Wisconsin Statehood

United States - Scott #957 (1948)
United States – Scott #957 (1948)

On May 29, 1848, Wisconsin was admitted to the United States of America as the nation’s 30th state. It is located in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions of the north-central United States. Wisconsin is bordered by the Montreal River;, Lake Superior and Michigan to the north; by Lake Michigan to the east; by Illinois to the south; and by Iowa to the southwest and Minnesota to the northwest. A border dispute with Michigan was settled by two cases, both Wisconsin v. Michigan, in 1934 and 1935. The state’s boundaries include the Mississippi River and St. Croix River in the west, and the Menominee River in the northeast. It is the 23rd largest state by total area and the 20th most populous. The state capital is Madison, and its largest city is Milwaukee, which is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Wisconsin is divided into 72 counties.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of European settlers entered the state, many of whom emigrated from Germany and Scandinavia. Like neighboring Minnesota, Wisconsin remains a center of German American and Scandinavian American culture.

The state is known as “America’s Dairyland” because it is one of the nation’s leading dairy producers, particularly famous for its cheese. Manufacturing, especially paper products, information technology (IT), cranberries, and tourism are also major contributors to the state’s economy.



With its location between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Wisconsin is home to a wide variety of geographical features. The state is divided into five distinct regions. In the north, the Lake Superior Lowland occupies a belt of land along Lake Superior. Just to the south, the Northern Highland has massive mixed hardwood and coniferous forests including the 1,500,000-acre (6,100 km²) Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, as well as thousands of glacial lakes, and the state’s highest point, Timms Hill. In the middle of the state, the Central Plain has some unique sandstone formations like the Dells of the Wisconsin River in addition to rich farmland. The Eastern Ridges and Lowlands region in the southeast is home to many of Wisconsin’s largest cities. The ridges include the Niagara Escarpment that stretches from New York, the Black River Escarpment and the Magnesian Escarpment.

The bedrock of the Niagara Escarpment is dolomite, while the two shorter ridges have limestone bedrock. In the southwest, the Western Upland is a rugged landscape with a mix of forest and farmland, including many bluffs on the Mississippi River. This region is part of the Driftless Area, which also includes portions of Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. This area was not covered by glaciers during the most recent ice age, the Wisconsin Glaciation. Overall, 46% of Wisconsin’s land area is covered by forest. Langlade County has a soil rarely found outside of the county called Antigo silt loam.

The word Wisconsin originates from the name given to the Wisconsin River by one of the Algonquian-speaking Native American groups living in the region at the time of European contact. French explorer Jacques Marquette was the first European to reach the Wisconsin River, arriving in 1673 and calling the river Meskousing in his journal. Subsequent French writers changed the spelling from Meskousing to Ouisconsin, and over time this became the name for both the Wisconsin River and the surrounding lands. English speakers anglicized the spelling from Ouisconsin to Wisconsin when they began to arrive in large numbers during the early 19th century. The legislature of Wisconsin Territory made the current spelling official in 1845

The Algonquin word for Wisconsin and its original meaning have both grown obscure. Interpretations vary, but most implicate the river and the red sandstone that lines its banks. One leading theory holds that the name originated from the Miami word Meskonsing, meaning “it lies red”, a reference to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Wisconsin Dells. Other theories include claims that the name originated from one of a variety of Ojibwa words meaning “red stone place”, “where the waters gather”, or “great rock”.

Drawing of a mastodon skeleton by Rembrandt Peale, circa 1801.
Drawing of a mastodon skeleton by Rembrandt Peale, circa 1801.

The first known inhabitants of what is now Wisconsin were Paleo-Indians, who first arrived in the region in about 10,000 BC at the end of the Ice Age. The retreating glaciers left behind a tundra in Wisconsin inhabited by large animals, such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, and muskox. The Boaz mastodon and the Clovis artifacts discovered in Boaz, Wisconsin show that the Paleo-Indians hunted these large animals. They also gathered plants as conifer forests grew in the glaciers’ wake. With the decline and extinction of many large mammals in the Americas, the Paleo-Indian diet shifted toward smaller mammals like deer and bison.

During the Archaic Period, from 6000–1000 BC, mixed conifer-hardwood forests as well as mixed prairie-forests replaced Wisconsin’s conifer forests. People continued to depend on hunting and gathering. Around 4000 BC they developed spear-throwers and copper tools such as axes, adzes, projectile points, knives, perforators, fishhooks and harpoons. Copper ornaments like beaded necklaces also appeared around 1500 BC. These people gathered copper ore at quarries on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan and on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. They may have crafted copper artifacts by hammering and folding the metal and also by heating it to increase its malleability. However it is not certain if these people reached the level of copper smelting. Regardless, the Copper Culture of the Great Lakes region reached a level of sophistication unprecedented in North America. The Late Archaic Period also saw the emergence of cemeteries and ritual burials,[3] such as the one in Oconto.

The Early Woodland Period began in 1000 BC as plants became an increasingly important part of the people’s diet. Small scale agriculture and pottery arrived in southern Wisconsin at this time. The primary crops were maize, beans and squash. Agriculture, however, could not sufficiently support these people, who also had to hunt and gather. Agriculture at this time was more akin to gardening than to farming. Villages emerged along rivers, streams and lakes, and the earliest earthen burial mounds were constructed. The Havana Hopewell Culture arrived in Wisconsin in the Middle Woodland Period, settling along the Mississippi River. The Hopewell people connected Wisconsin to their trade practices, which stretched from Ohio to Yellowstone and from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. They constructed elaborate mounds, made elaborately decorated pottery and brought a wide range of traded minerals to the area. The Hopewell people may have influenced the other inhabitants of Wisconsin, rather than displacing them.

