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An Introduction to Turning Points

Our History in the Classroom

These stories, pictures and research tools are provided free for everyone who enjoys Wisconsin history, but especially for teachers and students. Everything here can be freely copied, downloaded, and printed for classroom use, your own personal reading and research, or other non-profit purposes.

For at least 12,000 years our state has sheltered people filled with dreams, and we present those here in their own words and images. The people who built Wisconsin imagined many possible futures and then acted to make their dreams come true. Those dreams and actions survive in the archaeological sites, rare books, museum objects, early engravings, handwritten manuscripts, historic photographs, and other evidence made available to you here.

We know, however, that a rich collection of eyewitness accounts such as this can be overwhelming. A curious browser can feel like a hungry person wandering around a gigantic supermarket in search of a sandwich. So we've provided tools to help you use these original sources effectively, whether you're teaching kids in a classroom or perusing it on your laptop in a favorite cafe. These tools include a Dictionary of Wisconsin History, an elegant search engine, 50 short essays on pivotal events from our past, more than 100 modern reference maps, and dozens of lesson plans, classroom activities and discussion questions. Help and advice are always available by clicking the "email us" link on any screen. We'd love to hear from you, and can usually respond the same day.

As we sifted through the Historical Society's immense collections and Wisconsin materials elsewhere on the Web, a handful of themes seemed to run through them in the same way that patterns are repeated on a quilt. Other readers will see other patterns -- the past is rich enough for many points of view -- but the following five struck us as the main currents of Wisconsin history, as it has flowed down the centuries. They are threads that tie together the thousands of pages of documents available to you here.

The first theme is the continually evolving relationships that men and women have had with the environment and the species with whom we share it. Without the hardy beaver and the majestic pine, for example, Wisconsin's history would be utterly different. The second theme is the exploitation, dispossession and tenacious survival of the native peoples who have always lived on this land. Their resistance and adjustment to three brutal centuries of European and American colonialism are at the center of Wisconsin's story.

A third theme running through these documents is the very different experience of women and girls from that of men and boys. Female leaders such as eighteenth-century Ho-Chunk chief Glory-in-the-Morning, pioneer girls like Sarah Foote, classroom teachers like Munsee-Stockbridge Electa Quinney, and women's suffrage campaigners like Ada James have experienced Wisconsin quite differently than their male counterparts.

The fourth obvious theme is diversity. After 1650, more than a dozen different Indian peoples were joined by more than a dozen different European peoples and African Americans, and later, by Mexican and Asian Americans. Wisconsin's history was written in many languages by many people who brought an extremely wide range of religious beliefs and cultural values to our state.

This fact may have led to the final theme we see, which for lack of a better term we might call progressive ideals. To be sure, racism and intolerance played major roles in shaping Wisconsin, as they did the rest of the nation. But when so many unique peoples needed to govern themselves peacefully and fairly, they learned to value a clean, responsive and effective government acting in the interest of all its citizens. Many helpful government programs that Americans take for granted today, such as social security for the elderly and disabled, or unemployment compensation for people who lose their jobs, were first imagined or tried in Wisconsin.

This history surrounds us today. We are only the most recent occupants of these farmlands, forests and valleys, and we are embraced on all sides by those who came before us. They live in the names of our schools, streets, and towns; in the shapes of our houses and the boundaries of our fields, in the jobs we do and in the crops we grow. They survive in the religious beliefs and the ethical values that we learned from our elders. To a very large degree, we are what we remember. As novelist John Steinbeck phrased it, "How will we know it's us without our past?"

Turning Points in Wisconsin History will help us all remember more about who we are and where we came from. Today's headlines are just the foam on history's wave, lifted and thrown forward by silent surging forces rising out of the past. By knowing more about that past, we see more in the world around us. Knowing and seeing more, we question and comprehend more. By being critically insightful in this way, we discover a richer understanding of the people and places we experience every day. By appreciating our common heritage today, we can imagine better futures for our children.

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