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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wiskonsan's Biggest Booster


In 1838, James Duane Doty (1799-1865) was elected by Wisconsin voters to represent them in Washington. He had already served in the Michigan territorial legislature (1833-35) and finagled having Madison chosen as Wisconsin's territorial capital. He went to Washington in 1838 to represent not only the voters but also absentee landowners, Eastern speculators, and capitalists trying to exploit Wisconsin's natural resources.

Wiskonsan's Biggest Booster

One of Doty's eccentricities was to insist on spelling our state's name, "Wiskonsan." He had been an early advocate of setting off the lands west of Lake Michigan from Michigan territory under their own government, and as Washington officials debated the issue, the name gradually shifted from the inherited French version, "Ouisconsin," to the uniquely American one that we use today. When "Wisconsin Territory" was created on July 4, 1836, the French form was legally supplanted by the modern one.

Doty, however, preferred "Wiskonsan," a variant which appeared on government maps printed in Washington while he was in Congress. When he returned to the Badger State the next year as territorial governor, he insisted that all official communications use his unusual form. Thus we have, between 1841 and 1844, publications with titles such as "Message of Governor James Duane Doty, delivered to the Legislature of Wiskonsan, Friday, Dec. 10, 1841", and the "Laws of Wiskonsan Territory."

Legislators Overrule the Name

Gov. Doty, however, found himself opposed by the legislature on this as well as many other issues. He was a Whig from the Northeast, and most local Wisconsin lawmakers were Democrats from the South. They took every opportunity to thwart his proposals while he was governor.

"During all this time, Governor Doty and the legislature were in constant hostility," wrote contemporary observer Theodore Rodolf. "One of the governor's vagaries had to be settled by a joint resolution. The governor had a fondness for spelling the name of the territory as 'Wiskonsan.' The legislature, in order to avoid future embarrassments and misunderstandings, found itself obliged to declare by a joint resolution that the spelling used in the organic act should be maintained."

Doty's Later Career

When Democrats won control of the White House in 1844, Doty was removed from office and Democrat Nathaniel Tallmadge appointed governor. Doty retired to Neenah-Menasha, where he helped Eastern investors construct some of the area's early industries, and also served in the ill-fated 1846 Constitutional Convention. He then served two more terms in Washington, from 1849-1853, opposing Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 and supporting government aid for building railroads in Wisconsin and to the Pacific. He went on to serve as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah (1861-63) and governor of Utah Territory (1863-65).


:: Posted in Odd Lives on September 19, 2013
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