The Late Woodland Period began in about 400 AD, following the disappearance of the Hopewell Culture from the area. The people of Wisconsin first used the bow and arrow in the final centuries of the Woodland Period, and agriculture continued to be practiced in the southern part of the state. The effigy mound culture dominated Southern Wisconsin during this time, building earthen mounds in the shapes of animals. Unlike earlier mounds, many of these were not used for burials.[8] Examples of effigy mounds still exist at High Cliff State Park and at Lizard Mound County Park. In northern Wisconsin people continued to survive on hunting and gathering, and constructed conical mounds.

The largest platform mound at Aztalan State Park in Aztalan, Wisconsin, with modern reconstructions of steps and stockade. This site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
The largest platform mound at Aztalan State Park in Aztalan, Wisconsin, with modern reconstructions of steps and stockade. This site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

People of the Mississippian culture expanded into Wisconsin around 1050 AD and established a settlement at Aztalan along the Crawfish River. While begun by the Caddoan people, other cultures began to borrow & adapt the Mississippian cultural structure. This elaborately planned site may have been the northernmost outpost of Cahokia, although it is also now known that some Siouan peoples along the Mississippi River may have taken part in the culture as well.  Regardless, the Mississippian site traded with and was clearly influenced in its civic and defensive planning, as well as culturally, by its much larger southern neighbor. A rectangular wood-and-clay stockade surrounded the twenty acre site, which contained two large earthen mounds and a central plaza. One mound may have been used for food storage, as a residence for high-ranking officials, or as a temple, and the other may have been used as a mortuary. The Mississippian Culture cultivated maize intensively, and their fields probably stretched far beyond the stockade at Aztalan, although modern agriculture has erased any traces of Mississippian practices in the area. Some rumors also speculate that the people of Aztalan may have experimented slightly with stone architecture in the making of a man-made, stone-line pond, at the very least. While the first settler on the land of what is now the city supposedly reported this, he filled it in and it has yet to be rediscovered.

Both Woodland and Mississippian peoples inhabited Aztalan, which was connected to the extensive Mississippian trade network. Shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from Lake Superior and Mill Creek chert have been found at the site. Aztalan was abandoned around 1200 AD. The Oneota people later built agriculturally based villages, similar to those of the Mississippians but with the extensive trade networks, in the state.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in Wisconsin, the Oneota had disappeared. The historically documented inhabitants, as of the first European incursions, were the Siouan speaking Dakota Oyate to the northwest, the Chiwere speaking Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and the Algonquian Menominee to the northeast, with their lands beginning approximately north of Green Bay. The Chiwere lands start south of Green Bay and flow between rivers to the southwest. Over time, other tribes would come to inhabit the land, such as the Ojibwe , the Illinois the Fauk , the Sauk, and the Mahican, the last group having been sent west from New York as a lesser known consequence of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which also affected native peoples still living in New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana at the time. That being said, the U.S. had already been pressuring many tribes to migrate from these regions for several decades beforehand and seized land from tribes who sided against them in the Shawnee Wars and the War of 1812 as a consequence.

Jean Nicolet, landing at the Bay of Green Bay in 1634. Painted by Franz Edward Rohrbeck (1852-1919) in 1910 into the mural in the rotunda of the Brown County Courthouse, Green Bay, Wisconsin. It shows Nicolet wearing a Chinese damask tunic strewn with flowers and birds, and discharging two pistols into the air.
Jean Nicolet, landing at the Bay of Green Bay in 1634. Painted by Franz Edward Rohrbeck (1852-1919) in 1910 into the mural in the rotunda of the Brown County Courthouse, Green Bay, Wisconsin. It shows Nicolet wearing a Chinese damask tunic strewn with flowers and birds, and discharging two pistols into the air.

The first European known to have landed in Wisconsin was Jean Nicolet. In 1634, Samuel de Champlain, governor of New France, sent Nicolet to contact the Ho-Chunk people, make peace between them and the Huron and expand the fur trade, and possibly to also find a water route to Asia. Accompanied by seven Huron guides, Nicolet left New France and canoed through Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and then became the first European known to have entered Lake Michigan. Nicolet proceeded into Green Bay, which he named La Baie des Puants (literally “The Stinking Bay”), and probably came ashore near the Red Banks. He made contact with the Ho-Chunk and Menomenee living in the area and established peaceful relations. Nicolet remained with the Ho-Chunk the winter before he returned to Quebec.

The Beaver Wars fought between the Iroquois and the French prevented French explorers from returning to Wisconsin until 1652-1654, when Pierre Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers arrived at La Baie des Puants to trade furs. They returned to Wisconsin in 1659-1660, this time at Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. On their second voyage they found that the Ojibwe had expanded into northern Wisconsin, as they continued to prosper in the fur trade. They also were the first Europeans to contact the Santee Dakota. They built a trading post and wintered near Ashland, before returning to Montreal.

In 1665, Claude-Jean Allouez, a Jesuit missionary, built a mission on Lake Superior. Five years later he abandoned the mission, and journeyed to La Baie des Puants. Two years later he built St. Francis Xavier Mission near present-day De Pere. In his journeys through Wisconsin, he encountered groups of Native Americans who had been displaced by Iroquois in the Beaver Wars. He evangelized the Algonquin-speaking Potawatomi, who had settled on the Door Peninsula after fleeing Iroquois attacks in Michigan. He also encountered the Algonquin-speaking Sauk, who had been forced into Michigan by the Iroquois, and then had been forced into central Wisconsin by the Ojibwe and the Huron.

