants throughout the 1870s, and 80s. By 1900, the best farmland had been settled and the numbers of immigrants decreased. While lumbering still played a small part in the economy after 1900, the primary economy was dairy farming and the industries associated with it. The last federal census (1990) shows that the county now boasts a population of 37,157.