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Wisconsin History:
A Historical Review From Native Americans Through WWII

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 2

Historical Review 1.7   

Americanization of Wisconsin

          A number of factors stimulated the settlement of Wisconsin. During the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Wisconsin transformed from a frontier to a civilization. American interest in settling in Wisconsin was stimulated with the publishing of Travels through the Interior Posts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. This book, written by Jonathan Carver, a New England soldier, explorer, and mapmaker, became a best settler in America and England. His emphasis on the beauty of the land and the fertile soil brought interest in Wisconsin that went beyond fur trading. Although American settlement did not begin until after the War of 1812, Carter's descriptions opened the eyes of settlers looking for new land. Descriptions, such as the passage that follows, made Wisconsin seem very desirable.

     The land adjacent from the lake (Winnebago) is very fertile, abounding with grapes, plums, and other fruits, which grow spontaneously. The Winnebagoes raise on it a great quantity of Indian corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and water melons, with some tobacco. The Lake itself abounds with fish, and in the fall of the year, with geese, ducks, and teal. The later, which resort to it in great numbers, are remarkably good and extremely fat, and are much better flavoured than those that are found near the sea, as they acquire their excessive fatness by feeding on the wild rice, which grow so plentifully in these parts. (6)

          Substantial settlement began with the discovery of lead in southwestern Wisconsin. Lead was used in paint and shot (for guns), creating a huge demand in the 1820s. The Wisconsin lead mines drew laborers from the southern states, mainly Kentucky and Tennessee. The population boom in the lead region increased the number of settlers from 200 in 1825 to 4,000 in 1826.(7) The next population boom occurred near Milwaukee. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided transportation for those wanting to settle in the Great Lakes region, especially farmers. During this time, waterways dictated Mid-Western settlement patterns. All of the major towns were settled near water, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Chicago. The lead regions of the south and the farming regions further north brought the settlement of many professionals, including lawyers, doctors, and teachers who helped the social, educational, and political progress of the state.

          As the settlement of the state continued, the nature of industry would change. With the emergence of railroads in the mid-Nineteenth century, farming emerged from subsistence into cash crop. Wheat growers depended on transportation to reach larger markets. Advances in equipment made farming a very expensive undertaking, limiting it to businesses with capital rather than individuals. The wooded areas of northern Wisconsin fueled a lumber industry that was in high demand due to the increased settlement. Mining continued to be an important industry after statehood, but it too transformed into big business after the mechanization of many mining techniques. Mining in the south, lumber in the north, and farming in-between supported the new state throughout the 19th century.

 Table 2: Transformation to the State of Wisconsin
Indiana Terrotory
Illinois Terrotory
Michigan Territory
Wisconsin Territory
State of Wisconsin

          The government in territorial Wisconsin and during early statehood was one of corruption and disorganization. Business in the state was brought down because of the lack of trust in western bank notes and the lack of credit for internal projects. Settlers hoped that statehood would help stimulate the economy, but they would be disappointed. The corruption in the government during the territorial period continued into statehood. In 1853, there was an attempt to impeach Circuit Court Justice Levi Hubbell on account of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. The Governor, William A. Barstow, was charged with school fraud and catering to big business and land speculators. The corruption was so severe that his administration became known as the "Forty Thieves."(8) He would later be cleared of all charges, thus paving the way for further corruption and damage to the state's credibility. The Panic of 1857 and the depression that followed became the economic and political low point of Wisconsin's early statehood. The panic bankrupted the railroads, severely hindering an already struggling economy. Many farmers would feel the affects of this as they lost transportation for their crops and because many held stock in the railroad companies. Only 900 miles of track were laid in Wisconsin by 1860.(9) The social construct of the state was also in peril, especially the schools. Teachers were scarce and schoolhouses were crowded. Those who could afford it sent their children away to private schools. The poor economic, political, and social situation of Wisconsin would not be completely remedied until the end of the Civil War.