The next major expedition into Wisconsin was that of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673. After hearing rumors from Indians telling of the existence of the Mississippi River, Marquette and Joliet set out from St. Ignace, in what is now Michigan, and entered the Fox River at Green Bay. They canoed up the Fox until they reached the river’s westernmost point, and then portaged, or carried their boats, to the nearby Wisconsin River, where they resumed canoeing downstream to the Mississippi River. Marquette and Joliet reached the Mississippi near what is now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in June, 1673.

 Wisconsin 1718, approximate modern state area highlighted, from Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi by Guillaume de L'Isle.
Wisconsin 1718, approximate modern state area highlighted, from Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi by Guillaume de L’Isle.

Nicolas Perrot, French commander of the west, established Fort St. Nicholas at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in May, 1685, near the southwest end of the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway. Perrot also built a fort on the shores of Lake Pepin called Fort St. Antoine in 1686, and a second fort, called Fort Perrot, on an island on Lake Peppin shortly after. In 1727, Fort Beauharnois was constructed on what is now the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin to replace the two previous forts. A fort and a Jesuit mission were also built on the shores of Lake Superior at La Pointe, in present-day Wisconsin, in 1693 and operated until 1698. A second fort was built on the same site in 1718 and operated until 1759. These were not military posts, but rather small storehouses for furs.

During the French colonial period, the first black people came to Wisconsin. The first record of a black person comes from 1725, when a black slave was killed along with four French men in a Native American raid on Green Bay. Other French fur traders and military personnel brought slaves with them to Wisconsin later in 1700s.

None of the French posts had permanent settlers; fur traders and missionaries simply visited them from time to time to conduct business.

In the 1720s, the anti-French Fox tribe, led by war chief Kiala, raided French settlements on the Mississippi River and disrupted French trade on Lake Michigan. From 1728 to 1733, the Fox fought against the French-supported Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Huron and Ottawa tribes. In 1733, Kiala was captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies along with other captured Fox. Before the war, the Fox tribe numbered 1500, but by 1733, only 500 Fox were left. As a result, the Fox joined the Sac tribe.

French-Fox 18th century composite map
French-Fox 18th century composite map

The British gradually took over Wisconsin during the French and Indian War, taking control of Green Bay in 1761 and gaining control of all of Wisconsin in 1763. Like the French, the British were interested in little but the fur trade. One notable event in the fur trading industry in Wisconsin occurred in 1791, when two free African Americans set up a fur trading post among the Menominee at present day Marinette. The first permanent settlers, mostly French Canadians, some Anglo-New Englanders and a few African American freedmen, arrived in Wisconsin while it was under British control. Charles Michel de Langlade is generally recognized as the first settler, establishing a trading post at Green Bay in 1745, and moving there permanently in 1764. In 1766, the Royal Governor of the new territory, Robert Rogers, engaged Jonathan Carver to explore and map the newly acquired territories for the Crown, and to search for a possible Northwest Passage. Carver left Fort Michilimackinac that spring and spent the next three years exploring and mapping what is now Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.

Settlement began at Prairie du Chien around 1781. The French residents at the trading post in what is now Green Bay, referred to the town as “La Bey”, however British fur traders referred to it as “Green Bay”, because the water and the shore assumed green tints in early spring. The old French title was gradually dropped, and the British name of “Green Bay” eventually stuck. The region coming under British rule had virtually no adverse effect on the French residents as the British needed the cooperation of the French fur traders and the French fur traders needed the goodwill of the British. During the French occupation of the region licenses for fur trading had been issued scarcely and only to select groups of traders, whereas the British, in an effort to make as much money as possible from the region, issued licenses for fur trading freely, both to British and French residents. The fur trade in what is now Wisconsin reached its height under British rule, and the first self-sustaining farms in the state were established at this time as well. From 1763 to 1780, Green Bay was a prosperous community which produced its own foodstuff, built graceful cottages and held dances and festivities.

United States land claims and cessions, 1782-1802
United States land claims and cessions, 1782-1802

The United States acquired Wisconsin in the Treaty of Paris (1783). Massachusetts claimed the territory east of the Mississippi River between the present-day Wisconsin-Illinois border and present-day La Crosse, Wisconsin. Virginia claimed the territory north of La Crosse to Lake Superior and all of present-day Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. Shortly afterward, in 1787, the Americans made Wisconsin part of the new Northwest Territory. Later, in 1800, Wisconsin became part of Indiana Territory. Despite the fact that Wisconsin belonged to the United States at this time, the British continued to control the local fur trade and maintain military alliances with Wisconsin Indians.

The United States did not firmly exercise control over Wisconsin until the War of 1812. In 1814, the Americans built Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien. During the war, the Americans and British fought one battle in Wisconsin, the July 1814 Siege of Prairie du Chien, which ended as a British victory. The British captured Fort Shelby and renamed it Fort McKay, after Major William McKay, the British commander who led the forces that won the Battle of Prairie du Chien. However, the 1815 Treaty of Ghent reaffirmed American jurisdiction over Wisconsin, which was by then a part of Illinois Territory. Following the treaty, British troops burned Fort McKay, rather than giving it back to the Americans, and departed Wisconsin. To protect Prairie du Chien from future attacks, the United States Army constructed Fort Crawford in 1816, on the same site as Fort Shelby. Fort Howard was also built in 1816 in Green Bay.

Under American control, the economy of the territory shifted from fur trading to lead mining. The prospect of easy mineral wealth drew immigrants from throughout the U.S. and Europe to the lead deposits located at Mineral Point, Dodgeville, and nearby areas. The sudden influx of white miners prompted tension with the local Native American population. Significant American settlement in Wisconsin, a part of Michigan Territory beginning in 1818, was delayed by two Indian wars, the minor Winnebago War of 1827 and the larger Black Hawk War of 1832.

