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Odd Wisconsin Archive

How Madison Became the Capital

On July 4, 1836, Wisconsin Territory was born. President Andrew Jackson appointed Henry Dodge as governor, with responsibility to conduct a census, hold elections, and convene a territorial legislature.

Dodge acted quickly. The census was taken in August and found 11,683 non-Indian residents between Lake Michigan and the Dakotas. Elections were held October 10 to choose delegates for a territorial convention. That meeting opened October 25, 1836, in a chilly wood-frame building at Belmont, a crossroads hamlet thrown together in the Lead Region to host the meeting. The most important agenda item was choosing a capital.

Before the meeting Doty, who had visited the Four Lakes in 1832, purchased with two partners the 1,200 acres where downtown Madison now stands, for $2,400. On the way to Belmont that fall, he brought along a surveyor, J. V. Suydam, to measure off and sketch out a hypothetical city. If the territorial delegates chose it for the capital, Doty and his partners would earn a windfall by selling town lots to settlers and speculators. Sudyam left this account of their stay on the isthmus in October, 1836:

"After about eight days from the time of leaving home, we reached what was then called 'Four Lakes.' We came by the trail that led around by the north side and west end of Fourth Lake [Mendota], and found near what might be called the northwest corner, and perhaps two miles from where the University buildings now stand, a small log house, occupied by a man whose name I have forgotten [Michel St. Cyr], who entertained our horses and ourselves nights, and assisted us day times in making such meanders and surveys of the shores of the Third and Fourth Lakes, and other points, as were necessary for making the plat of the future city. This took us, I think, three days. The precise time in which the survey and original plat of the city were made, was during the second and third weeks of October, while the Legislature was in session at Belmont.

"While standing at the section corner, on that beautiful spot between the Lakes, then the central point of a wilderness, with no civilization nearer than Fort Winnebago on the north, and Blue Mounds on the west, and but very little there; and over which now stands the principal entrance to one of the finest capitol structures in the west, I have no doubt Gov. Doty saw in his far-reaching mind, just what we now see actually accomplished, a splendid city surrounding the capitol of Wisconsin at Four Lakes, as he remarked to me then, that I need not be surprised to learn that the seat of government of Wisconsin was located on that spot before the Legislature had adjourned. And sure enough, it so happened.

"We went directly to Belmont, where the Legislature was in session. On arriving there, I immediately set about drawing the plat of Madison, the Governor, in the mean time, giving me minute directions as to its whole plan, every item of which having originated with him while on the ground as being the most suitable, and best calculated, to develop the peculiar topography of the place."

You can see that very map right here. Click anywhere on the map to zoom in for a closer look.

Doty and Suydam reached Belmont near the end of October, where Henry Baird had written home that "The all absorbing question of the location of the seat of Government has not yet, of course, been stirred, and it appears to be the general wish to let it rest in peace until near the close of the session..." Moses Strong, another delegate, recalled that "nearly four weeks were spent in skirmishing outside the Legislative Halls" over the issue.

Some argued for putting it near a center of population, such as in the Lead Region or at Green Bay. Boosters of tiny sites such as Milwaukee, which at the time consisted of a single log cabin -- one more than Madison possessed, however -- lobbied on the basis of future prospects. Others argued for a central location which, since half the population of the new territory lived in modern Iowa and Minnesota, implied a capital on the Mississippi River. Doty used every means at his disposal to get delegates to select Madison, and as the only person who had actually visited most of the proposed sites, his word carried some weight.

He was also adept at other means of persuasion. "There probably never was a Legislature met at any place with poorer accommodations than this Legislature had at Belmont," recalled Iowa politician Hawkins Taylor. Many members were sleeping on frigid bare floors in the hastily constructed village. "Doty supplied himself with a full stock of buffalo robes, and went around camping with the members, and making them as comfortable as he could, until he organized a sufficient vote in the Legislature to make Maidson the permanent capital..." And according to Moses Strong, "Madison town lots in large numbers were freely distributed among members, their friends, and others who were supposed to possess influence with them."

When the question came up for discussion on November 21st in the Council (equivalent to today's Senate), the debate raged for two days. On the 23rd, a draft bill naming Madison the seat of government was introduced for vote and "a spirited attack was made upon it, and motions to strike out Madison and insert some other place were successively made in favor of Fond du Lac, Dubuque, Portage, Helena, Milwaukee, Racine, Belmont, Mineral Point, Platteville, Green Bay, Cassville, Belleview, Koshkonong, Wisconsinapolis, Peru and Wisconsin City."

Nineteen votes were taken, "but all with one uniform result: ayes 6, noes 7; and the bill was by the same vote ordered engrossed, and the next day passed the Council. In the House of Representatives the opposition was not so formidable, and on the 28th, the bill was ordered to a third reading by a vote of 16 to 10 and passed the same day, 15 to 11, thus ending one of the most exciting struggles ever witnessed in the Territory of Wisconsin."

In the months that followed, the capitol grounds were established atop Madison's highest hill, major streets were laid out, buildings were erected, and speculators as far away as New York and Washington bought lots. Doty and his two partners ultimately brought in $35,510 on their investment of $2,400.

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on March 28, 2006

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