Abenaki Indians named the Winooski River for the wild leeks or onions which grew along its banks. For thousands of years, prehistoric settlers exploited the abundant resources afforded by the river: butternuts, fish, birds, and mammals for food; wild plants for food and medicine; and clay, wood, bone, and plant fibers for tools and containers. Sometime around 1000 A.D., horticulture came to the region, and the Winooski floodplain lands supported Indian crops of corn, beans, and squash.
Samuel de Champlain led the first Europeans into the area in 1609, but it was nearly a century and a half later before the French tried to settle the area with colonists. The French cut lumber along the Winooski's banks. During the frequent colonial wars, French and Indian raiding parties used the Winooski as a route inland to the Connecticut River and English colonies to the south.
English victory over the French in 1763 opened northern Vermont to new settlers. The colonies of New York and New Hampshire both claimed what would become Vermont. An enterprising group of Connecticut brothers, the Allens, formed the Onion River Land Company to buy New Hampshire land grants at prices depressed by the controversy. They gained the questionable titles to tens of thousands of acres, then led efforts to resist New York' s authority. Through leases, sales, and contracts with the company, pioneer farmers began improving lots along the Winooski River until the American Revolution induced most of them to flee.
After the Revolution, improvements resumed. Ira built sawmills, a forge, and a gristmill powered by the Winooski Falls. Ethan chose a site downriver to start his own farm with his second wife, Fanny. Neither Ira nor Ethan ever realized the fortune they expected from land investments, but their efforts led to the development of Burlington and many other towns, and ultimately to the separate State of Vermont.
While the Winooski River has always yielded a multitude of benefits, including transportation, food source and power, to those living along its banks, the river' s potential to flood has often taken its toll. In the flood of November 1927, Vermont' s worst recorded flood to date, 55 died and $13,500,000 in property was lost. More recently, in the flood of March 1992 there were more than $2 million in damages in Montpelier.