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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"The World for Its Motherland"

On May 1, 2006, (named “A Day Without Immigrants” by activists) more than 1,000,000 immigrants* boycotted American businesses and schools to show how important immigrant workers are to the U.S. economy. They were also demonstrating against HR4437, a bill which would make it a felony to be in the country illegally. Anyone who assists or encourages a foreign worker already living here could be punished with up to five years in jail and a stiff fine.

How different this is from earlier times, when the government actually tried to make immigration easy and simple!

For example, during the mid-19th century the Wisconsin State Board of Immigration actively encouraged the settlement of immigrants in Wisconsin. Pamphlets extolling the state’s virtues went through more than 40 editions in German, Norwegian, Dutch, and English, and were distributed throughout Europe as well as in eastern port cities. Advertisements were placed in more than 900 newspapers. The state's efforts were reinforced by handbooks aimed at recent arrivals, such as this one by Increase Lapham of Milwaukee, and by reports sent home by new immigrants, like this one by Carl de Haas of Calumet County, with its romantic illustrations.

Later in the century, real estate speculators and other businessmen tried to persuade immigrants that northern Wisconsin was a veritable paradise. They called Lake Superior "The Mediterranean Sea of America" and in a disingenuously titled pamphlet called "Facts for the Immigrant" said of densely forested lands in Barron County that...

"...experience has conclusively demonstrated that for all the leading root and cereal crops they are equal in productiveness to those of any country. ... Winter wheat is a very successful crop; the size of the kernel is superior; it attains more than the ordinary weight per bushel; it makes the finest quality of flour; and is free thus far from any liability of failure whether from winter killing, the ravages of insects, rust or blight. Although farming here is still in its infancy, all the products of the field and garden common even to the more southerly latitudes of this state have been cultivated with bountiful returns."


The Wisconsin Central Railroad tried to lure immigrants onto its lands in northern Wisconsin with advertisements such as this one depicting an idyllic log cabin with a happy family and their robust livestock. County officials in Burnett County produced this 100-page booklet full of pictures to induce immigrants to come north and establish farms. Unfortunately, railroad and other northern lands were often in fact a desolate moonscape of lonely stumps left in the wake of rapacious logging.

Still, immigrants came not just by the thousand or the tens of thousands but by the hundreds of thousands, and Wisconsin welcomed them with open arms. One of those who came during those years later recollected that,

“This was something of the America that I had seen in my dreams: a new country, a new society almost entirely unhampered by any traditions of the past; a new people produced by the free intermingling of the vigorous elements of all nations, with not old England alone, but the world for its motherland; with almost limitless opportunities open to all, and with equal rights secured by free institutions of government.”

Any generalization about thousands of people who came from dozens of cultures would probably be foolhardy. There were perhaps as many reasons for coming here as there were people who came. But it's probably safe to guess that the vast majority who ever entered into the American experiment, whether in 1850, 1950, 1976, or 2006, did so with hope in their hearts and a firm belief in those values just quoted -- freedom, opportunity, and justice.

* according to the Associated Press, May 2, 2006

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 28, 2006
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