The Winnebago War started when, in 1826, two Winnebago men were detained at Fort Crawford on charges of murder and then transferred to Fort Snelling in present-day Minnesota. The Winnebago in the area believed that both men had been executed. On June 27, 1827, a Winnebago war band led by Chief Red Bird and the prophet White Cloud (Wabokieshiek) attacked a family of settlers outside of Prairie du Chien, killing two men. They then went on to attack two keel-boats on the Mississippi River that were heading toward Fort Snelling, killing two men and injuring four more. Seven Winnebago warriors were killed in those attacks. The war band also attacked settlers on the lower Wisconsin River and the lead mines at Galena, Illinois. The war band surrendered at Portage, Wisconsin, rather than fighting the United States Army that was pursuing them.

Sauk Chief Makataimeshekiakiah (Chief Black Hawk), painted 1837 and published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America -- a three-volume collection of Native American biographies and accompanying lithograph portraits originally published in the United States from 1836 to 1844 by Thomas McKenney and James Hall. The majority of the portraits were first painted in oil by Charles Bird King. McKenney was working as the US Superintendent of Indian Trade and would head the Office of Indian Affairs, both then within the War Department.
Sauk Chief Makataimeshekiakiah (Chief Black Hawk), painted 1837 and published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America — a three-volume collection of Native American biographies and accompanying lithograph portraits originally published in the United States from 1836 to 1844 by Thomas McKenney and James Hall. The majority of the portraits were first painted in oil by Charles Bird King. McKenney was working as the US Superintendent of Indian Trade and would head the Office of Indian Affairs, both then within the War Department.

In the Black Hawk War, Sac, Fox, and Kickapoo Native Americans, led by Chief Black Hawk, who had been relocated from Illinois to Iowa, attempted to resettle in their Illinois homeland on April 5, 1832. On May 10, Chief Black Hawk decided to go back to Iowa. On May 14, Black Hawk’s forces met with a group of militia men led by Isaiah Stillman. All three members of Black Hawk’s parley were shot and one was killed. The Battle of Stillman’s Run ensued, leaving twelve militia men and three to five Sac and Fox warriors dead.

Of the fifteen battles of the war, six took place in Wisconsin. The other nine as well as several smaller skirmishes took place in Illinois. The first confrontation to take place in Wisconsin was the first attack on Fort Blue Mounds on June 6, in which one member of the local militia was killed outside of fort. There was also the Spafford Farm Massacre on June 14, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on June 16, which was a United States victory, the second attack on Fort Blue Mounds on June 20, and the Sinsinawa Mound raid on June 29. The Native Americans were defeated at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21, with forty to seventy killed and only one killed on the United States side. The Black Hawk War ended with the Bad Axe Massacre on August 1–2, with over 150 Native Americans dead and 75 captured and only five killed in the United States forces. Many of the Native American war chiefs were handed over to the United States on August 20, with the exception of Black Hawk and White Cloud, who surrendered on August 27, 1832. Black Hawk moved back to Iowa in 1833, after being held prisoner by the United States government. The war culminated in the forced removal of Native Americans from most parts of the state.

The resolution of these Indian conflicts opened the way for Wisconsin’s settlement. Many of the region’s first settlers were drawn by the prospect of lead mining in southwest Wisconsin. This area had traditionally been mined by Native Americans. However, after a series of treaties removed the Indians, the lead mining region was opened to white miners. Thousands rushed in from across the country to dig for the “gray gold”. Expert miners from Cornwall, England, formed a large part of the wave of immigrants. Boom towns like Mineral Point, Platteville, Shullsburg, Belmont, and New Diggings sprang up around mines. The first two federal land offices in Wisconsin were opened in 1834 at Green Bay and at Mineral Point. By the 1840s, southwest Wisconsin mines were producing more than half of the nation’s lead. Wisconsin was dubbed the “Badger State” because of the lead miners who first settled there in the 1820s and 1830s. Without shelter in the winter, they had to “live like badgers” in tunnels burrowed into hillsides.

Although the lead mining area drew the first major wave of settlers, its population would soon be eclipsed by growth in Milwaukee. Milwaukee, along with Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Kewaunee, can be traced back to a series of trading posts established by the French trader Jacques Vieau in 1795. Vieau’s post at the mouth of the Milwaukee River was purchased in 1820 by Solomon Juneau, who had visited the area as early as 1818. Juneau moved to what is now Milwaukee and took over the trading post’s operation in 1825. When the fur trade began to decline, Juneau focused on developing the land around his trading post. In the 1830s, he formed a partnership with Green Bay lawyer Morgan Martin, and the two men bought 160 acres (0.6 km²) of land between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. There they founded the settlement of Juneautown.

The Trapper's Bride shows a trapper, Francois, paying $600 in trade goods for an Indian woman to be his wife, circa 1837.
Watercolor entitled The Trapper’s Bride shows a trapper, Francois, paying $600 in trade goods for an Indian woman to be his wife, circa 1837.

Meanwhile, an Ohio businessman named Byron Kilbourn began to invest in the land west of the Milwaukee River, forming the settlement of Kilbourntown. South of these two settlements, George H. Walker founded the town of Walker’s Point in 1835. Each of these three settlements engaged in a fierce competition to attract the most residents and become the largest of the three towns. In 1840, the Wisconsin State Legislature ordered the construction of a bridge over the Milwaukee River to replace the inadequate ferry system. In 1845, Byron Kilbourn, who had been trying to isolate Juneautown to make it more dependent on Kilbourntown, destroyed a portion of the bridge, which started the Milwaukee Bridge War. For several weeks, skirmishes broke out between the residents of both towns. No one was killed but several people were injured, some seriously. On January 31, 1846, the settlements of Juneautown, Kilbourntown, and Walker’s Point merged into the incorporated city of Milwaukee. Solomon Juneau was elected mayor. The new city had a population of about 10,000 people, making it the largest city in the territory. Milwaukee remains the largest city in Wisconsin to this day.

