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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison -- "Not Fit for Any Civilized Nation"


The first visitor to leave a written account of the isthmus that would become Madison was Ebenezer Brigham, who crossed it in May of 1829 while returning from Portage to Blue Mounds. He later told an acquaintance that "The site was at the time an open prairie, on which grew dwarf oaks, while thickets covered the lower grounds." Struck with the strange beauty of the place, he predicted that "a village or city would in time grow up there, and it might be the capital of a State."

Jefferson Davis in Madison

Oddly enough, a few weeks later Jefferson Davis, who would lead the Confederacy during the Civil War, camped in the same place. Davis recalled in 1885 that, "While on detached service in the summer of 1829, I think I encamped one night about the site of Madison. The nearest Indian village was on the opposite side of the lake... I and the file of soldiers who accompanied me were the first white men who ever passed over the country between the Portage... and the then village of Chicago. Fish and waterfowl were abundant; deer and pheasants less plentiful. The Indians subsisted largely on Indian corn and wild rice."

"Not Fit for Any Civilized Nation"

Madison's potential was not obvious to every early visitor. To the soldiers chasing Black Hawk in the summer of 1832, the future capital seemed unimpressive: "If these lakes were anywhere else except in the country they are," wrote one of them just after the war, "they would be considered among the wonders of the world. But the country they are situated in, is not fit for any civilized nation of people to inhabit."

Before the First Settlers

Nevertheless, in Sept. 1832, the U.S. government took over all the lands southeast of the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers, including the site of Madison, from the Ho-Chunk in a treaty signed at Rock Island. On December 4, 1834, U.S. government surveyor Orson Lyon began to run the township and section lines for Madison. His field notes and the plat maps drawn from them (which you can see here) are the most detailed record of what Madison looked like before settlers arrived. Lyon found the future downtown "second rate [for farming, with] black, white & burr oak, red root grass & marsh, flags etc."

[Sources of quotations: Daniel Durrie's History of Madison published in 1874, and Wisconsin Historical Collections, volume 10]


:: Posted in Madison on August 11, 2013
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