First Capitol Historic Site (Wisconsin)

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First Capitol
LocationN of Belmont off U.S. 151
Nearest cityBelmont, Wisconsin
Coordinates42°46′12″N 90°21′39″W / 42.770124°N 90.360746°W / 42.770124; -90.360746Coordinates: 42°46′12″N 90°21′39″W / 42.770124°N 90.360746°W / 42.770124; -90.360746
NRHP Reference #70000036
Added to NRHPApril 28, 1970
 
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First Capitol
LocationN of Belmont off U.S. 151
Nearest cityBelmont, Wisconsin
Coordinates42°46′12″N 90°21′39″W / 42.770124°N 90.360746°W / 42.770124; -90.360746Coordinates: 42°46′12″N 90°21′39″W / 42.770124°N 90.360746°W / 42.770124; -90.360746
NRHP Reference #70000036
Added to NRHPApril 28, 1970

First Capitol Historic Site is a free admission historic museum located outside Belmont, Wisconsin. The museum includes two of the buildings first used by territorial legislators to meet in Wisconsin Territory. Currently owned and operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Territorial capital[edit]

After Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836, early leaders in the territory needed a place to meet and establish the territorial government. Seeing this need, several local land speculators and site promoters tried to prepare sites which could be chosen as the territorial capital, hoping to become wealthy if the capitol was built in their city. One such speculator was John Atchison, who established the village of Belmont, Wisconsin and had four public buildings built there to attract the lawmakers to his site. These wooden buildings, which were constructed outside of Wisconsin and transported to Belmont for final assembly, included a lodging house for the legislators, a house for the territorial governor, a courthouse, and a council house for lawmakers to convene. On September 9, 1836, territorial Governor Henry Dodge announced that Belmont would be used as the territorial capital, at least for the first legislative session, making Atchison's council house the first capitol. The reason for Dodge's selection of Belmont as capital city was likely because of its location in Wisconsin's lead mining region, which at that time was the territory's most populous area. However, the selection was controversial, and some contend that Dodge had other motives for the selection based upon his earlier associations with Atchison.

The first session of Wisconsin's territorial legislature began on October 25, 1836. Soon after the session convened, Governor Dodge gave a speech describing the purpose of the session: to establish a system of government for the territory and make a final selection for the territorial capitol. Perhaps because of the controversy over his choice of Belmont, Dodge announced that he would approve any site the legislature voted to become the permanent capital, even though he had the legal power to veto all territorial legislation. Most lawmakers were opposed to the idea of continuing to use the capitol at Belmont, for the lodging house was small and crowded, and none of the buildings had heat or water. After much debate, the new city of Madison, Wisconsin was chosen as the territorial capital.

While legislators were not debating the future site of the capital, they established the territorial government. In all, forty two acts were approved by the legislature before it adjourned on December 9, 1836. These acts organized Wisconsin government, created a judicial system, and established several new counties in the territory. The legislature would not meet again in Belmont, preferring to meet at a temporary location in Burlington until the new capitol at Madison was completed. Later, in 1838, Burlington became a part of Iowa Territory, forcing the legislature to move to Madison earlier than anticipated.

Later Use[edit]

1903 illustration of Capitol Building

The isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona was developed into the city of Madison. Many of the settlers who had rushed to Belmont when it had been made territorial capital were now leaving for Madison. Still, the village survived, although the route taken by the Mineral Point Railroad prompted most of its residents to relocate three miles to the southeast of the original town in 1867, meaning that the first capitol is now three miles northwest of Belmont.

After being vacated by territorial officials, the capitol building and accompanying structures were used as private residences and barns until the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs initiated a restoration project in 1910, completing a restoration of the original council house in 1924. Later, the lodging house, which had been moved and used as the home of territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Dunn, was returned to its original site and underwent restoration in 1956. Together, these two structures created First Capitol Historic Site. The site was operated initially by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 1994, it was transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which is now responsible for the museum's operations.

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