Wisconsin Territory was created by an act of the United States Congress on April 20, 1836. By fall of that year, the best prairie groves of the counties surrounding Milwaukee were occupied by New England farmers. The new territory initially included all of the present day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, as well as parts of North and South Dakota. At the time the Congress called it the “Wiskonsin Territory”.

Map of Wisconsin Territory, as established on April 20, 1836.
Map of Wisconsin Territory, as established on April 20, 1836.
Map of the Wisconsin Territory 1836 - 1848
Map of the Wisconsin Territory 1836 – 1848

The first territorial governor of Wisconsin was Henry Dodge. He and other territorial lawmakers were initially busied by organizing the territory’s government and selecting a capital city. The selection of a location to build a capitol caused a heated debate among the territorial politicians. At first, Governor Dodge selected Belmont, located in the heavily populated lead mining district, to be capital. Shortly after the new legislature convened there, however, it became obvious that Wisconsin’s first capitol was inadequate. Numerous other suggestions for the location of the capital were given representing nearly every city that existed in the territory at the time, and Governor Dodge left the decision up to the other lawmakers. The legislature accepted a proposal by James Duane Doty to build a new city named Madison on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona and put the territory’s permanent capital there. In 1837, while Madison was being built, the capitol was temporarily moved to Burlington. This city was transferred to Iowa Territory in 1838, along with all the lands of Wisconsin Territory west of the Mississippi River.

The Erie Canal facilitated the travel of both Yankee settlers and European immigrants to Wisconsin Territory. Yankees from New England and upstate New York seized a dominant position in law and politics, enacting policies that marginalized the region’s earlier Native American and French-Canadian residents. Yankees also speculated in real estate, platted towns such as Racine, Beloit, Burlington, and Janesville, and established schools, civic institutions, and Congregationalist churches. At the same time, many Germans, Irish, Norwegians, and other immigrants also settled in towns and farms across the territory, establishing Catholic and Lutheran institutions.

By the mid-1840s, the population of Wisconsin Territory had exceeded 150,000, more than twice the number of people required for Wisconsin to become a state. Between 1840 and 1850, Wisconsin’s non-Indian population had swollen from 31,000 to 305,000. Over a third of residents (110,500) were foreign born, including 38,000 Germans, 28,000 British immigrants from England, Scotland, and Wales, and 21,000 Irish. Another third (103,000) were Yankees from New England and western New York state. Only about 63,000 residents in 1850 had been born in Wisconsin.

In 1846, the territorial legislature voted to apply for statehood. That fall, 124 delegates debated the state constitution. The document produced by this convention was considered extremely progressive for its time. It banned commercial banking, granted married women the right to own property, and left the question of African-American suffrage to a popular vote. Most Wisconsinites considered the first constitution to be too radical, however, and voted it down in an April 1847 referendum.

In December 1847, a second constitutional convention was called. This convention resulted in a new, more moderate state constitution that Wisconsinites approved in a March 1848 referendum, enabling Wisconsin to become the 30th state on May 29, 1848. Wisconsin was the last state entirely east of the Mississippi River (and by extension the last state formed entirely from territory assigned to the U.S. in the 1783 Treaty of Paris) to be admitted to the Union.

Map of the states of Wisconsin and Michigan, 1852.
Map of the states of Wisconsin and Michigan, 1852.

Nelson Dewey, the first governor of Wisconsin, was a Democrat. Dewey oversaw the transition from the territorial to the new state government. He encouraged the development of the state’s infrastructure, particularly the construction of new roads, railroads, canals, and harbors, as well as the improvement of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. During his administration, the State Board of Public Works was organized. Dewey, an abolitionist, was the first of many Wisconsin governors to advocate against the spread of slavery into new states and territories. With statehood, came the creation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is the state’s oldest public university. The creation of this university was set aside in the state charter.

In 1847, the Mineral Point Tribune reported that the town’s furnaces were producing 43,800 pounds (19,900 kg) of lead each day. Lead mining in southwest Wisconsin began to decline after 1848 and 1849 when the combination of less easily accessible lead ore and the California Gold Rush made miners leave the area. The lead mining industry in mining communities such as Mineral Point managed to survive into the 1860s, but the industry was never as prosperous as it was before the decline.

A railroad frenzy swept Wisconsin shortly after it achieved statehood. The first railroad line in the state was opened between Milwaukee and Waukesha in 1851 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The railroad pushed on, reaching Milton, Wisconsin in 1852, Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1853, and the capital city of Madison in 1854. The company reached its goal of completing a rail line across the state from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River when the line to Prairie du Chien was completed in 1857. Shortly after this, other railroad companies completed their own tracks, reaching La Crosse in the west and Superior in the north, spurring development in those cities. By the end of the 1850s, railroads crisscrossed the state, enabling the growth of other industries that could now easily ship products to markets across the country.

The Little White Schoolhouse, in Ripon, 1854, which hosted the first meeting of what became the national Republican Party.
The Little White Schoolhouse, in Ripon, 1854, which hosted the first meeting of what became the national Republican Party.