Abolition and the Civil War in Wisconsin

          The abolition failed to acquire a substantial following in the state of Wisconsin. Most of Wisconsin's residents were not involved in the slavery issue at all. Those who did become abolitionists were usually from New York or New England, or took part in the general moral reform movement that had stemmed from the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept the United States during the first four decades of the 19th century. This revival was felt especially strong on the frontier, and was responsible for bringing increased church organization to Wisconsin in the 1830s and 1840s. From this heightened morality came the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement. The first temperance society in Wisconsin was formed in Green Bay in 1832.(10) More temperance societies would spring up throughout the state over the next decade. The morality ingrained in the participants of the temperance movement branched out to the issue of slavery during the 1840s and 1850s. Many Wisconsinites believed that holding slaves was morally wrong and many felt sympathy for fugitive slaves. The first anti-slavery society in Wisconsin was formed in 1842. This society joined with the Wisconsin branch of the Liberty Party to create the Wisconsin Liberty Party Association in 1846. An abolitionist newspaper, the American Freeman, was created in Waukesha, serving as an outlet for abolitionist thought. The newspaper's editor, Sherman Booth, was arrested for aiding the escape of the fugitive slave, Joshua Glover. The legal battle that ensued led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law on grounds of state's rights.

          The outbreak of the Civil War greatly affected the State of Wisconsin. With the war came stronger economic ties with the east, as Milwaukee would become an important manufacturing and trade center. Agriculture and lumber industries found new business opportunities brought on by the demand for war goods. The Mississippi River and the Great Lakes became major transportation centers, employing many Wisconsin sailors. New industries sprang up during this time, such as meatpacking and cheese making. The state's government being predominantly Republican supported the Union. The majority of citizens in the state were also pro-Union, but their reasons differed. Most wanted to stop the Southern secession in order to preserve the union, others wanted the war to end slavery. There was some dissent among Wisconsin citizens during the war. A group of German immigrants held draft protests in 1862, but these were mild in comparison to the Draft Riots of New York. A small minority of Copperheads, or peace Democrats, opposed the war, but for the most part, Wisconsinites strongly supported the war effort. Once the war began, then governor, Alexander Randall, immediately offered resources and soldiers to the federal government. Wisconsin's soldiers trained at camps in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine, and at Camp Randall in Madison. Wisconsin's most infamous fighting unit was the Iron Brigade, which was composed of the 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin Volunteers, the 19th Indiana regiment, and the 24th Michigan regiment. The Iron Brigade fought in the Battle of the Potomac, Gainesville, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Some of Wisconsin's regiments were organized by ethnic group, such as the German 9th, 26th, 27th, and 45th regiments. There were also all Norwegian and an all-Irish regiments.(11) Over 91,000 Wisconsin men fought and over 12,000 died during the Civil War. (12)

Wisconsin's Population

          During the Nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Wisconsin expanded from a frontier territory into a fully functioning state, due mainly to increased migration and immigration. Under French and British control, the white population of Wisconsin was limited to a few fur traders. The first significant migration to the area came with the discovery of lead in the southwestern part of the state. This discovery brought many miners from the south. Settlement continued in the 1850s along the coast of the Great Lakes from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien. The majority of American-born settlers came from New England and New York. These Yankees brought many assets to Wisconsin, including a strong Protestant work ethic, money, and education. Many of Wisconsin's early doctors, lawyers, politicians, and surveyors were Yankees. The 1860s and 1870s saw increased European immigration that further populated the state. Settlers moved in a V-shaped pattern along both sides of the state, populating the northern upland last, near the turn of the century.(13)

 Table 3: Wisconsin's Population, 1850(14)
Place of Origin
Population in Wisconsin
 American Born Settlers
 English-Speaking Immigrants
 Non-English-Speaking Immigrants
     French Canadian
Grand Total

          European immigration played a major role in Wisconsin settlement. Wisconsin gained settlers from all over Europe, but the majority would come from northern Europe and Germany. Among the northern European immigrants were those from Great Britain. English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants accounted for a significant percentage of Wisconsin's immigrants. The first English immigrants to arrive in Wisconsin came from the peninsula of Cornwall. These Cornish immigrants brought with them mining skills acquired back home, putting them to use in the lead regions of Wisconsin during the 1830s and 1840s. They would dominate these lead mines until mining opportunities elsewhere, such as the California Gold Rush, drew them away. British immigrants from other parts of England began arriving in Wisconsin during the 1840s in search of better jobs and farmland. They usually settled amongst the Yankees and assimilated themselves into society rather quickly. Irish immigration to Wisconsin was both direct and indirect. Some Irish came directly to Wisconsin from Ireland in flight of the potato famine of the 1840s. Others arrived indirectly from Canada or the east coast. The majority of these Irish immigrants were Catholic, but a minor constituency of Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland also arrived. By 1860, Irish made up eight percent of the workforce and were employed as farmers, day laborers, teamsters, canal workers, and railroad workers.(15) Welsh and Scottish immigrants were few in comparison to the English and the Irish. Many Scottish came to Wisconsin via New York and settled amongst the Yankees and the British immigrants. Welsh immigrants began arriving during the 1840s. This group tended to settle together in their own communities. The first Welsh enclaves developed in Waukesha County. Others were formed in Columbia, Iowa, Racine, and Winnebago Counties.

