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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Dewey, Nelson 1813 - 1889


first governor of Wisconsin, lawyer, land speculator, b. Lebanon, Conn. He graduated from Hamilton Academy, N.Y., and studied law in Louisville and Cooperstown law offices. In 1836 he came to Cassville and served as clerk for a New York firm of speculators promoting Cassville as the territorial capital. He was elected Grant County registrar of deeds (1837), was appointed district attorney (1838), and served in both the territorial assembly (1838-1842) and council (1842-1846). Defeated for re-election by the rise of the Whigs, he turned to law and speculation, acquiring considerable lead-mining property. Admitted to the Grant County bar in 1838, he later practiced law in partnership with J. Allen Barber (q.v.) at Lancaster (1840-1848). The Democratic convention of 1848, deadlocked between eastern and lead-region factions, chose Dewey as its compromise candidate for governor. He defeated the Whig candidate, John H. Tweedy (q.v.), and served as governor until Jan. 5, 1852, his administration being largely devoted to setting the machinery of government in motion. He continued to be active in the Democratic party throughout his life, was elected to the state senate (1853), was a delegate to numerous state Democratic conventions and to the national convention in 1888, and held several local offices. He was a university regent (1854-1865) and on the board of directors of the state prison (1874-1881). In 1854 he purchased the Cassville development, which had been in bankruptcy since 1837, completed the huge hotel, the Dennison House, adjusted the tangled land titles, and built an imposing home. But the investment was unprofitable, not many settlers came, and his home burned. His fortune gone, and politically impotent, he returned to the law. Madison Wis. State journal, July 22, 1889; Proc. State Hist. Soc. Wis., 1890 (1891); WPA MS; N. Dewey Papers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Nelson Dewey Papers for details.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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