Whitewater received its name from a tribe of Potawatomi Native Americans that had settled along the Whitewater River (known today as the Whitewater Creek). The name Wau-be-gan-naw-po-cat, meaning "white water," was given to the area due to the white sands that lay at the bottom of the creek.
The Whitewater area was first settled in 1836, when Alvin Foster made his stake on the land by marking his name on a tree. In 1837, Samuel Prince built the first log cabin near the current site of Whitewater's Indian Mounds Park. It was not until 1839, with Dr. Trippe's donation of money for the Old Stone Mill, that Whitewater started to grow. The mill helped to create the new industrial hub of Whitewater.
In 1852, the first railway to cross Wisconsin laid its tracks through Whitewater, spurring industrial growth. Winchester and DeWolf Plow Factory (1850), Esterly Reaper Works (1857), and Winchester and Partridge Wagon Works (1860) were some of Walworth County's first and largest industries.
In 1855 the population of Whitewater was 2,224. By 1888 it had grown to 3,621. Esterly Reaper Works was the largest employer in the 1880s, employing 525. Esterly employees built homes close to the factory on the east side of the city; hence the surrounding area became known as "Reaperville." Various industries fueled Whitewater's growth until 1892, when the Esterly Reaper Works moved to Minnesota and the Wagon Works shut down, thus marking the end of Whitewater's first industrial era.
With the loss of two major industries, Whitewater lost one quarter of its population and did not regain its 1890 population level until 1950.
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