            Germans accounted for the majority of European immigration to Wisconsin. They began to arrive in large numbers during the 1840s as well. There were a number of reasons for the Germans' exodus, including overpopulation, loss of land, crop failures, and industrial displacement. Some wanted to avoid the military draft, while others sought religious freedom. The failed Revolutions of 1848 prompted some to leave for political reasons. Wisconsin provided a perfect landscape for the German immigrant; fertile land attracted the displaced farmer and the industrial city of Milwaukee attracted the factory workers. At this time, Germany was not yet a country; the area remained a conglomerate of kingdoms until 1871. German immigrants bonded together and formed a cohesive ethnic identity in Wisconsin through numerous social clubs, schools, churches, and benevolent societies.

           The Scandinavian and other northern European countries also provided Wisconsin with a large number of immigrants. Immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland were all represented in Wisconsin during the 19th century. Norway provided the largest number of immigrants of all Scandinavian countries. Wisconsin was a major destination point for many Norwegians; out of the 44,000 that had arrived in America by 1860, nearly half settled in Wisconsin.(16) They settled very cohesively, usually with people from the same town or parish. The first Norwegian immigrants settled in Wisconsin in 1838, and by 1850 there were large settlements in Jefferson Prairie, Rock Prairie, Muskego, and Koshkonog. By 1870, one-quarter of Wisconsin's Norwegians lived in an area that spanned from Crawford County north to Barron County. There was also a significant Swedish presence in Wisconsin. The Swedish immigrant Gustav Unonius founded the town of New Uppsala in Waukesha County in 1841. Small numbers of Swedes arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. This group usually settled among the Norwegians in Koshkonog. The most prevalent wave of Swedish immigration began in the 1860s as crop failures and overpopulation forced many Swedish farmers to look for land elsewhere. By the time these settlers arrived in Wisconsin, much of the state's good farmland had already been claimed, forcing the Swedes to settle on the cutover (from logging) regions of the north. Finnish immigrants wouldn't arrive in Wisconsin until the 1880s, and like the Swedes, they settled in the north. By 1910, Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, and Price Counties contained two-thirds of Wisconsin's Finnish immigrants.(17) Many found work in the iron mines of the Gogebic Range or in the stone quarries of Marionette and Waushara Counties. Danish and Icelanders also settled in Wisconsin. Racine became the central destination for Danish immigrants arriving in America after the Civil War. By 1900, Wisconsin had over 33,000 people of Danish heritage.(18) Icelanders began to arrive in the state during the 1870s. Many settled among Danes on Washington Island. Washington Island is the oldest known Icelandic settlement in the United States.

           The mass immigration of people from southern Europe did not affect Wisconsin as dramatically as did immigration from northern Europe, but none-the-less a representation of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe could be seen here. Small numbers of Poles, Italians, Czechs, and Swiss came to the state during the late 19th century. Poland, which was separated between the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires during the 19th century, provided a wave of immigrants during the 1870s and 1880s. Most were from the German-controlled region of the empire. These immigrants settled mainly in Milwaukee County, and were active in forming churches, clubs, and newspapers. Significant numbers of Italians began arriving in Wisconsin during the 1890s. Most of the Italians arrived to take jobs in the mines of the southeast and the north. Italian immigration to Wisconsin was usually indirect; the majority lived in Chicago before migrating to Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, Italian enclaves developed in Milwaukee's 3rd Ward, Racine, Kenosha, and Madison's Greenbush neighborhood. Czechs and Swiss were also representatives of eastern European immigration to Wisconsin. Czechs settled along Lake Michigan from Racine to Kewaunee and founded the towns of Pilsen and Krok.(19) Many Swiss immigrants arrived before 1870 and settled in Green County. The area became the largest center of Swiss farming in America and was known as "Swissconsin." Foreign immigration combined with domestic migration helped to extend the progress of the state during the 19th century.

