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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Midwinter Survey Party


The southern half of Wisconsin is getting another dose of snow this morning and forecasters are predicting frigid temperatures next week. Still, this is nothing compared to conditions that met the surveyors who laid out the state's capital in 1837.

Survey Crew Arrives

When the first territorial legislative session in Belmont ended in December 1836, promoter James Doty hired Moses Strong to stake off the capitol square and downtown streets. Strong came to Madison the next February with John Catlin, an assistant, and Josiah Noonan, who owned the land that would become the University of Wisconsin campus. It was 22 below zero when they arrived on the isthmus "to survey out some lots and blocks around the public square... so that those persons who intended to build, could find their lots."

"I was on horseback," Noonan later wrote of their arrival on February 19th, "the rest of the party were in the sleigh. Before we had selected a camping spot, a severe snow storm came upon us and we put back to St. Cyr's [a fur-trade shanty, at modern Gov. Nelson State Park in Middleton]... It was dark, the snow beating upon us fast, and but for Strong's experience as a frontiersman, I do not believe we could have crossed the lake."

The next morning they began running lines in the vicinity of Vilas Park Zoo near Lake Wingra, which "I learned from Joe Pelkie, the early French settler, was the Indian name for that body of water; and I had it so entered on the map in that month of February [1837]." Having finished with Noonan's lands, they moved their camp to the vicinity of Monona Terrace where "I undertook to cut through the ice for water, and we had to cut from six to twelve inches deeper than the dept of our axe handle."

Blinded by the Snow

"After a hard day's work, wading in the snow, we camped at night between the Third Lake [Monona] and Dead Lake [Wingra], where we found some thick timber and a sheltered spot. With a good deal of difficulty we made a log heap fire and eat our snack, and after the fire had thawed the snow, and warmed the ground, we removed the fire to a little distance and made our bed on the ashes where the fire had warmed the ground."

Over the next several days, Catlin wrote,"we stuck the stakes in the snow, the ground being too deeply frozen in most places to receive the stakes. We camped in the timber in the low grounds under the hill of the Fourth Lake [where James Madison Park is now located], and were compelled to abandon our work by a severe snow storm, that so blinded us, that it was with great difficulty we found our way across the Fourth Lake to the cabin of St. Cyr, where we stayed two days, until the storm was over."

Home Along the Frozen River

On February 26th, they finished surveying all of Doty's land around the capitol square. They then headed north to Poynette, where the log cabin of Wallace Rowan was the only habitation for miles in any direction besides St. Cyr's. They then sleighed down the frozen Wisconsin River to Helena, and cut overland back to Mineral Point.


:: Posted in Madison on December 26, 2012
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