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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Sawyer, Philetus 1816 - 1900


lumberman, politician, Congressman, U.S. Senator, b. Rutland County, Vt. He moved with his parents to Essex County, N.Y. (1817), where he attended rural schools, worked as a woodsman and sawmill hand, and for a time operated a lumbermill. In 1847 he moved to Wisconsin, farming for two years in Rosendale township, and in 1849 settled in Algoma (soon incorporated as the city of Oshkosh), where he entered the lumber business. With the increasing demand for lumber, Oshkosh (known for a time as the "Sawdust City") and her sister cities on the Lake Winnebago-Fox River waterway soon became the center of early lumbermilling and commerce. Under these conditions, Sawyer amassed a fortune, which during the Civil War became even larger as his industry evolved from the sawmill and rough-hewn lumber stage to planing mill and finished woodwork. As president of the Sawyer Goodman Co. after 1880, Sawyer also directed a widespread lumber business, with yards in Chicago and pinelands and mills in the Menominee Valley. He was a successful speculator in Wolf and Chippewa valley timberlands, and had heavy investments in Wisconsin banking and railroad enterprises. A large portion of Sawyer's fortune was utilized to foster his political ambitions. Originally a Free Soil Democrat, Sawyer soon joined the Republican party. He was state assemblyman (1857, 1861), mayor of Oshkosh, and in 1864 was elected to Congress, was three times re-elected, and served from Mar., 1865, to Mar., 1875. Sawyer was not a candidate for renomination to Congress in 1874, but in 1881 was chosen as U.S. Senator by the Wisconsin legislature, was re-elected by the legislature in 1887, and served from Mar., 1881, to Mar., 1893. Known as a Stalwart or conservative Republican, Sawyer was for a time one of the most important politicians in the state and nation. In Congress he gained a reputation as being the "foremost logroller" of his time through his handling of river and harbor appropriation bills, and in the Senate became a champion of railroad and lumber interests. With John C. Spooner (q.v.) and Henry C. Payne (q.v.), Sawyer was one of a "triumvirate" that virtually dominated the Republican party in Wisconsin during the 1880's and 1890's. In 1891 as bondsman for two of the defendants in the Wisconsin treasury cases, Sawyer offered money to Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (q.v.), brother-in-law of the judge scheduled to try the cases; La Follette denounced the offer as an intended bribe, while Sawyer maintained that his offer had been made only in the hope of obtaining La Follette's legal services. On this issue the state Republican party split, and, after leaving the Senate in 1893, Sawyer spent his last years fighting the ensuing revolt of the La Follette, or Progressive, faction of the Republican party which gained control shortly after his death. Known as the "grand old man" of Oshkosh, Sawyer performed various local philanthropic acts, many of them anonymous, and was a trustee and generous benefactor of Lawrence College. Dict. Amer. Biog; Biog. Dir. Amer. Cong. (1928); R. N. Current, Pine Logs and Politics (Madison, 1950).

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Philetus Sawyer Miscellany for details.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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