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The history of Wisconsin encompasses the story not only of the people who have lived in Wisconsin since it became a state of the U.S., but also that of the Native American tribes who made their homeland in Wisconsin, the French and British colonists who were the first Europeans to live there, and the American settlers who lived in Wisconsin when it was a territory. Since its admission to the Union on May 29, 1848 as 30th state, Wisconsin has been ethnically heterogeneous, with Yankees being among the first to arrive from New York and New England. They dominated the state's heavy industry, finance, politics and education. Large numbers of European immigrants followed them, including German Americans, mostly between 1850 and 1900, Scandinavians (the largest group being Norwegian Americans) and smaller groups of Belgian Americans, Dutch Americans, Swiss Americans, Finnish Americans, Irish Americans and others; in the 20th century, large numbers of Polish Americans and African Americans came, settling mainly in Milwaukee. Politically the state was predominantly Republican until recent years, when it became more evenly balanced. The state took a national leadership role in the Progressive Movement, under the aegis of Robert M. La Follette, Sr. and his family, who fought the old guard bitterly at the state and national levels. The "Wisconsin Idea" called for the use of the higher learning in modernizing government, and the state is notable for its strong network of state universities.
The first known inhabitants of what is now Wisconsin were called Paleo-Indians, who first arrived in the region in about 10,000 BC. They hunted animals such as mammoths and mastodons. The Boaz mastodon, and the Clovis artifacts discovered in Boaz, Wisconsin, show that hunting was a primary occupation for these people. The Plano cultures began to dominate Wisconsin around 7000 BC, as the last glaciers retreated from the state. During the Archaic stage, from 6000 – 1000 BC, Wisconsin was inhabited by the Boreal Archaic and the Old Copper Indians. People during this time lived in small groups or bands, and continued to depend on hunting and gathering for their existence.
By the time of the early Woodland period that began around 500 BC, farming began to replace hunting and gathering as a means of supplying food. This allowed for the creation of permanent settlements. With permanent settlement came more advanced art and pottery. The first Indian mounds were built during this period, mainly for burial purposes. As the Hopewell culture emerged in around 100 BC, farming, art, and mound building were significantly advanced. The late Woodland period began in about 600 AD. The Effigy mound culture dominated Wisconsin during this time, and built sophisticated mounds in the shapes of animals for ceremonial reasons. The Mississippian culture began to expand into Wisconsin in 1050 AD, and established a settlement at Aztalan, Wisconsin. The Mississippian culture was replaced by the Oneota people in around 1200 AD. This culture eventually evolved into the Siouan tribes known to European explorers. When the first Europeans reached Wisconsin, the primary inhabitants were the Ojibwa, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox.
The first known European to enter Wisconsin was a French coureur des bois Jean Nicolet. In 1634, Samuel de Champlain, governor of New France, gave Nicolet the task of searching for a water route to China through North America. Accompanied by seven Huron Indian guides, Nicolet left New France and canoed through Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and then became the first European to enter Lake Michigan. Nicolet proceeded to row into Green Bay and came ashore near the present-day city of Green Bay, Wisconsin. When Nicolet reached land, he was greeted by several Ho-Chunk living in the area. Nicolet remained with the Ho-Chunk at Green Bay through the winter and established a trading post there.
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.
French colonists were interested primarily in the fur trade, and established only a few small outposts. The first, at Green Bay, was called simply “La Baye” by the French, and was started with Nicolet’s original trading post in 1634. A Jesuit mission was established at Green Bay in 1671, and a fort was built at the settlement in 1717.
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.
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. Settlement began at Prairie du Chien around 1781.
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 same site as Fort Shelby. Fort Howard was also built in 1816 in Green Bay.
|Map of Black Hawk War sites|
Battle (with name) Fort / settlement Native village
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The Winnebago War started when, in 1826, two Winnebago men were detained at Fort Crawford on the 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.
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 warchiefs 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 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. 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. 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".
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.
Wyman calls Wisconsin a "palimpsest" of layer upon layer of peoples and forces, each imprinting permanent influences. He identified these layers as multiple "frontiers" over three centuries: Native American frontier, French frontier, English frontier, fur-trade frontier, mining frontier, and the logging frontier. Finally the coming of the railroad brought the end of the frontier.
The historian of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner grew up in Wisconsin during its last frontier stage, and in his travels around the state he could see the layers of social and political development. One of Turner's last students, Merle Curti used in-depth analysis of local history in Trempeleau County to test Turner's thesis about democracy. Turner's view was that American democracy, "involved widespread participation in the making of decisions affecting the common life, the development of initiative and self-reliance, and equality of economic and cultural opportunity. It thus also involved Americanization of immigrant." Curti found that from 1840 to 1860 in Wisconsin the poorest groups gained rapidly in land ownership, and often rose to political leadership at the local level. He found that even landless young farm workers were soon able to obtain their own farms. Free land on the frontier therefore created opportunity and democracy, for both European immigrants as well as old stock Yankees.
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. 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.
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.
Nelson Dewey, the first governor of Wisconsin, was a Democrat. 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.
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. 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 5000 people led by Milwaukee abolitionist Sherman Booth sprung Glover from jail and helped him escape to Canada via the underground railroad.
In the 1850s, two-thirds of immigrants to Wisconsin came from the eastern United States, the other one-third being foreign-born. The majority were German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin because of similarities between Germany's and Wisconsin's climate and environment. Many Irish and Norwegian immigrants also came to Wisconsin in the 1850s. Northern Europeans, many of whom were persecuted in their home countries because of their support for the failed bourgeois Revolutions of 1848, often chose Wisconsin because of the liberal constitution of human rights such as the state's unusual recognition of immigrants' right to vote and rights to citizenship.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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 (see: http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/milwaukee.shtml). 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.
Agriculture was not viable in the densely forested northern and central parts of Wisconsin. Settlers came to this region for logging. The timber industry first set up along the Wisconsin River. Rivers were used to transport lumber from where the wood was being cut, to the sawmills. 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. 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 Manitowac 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. Later a growing paper industry in the Fox River Valley made use of wood pulp from the state’s lumber industry.
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.
From the 1870s to the 1890s, much of the logging in Wisconsin was done by immigrants from Scandinavia.
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.