Between the 1840s and 1860s, settlers from New England, New York and Germany arrived in Wisconsin. Some of them brought radical political ideas to the state. In the 1850s, stop-overs on the underground railroad were set up in the state and abolitionist groups were formed. One such group was the Republican party. On March 20, 1854, the first county meeting of the Republican Party of the United States, consisting of about thirty people, was held in the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ripon claims to be the birthplace of the Republican Party, as does Jackson, Michigan, where the first statewide convention was held.

Between 1848 and 1862, Wisconsin had three Democratic governors, all of whom were in office prior to 1856, four Republican governors, all of whom were in office after 1856, and one Whig governor, Leonard J. Farwell, who served from 1852 to 1854. Under Farwell’s governorship, Wisconsin became the second state to abolish capital punishment. In the presidential elections of 1848 and 1852, the Democratic Party won Wisconsin. In the elections of 1856, 1860, and 1864, the Republican Party won the state.

A notable instance of abolitionism in Wisconsin was the rescue of Joshua Glover, an escaped slave from St. Louis who sought refuge in Racine, Wisconsin in 1852. He was caught in 1854 by federal marshals and put in a jail at Cathedral Square in Milwaukee, where he waited to be returned to his owner. A mob of 5,000 people led by Milwaukee abolitionist Sherman Booth, himself a “Yankee” transplant from rural New York, sprung Glover from jail and helped him escape to Canada via the underground railroad.

The Wisconsin 8th Volunteer Infantry Eagle Regiment with their mascot, Old Abe, at Vicksburg in July 1863. Eagle-bearer Edward Homaston is probably holding the perch. Sgt Ambrose Armitage is third from left. Original Glass Plate Negative from the J. Mack Moore Collection, The Old Court House Museum Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The Wisconsin 8th Volunteer Infantry Eagle Regiment with their mascot, Old Abe, at Vicksburg in July 1863. Eagle-bearer Edward Homaston is probably holding the perch. Sgt Ambrose Armitage is third from left. Original Glass Plate Negative from the J. Mack Moore Collection, The Old Court House Museum Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Wisconsin enrolled 91,379 men in the Union Army during the American Civil War. 272 of enlisted Wisconsin men were African American, and the rest were white. Of these, 3,794 were killed in action or mortally wounded, 8,022 died of disease, and 400 were killed in accidents. The total mortality was 12,216 men, about 13.4 percent of total enlistments. Many soldiers trained at Camp Randall, which currently houses the University of Wisconsin’s athletic stadium.

Most Wisconsin troops served in the western theater, although several Wisconsin regiments fought in the east, such as the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which formed part of the Iron Brigade. These three regiments fought in the Northern Virginia Campaign, the Maryland Campaign, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Gettysburg Campaign, the Battle of Mine Run, the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. The 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which fought in the western theater of war, is also worthy of mention, having fought at the Battle of Iuka, the Siege of Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign, and the Battle of Nashville. The 8th Wisconsin is also known for its mascot, Old Abe.

Wisconsin’s economy also diversified during the early years of statehood. Agriculture was a major component of the Wisconsin economy during the 19th century. Wheat was a primary crop on early Wisconsin farms. In fact, during the mid 19th century, Wisconsin produced about one sixth of the wheat grown in the United States. However, wheat rapidly depleted nutrients in the soil, especially nitrogen, and was vulnerable to insects, bad weather, and wheat leaf rust. In the 1860s, chinch bugs arrived in Wisconsin and damaged wheat across the state. As the soil lost its quality and prices dropped, the practice of wheat farming moved west into Iowa and Minnesota. Some Wisconsin farmers responded by experimenting with crop rotation and other methods to restore the soil’s fertility, but a larger number turned to alternatives to wheat.

The Daniel E. Krause Stone Barn in Chase, Wisconsin was built in 1903 as dairy farming spread across the state. The stone barn was built for cows while the circular silo was used to store feed. Photo taken on May 17, 2007.
The Daniel E. Krause Stone Barn in Chase, Wisconsin was built in 1903 as dairy farming spread across the state. The stone barn was built for cows while the circular silo was used to store feed. Photo taken on May 17, 2007.

In parts of northern Wisconsin, farmers cultivated cranberries and in a few counties in south central Wisconsin, farmers had success growing tobacco, but the most popular replacement for wheat was dairy farming. As wheat fell out of favor, many Wisconsin farmers started raising dairy cattle and growing feed crops, which were better suited to Wisconsin’s climate and soil. One reason for the popularity of dairy farming was that many of Wisconsin’s farmers had come to the state from New York, the leading producer of dairy products at the time. In addition, many immigrants from Europe brought an extensive knowledge of cheese making. Dairying was also promoted by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s school of agriculture, which offered education to dairy farmers and researched ways to produce better dairy products. The first test of butterfat content in milk was developed at the university, which allowed for consistency in the quality of butter and cheese.

By 1899, over ninety percent of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows and by 1915, Wisconsin had become the leading producer of dairy products in the United States, a position it held until the 1990s. The term “America’s Dairlyland” appeared in newspapers as early as 1913 when the state’s butterfat production became first in the nation. In 1939, the state legislature enacted a bill to add the slogan to the state’s automobile license plates. It continues to be the nation’s largest producer of cheese, no longer focusing on the raw material (milk) but rather the value-added products. Because of this, Wisconsin continues to promote itself as “America’s Dairyland”, Wisconsinites are referred to as cheeseheads in some parts of the country, including Wisconsin, and foam cheesehead hats are associated with Wisconsin and its NFL team, the Green Bay Packers.