Wisconsin's Gilded Age

           The late 19th century is known as the Gilded Age in American history. Gilded, which literally translates to "covered in gold," describes the emergence of wealth due to the rise of big business. The Gilded Age, taking place after the Civil War, is known as a peaceful and lucrative time in American history. This is only partly true. While large corporations made huge sums of money by monopolizing their industry, others suffered. Backlash to the politics and monopolization of big business was witnessed through the emergence of the Granger movement and labor unions. Frustrated citizens prompted action, leading to the progressive movement of the early 20th century.

           In Wisconsin, big business was represented by the lumber and railroad industries. Lumber became the biggest industry in the state due to the demands of settlers. The major timber areas were found near Green Bay and around the Wolf, Wisconsin, Black, Chippewa, and St. Croix Rivers. Railroads played a crucial role in the growth of the lumber business. Transportation provided by the railroads enabled lumber businesses to reach distant and larger markets. Timber also gave birth to related industries in Wisconsin, including the production of doors, blinds, furniture, caskets, wagons, and paper. By 1905, Wisconsin ranked fifth in the nation for paper production.(20) The lumber industry continued to grow during the Gilded Age until peaking in 1892. It then began a slow decline as the industry moved to the Pacific Northwest, but it remained a vital element of Wisconsin's economy well into the 20th century.

           Another major industry that emerged during Wisconsin's Gilded Age was the production of cheese. The agricultural shift to dairying led to an increased production of cheese. The first cheese factory in Wisconsin opened in 1872. Shortly after, a group of dairymen organized the Wisconsin Dairymen's Association. This group came together to improve cheese production technology, science, and advertising. In order to compete with the cheese industry of New York, they shipped their cheese in refrigerated railroad cars. By 1890, more than 1,000 cheese factories produced 53,708,595 pounds of cheese worth over $4 million.(21)

           Reaction to the corrupt practices of big business came from the Farmers' Alliance and Granger movements, as well as from the labor movement. High railroad prices brought farmers together in protest during the 1870s. From this agitation, the first "Granger law" was passed in 1873. This law, called the Potter Law, restricted the power of the railroad. It proved to be too restricting and would be replaced by the Vance Act two years later. Although the Granger movement was successful in passing a law, Wisconsin farmers did not become as involved in the movement as farmers in other agricultural states. Instead, they moved from wheat farming to dairying, which proved to be much more lucrative. Although not an aggressively strong movement, the Granger law did set a precedent for the government involvement in business affairs, which became important in the reform movement of the Progressive Age. Labor unions also challenged the domination of big business. Unions became especially strong in the cities. By the 1880s, all types of laborers belonged to unions. One of the largest labor unions, the Knights of Labor, peaked at 16,000 Wisconsin members.(22) One of the unions' major concerns was for the eight-hour workday. The government was not receptive to union tactics or demands, which became apparent when eight people were killed during a strike at the Bay View Iron Works in 1886. However, unionism remained a force well into the 20th century, aiding the state and country into a period of reform.

(6)Jonathan Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766,1767, and 1768, (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, Inc., 1956), 37-38.
(7) Larry Garra, A Short History of Wisconsin, (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962), 39.
(8)Garra, 79.
(9)Garra, 81.
(10) "Abolition and Other Reforms," Turning Points of Wisconsin History,
< www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-021/?action=more_essay>
(11)Garra, 110.
(12)The Wisconsin Cartographers Guild, Wisconsin's Past and Present, A Historical Atlas, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 86.
(13) La Vern J. Rippley, The Immigrant Experience in Wisconsin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985), 9.
(14) Ingolf Vogeler, Wisconsin, A Geography, (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1986), 65.
(15) Wisconsin's Past and Present, 17.
(16) Wisconsin's Past and Present, 20.
(17) Wisconsin's Past and Present, 20.
(18) Wisconsin's Past and Present, 20.
(19) Wisconsin's Past and Present, 23.
(20) Garra, 144.
(21) Garra,151.
(22) Garra, 161.
By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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