The first brewery in Wisconsin was opened in 1835 in Mineral Point by brewer John Phillips. A year later, he opened a second brewery in Elk Grove.[56] In 1840, the first brewery in Milwaukee was opened by Richard G. Owens, William Pawlett, and John Davis, all Welsh immigrants. By 1860, nearly 200 breweries operated in Wisconsin, more than 40 of them in Milwaukee. The huge growth in the brewing industry can be accredited, in part, to the influx of German immigrants to Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s. Milwaukee breweries also grew in volume due to the destruction of Chicago’s breweries during the great Chicago fire. In the second half of the 19th century, four of the largest breweries in the United States opened in Milwaukee: Miller Brewing Company, Pabst Brewing Company, Valentin Blatz Brewing Company, and Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. In the 20th century Pabst absorbed Blatz and Schlitz, and moved its brewery and corporate headquarters to California. Miller continues to operate in Milwaukee. The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company opened in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin in 1867 and continues to operate there to this day.

Log jam at Chippewa Falls Boom, Wisconsin.
Log jam at Chippewa Falls Boom, Wisconsin.

Agriculture was not viable in the densely forested northern and central parts of Wisconsin. Settlers came to this region for logging. Prior to the Civil War, most of northern Wisconsin was inhabited by the Menominee and Ojibwe Indians, and transient fur traders of European origin. Demand for wood in Chicago and Milwaukee after the Civil War brought lumbermen to the north woods. The timber industry first set up along the Wisconsin River. Initially, most harvesting focused on the “pineries,” since softwoods like pine could be floated down rivers, the major means of transportation at the time. In northeastern Wisconsin, three major river networks sent logs to either Green Bay (and then on to Milwaukee and Chicago), Oshkosh, or various mills along the Wisconsin River from Rhinelander to Wisconsin Rapids.

Sawmills in cities like Wausau and Stevens Point sawed the lumber into boards that were used for construction. The Wolf River also saw considerable logging by industrious Menominee. The Black and Chippewa Rivers formed a third major logging region. That area was dominated by one company owned by Frederick Weyerhaeuser. It wasn’t until the early 1880s that the expansion of railroads in northern Wisconsin opened new areas for the lumber industry, especially for hardwoods like maple, which could not be floated down rivers. Railroads continued to be the primary method of transporting logs until the 1930s, when improved roads allowed trucking to surpass rail.

The construction of railroads allowed loggers to log year round, after rivers froze, and go deeper into the forests to cut down previously unshippable wood supplies. Wood products from Wisconsin’s forests such as doors, furniture, beams, shipping boxes, and ships were made in industrial cities with connects to the Wisconsin lumber industry such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Manitowoc. Milwaukee and Manitowoc were centers for commercial ship building in Wisconsin. Many cargo ships built in these communities were used to transport lumber from logging ports to major industrial cities.

Logging was a dangerous trade, with high accident rates. On October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire burned 1,875 square miles (4,850 km²) of forest land around the timber industry town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing between 1,200 and 2,500 people. It was the deadliest fire in United States history.

Lumber rafts on the Wisconsin River near the Wisconsin Dells, circa 1886. Photograph by H.H. Bennett, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 6314.
Lumber rafts on the Wisconsin River near the Wisconsin Dells, circa 1886. Photograph by H.H. Bennett, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 6314.

The north woods lumber industry also had an associated lore in songs and stories, particularly in the days of the river drives. Lumberjacks from various ethnic backgrounds would sing songs about their lives while often playing on crude homemade instruments. Some of these were collected and recorded as part of the Federal Writers Project — part of the Works Projects Administration of the New Deal — and by folklorist Alan Lomax. Perhaps the most well-known character in logging lore was the mythological figure Paul Bunyan, whose exploits were celebrated in stories told throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and central Canada.

From the 1870s to the 1890s, much of the logging in Wisconsin was done by immigrants from Scandinavia. Later a growing paper industry in the Fox River Valley made use of wood pulp from the state’s lumber industry.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, logging in Wisconsin had gone into decline. Many forests had been cleared and never replanted and large corporations in the Pacific Northwest took business away from the Wisconsin industry. The logging companies sold their land to immigrants and out of work lumberjacks who hoped to turn the acres of pine stumps into farms, but few met with success.

The early 20th century was notable for the emergence of progressive politics championed by Robert M. La Follette. Between 1901 and 1914, Progressive Republicans in Wisconsin created the nation’s first comprehensive statewide primary election system, the first effective workplace injury compensation law, and the first state income tax, making taxation proportional to actual earnings. Wisconsin also created the first unemployment compensation program in the United States in 1932.

Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

A new state capitol building was begun in 1906 and completed in 1917. The building is the fifth to serve as the Wisconsin capitol since the first territorial legislature convened in 1836 and the third building since Wisconsin was granted statehood in 1848. It is the tallest building in Madison, a distinction that has been preserved by legislation that prohibits buildings taller than the columns surrounding the dome (187 feet). The capitol was constructed of 43 types of stone from six countries and eight states. The exterior stone is Bethel white granite from Vermont, making the exterior dome the largest granite dome in the world. The “Wisconsin” statue on the dome was sculpted during 1920 by Daniel Chester French of New York. Its left hand holds a globe surmounted by an eagle and her right arm is outstretched to symbolize the state motto, “Forward”. It wears a helmet with the state animal, the badger, on top. It is made of hollow bronze covered with gold leaf. “Wisconsin” is 15 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs three tons. The statue is commonly misidentified as “Lady Forward” or “Miss Forward”, which is the name of another statue on the capitol grounds.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, citizens of Wisconsin were divided over things such as the creation of the United Nations, support for the European recovery, and the growth of the Soviet Union’s power. However, when Europe divided into Communist and capitalist camps and the Communist revolution in China succeeded in 1949, public opinion began to move towards support for the protection of democracy and capitalism against Communist expansion.

Wisconsin took part in several political extremes in the mid to late 20th century, ranging from the anti-communist crusades of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to the radical antiwar protests at UW-Madison that culminated in the Sterling Hall bombing in August 1970. The state became a leader in welfare reform under Republican Governor Tommy Thompson during the 1990s. The state’s economy also underwent further transformations towards the close of the 20th century, as heavy industry and manufacturing declined in favor of a service economy based on medicine, education, agribusiness, and tourism.

In 2011, Wisconsin became the focus of some controversy when newly elected governor Scott Walker proposed and then successfully passed and enacted 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, which made large changes in the areas of collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave of public sector employees, among other changes. A series of major protests by union supporters took place that year in protest to the changes, and Walker survived a recall election held the next year, becoming the first governor in United States history to do so. Walker enacted other bills promoting conservative governance, such as a right-to-work law, abortion restrictions, and legislation removing certain gun controls.

The U.S. Bank Center in Milwaukee is Wisconsin's tallest building.The view of downtown Milwaukee from the construction site near Pieces of Eight on October 16, 2005.
The U.S. Bank Center in Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s tallest building.The view of downtown Milwaukee from the construction site near Pieces of Eight on October 16, 2005.

In 2010, Wisconsin’s gross state product was $248.3 billion, making it 21st among U.S. states. The economy of Wisconsin is driven by manufacturing, agriculture, and health care. The state’s economic output from manufacturing was $48.9 billion in 2008, making it the tenth largest among states in manufacturing gross domestic product. Manufacturing accounts for about 20% of the state’s gross domestic product, a proportion that is third among all states. The per capita personal income was $35,239 in 2008. In March 2017, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.4% (seasonally adjusted).

Wisconsin is a major producer of paper, packaging, and other consumer goods. Major consumer products companies based in the state include SC Johnson & Co., and Diversey, Inc. Wisconsin also ranks first nationwide in the production of paper products; the lower Fox River from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay has 24 paper mills along its 39 miles (63 km) stretch.

A large part of the state’s manufacturing sector includes commercial food processing, including well-known brands such as Oscar Mayer, Tombstone frozen pizza, Johnsonville brats, and Usinger’s sausage. Kraft Foods alone employs over 5,000 people in the state. Milwaukee is a major producer of beer and was formerly headquarters for Miller Brewing Company — the nation’s second-largest brewer — until it merged with Coors Brewing Company. Formerly, Schlitz, Blatz, and Pabst were cornerstone breweries in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin State Quarter features the head of a cow, a round of cheese and an ear of corn (state grain) with a banner bearing the state motto,:
Wisconsin State Quarter features the head of a cow, a round of cheese and an ear of corn (state grain) with a banner bearing the state motto,:”Forward”. It was engraved by Alfred Maletsky with 453,200,000 coins minted, released on October 25, 2004.

Wisconsin produces about a quarter of America’s cheese, leading the nation in cheese production. It is second in milk production, after California, and third in per-capita milk production, behind California and Vermont. Wisconsin is second in butter production, producing about one-quarter of the nation’s butter. The state ranks first nationally in the production of corn for silage, cranberries, ginseng, and snap beans for processing. It grows over half the national crop of cranberries. and 97% of the nation’s ginseng. Wisconsin is also a leading producer of oats, potatoes, carrots, tart cherries, maple syrup, and sweet corn for processing. The significance of the state’s agricultural production is exemplified by the depiction of a Holstein cow, an ear of corn, and a wheel of cheese on Wisconsin’s state quarter design. The state annually selects an “Alice in Dairyland” to promote the state’s agricultural products around the world.

Wisconsin is home to a very large and diversified manufacturing economy, with special focus on transportation and capital equipment. Major Wisconsin companies in these categories include the Kohler Company; Mercury Marine; Rockwell Automation; Johnson Controls; John Deere; Briggs & Stratton; Milwaukee Electric Tool Company; Miller Electric; Caterpillar Inc.; Joy Global; Oshkosh Corporation; Harley-Davidson; Case IH; S. C. Johnson & Son; Ashley Furniture; Ariens; and Evinrude Outboard Motors.

The development and manufacture of health care devices and software is a growing sector of the state’s economy, with key players such as GE Healthcare, Epic Systems, and TomoTherapy.

Wisconsin state welcome sign. Photo taken on September 23, 2007.
Wisconsin state welcome sign. Photo taken on September 23, 2007.

Tourism is a major industry in Wisconsin — the state’s third largest, according to the Department of Tourism. Tourist destinations such as the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Circus World Museum in Baraboo, and The Dells of the Wisconsin River draw thousands of visitors annually, and festivals such as Summerfest and the EAA Oshkosh Airshow draw international attention, along with hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Given the large number of lakes and rivers in the state, water recreation is very popular. In the North Country, what had been an industrial area focused on timber has largely been transformed into a vacation destination. Popular interest in the environment and environmentalism, added to traditional interests in hunting and fishing, has attracted a large urban audience within driving range.

The distinctive Door Peninsula, which extends off the eastern coast of the state, contains one of the state’s tourist destinations, Door County. Door County is a popular destination for boaters because of the large number of natural harbors, bays, and ports on the Green Bay and Lake Michigan side of the peninsula that forms the county. The area draws hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly to its quaint villages, seasonal cherry picking, and fish boils.

The 100th anniversary of Wisconsin statehood was commemorated by a 3-cent dark violet stamp issued on May 29, 1948 (Scott #957). The design pictures the State Capitol to the right of a scroll showing an outline map of the state and the words WISCONSIN CENTENNIAL 1848-1948. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 115,250,000 copies of the stamp using the Rotary press, perforated 11 x 10½.

Flag of Wisconsin

Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin

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