The Creation of Wisconsin Territory

With the decline of British influence after the War of 1812, the population of the Great Lakes region increased dramatically. New territories were created from old, and the most populous ones became states. Wisconsin was successively part of the original Northwest Territory (1788-1800), Indiana Territory (1800-1809), Illinois Territory (1809-1818), and Michigan Territory (1818-1836) before it became a territory in its own right (1836-1848).

By 1818 the boundaries of the Michigan Territory had been extended westward to the Mississippi River. Out of the area beyond lower Michigan were created three counties to administer local government: Crawford County in the west with its seat at Prairie du Chien, Brown County in the east with its seat at Green Bay, and Michilimackinac County, which included northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with its seat at Mackinac.

By 1835, the population of these three counties had grown sufficiently for Wisconsin to be authorized as a new territory. James Duane Doty, a Wisconsin land speculator who was then its representative in the Michigan legislature, led this effort, and on July 4, 1836, Wisconsin Territory was born. The act of Congress creating it permitted only free white males to vote or hold territorial office. President Andrew Jackson appointed General Henry Dodge as governor, with responsibility to conduct a census, hold elections, and convene a territorial legislature.

Dodge acted quickly. The first census was taken in August 1836 and found only 11,683 non-Indian residents between Lake Michigan and the Dakotas. Elections were held October 10 to choose delegates to a territorial convention. That meeting opened October 25, 1836, in a chilly wood-frame building at Belmont, in the lead region; among the delegates' first actions was choosing a capital.

Doty, meanwhile, had traveled to the land office in Green Bay in April 1836 and purchased with a partner the 1,000 acres where downtown Madison now stands. He soon found a third partner, who put in another 360 acres, and the trio formed a corporation with 24 shares worth $100 each. On his way to Belmont that fall, Doty engaged surveyor John Suydam to quickly assess the site and map 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.

On November 23, 1836, the delegates began to debate nineteen possible sites, each of which had advocates like Doty who hoped to get rich quick. Doty lobbied aggressively for votes, however, even sending a wagon to Dubuque for buffalo robes, which he handed out to the freezing legislators, and apparently promising choice Madison lots to undecided voters at discount prices. Madison's uncontroversial location and Doty and Suydam's attractive map of a modern city (named for a much-admired Founding Father who had just died) also helped attract votes. When the dust settled on November 28, the territorial legislature had chosen Madison for its capital.

Government surveyors had already laid out the township and section lines, but now the city proper had to be platted. Doty hired a young New Yorker, Franklin Hatheway, for that work, and in the summer of 1837 the city began to take shape on an isthmus between two lakes. The capitol grounds were established atop its 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.

Over the next decade the Indian tribes in Wisconsin ceded land, the U.S. government surveyed it, and farmers from eastern states and immigrants from Europe swarmed onto it eagerly in search of a better life. The population exploded from 11,683 in 1836 to 155,277 in 1846. Territorial governors appointed in Washington (including Doty) and legislators elected by residents were kept busy authorizing road and canal companies, overseeing new banks and private corporations, and chartering public improvements. In 1848 Wisconsin became a state, and when the census was taken in 1850, its population had nearly tripled, to 304,456.

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The memoirs of Nelson Dewey, the state's first governor.The memoirs of Nelson Dewey, the state's first governor.
Link to article: Early History of the Brothertown IndiansEarly History of the Brothertown Indians
Link to article: Theodore Rodolf recounts his life in the lead region in the 1830sTheodore Rodolf recounts his life in the lead region in the 1830s
Link to article: The founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre PaquetteThe founding of Fort Winnebago and the career of trader Pierre Paquette
Link to article: Nine newspaper stories about the first capitol (1917).Nine newspaper stories about the first capitol (1917).
Link to article: Girlhood and motherhood on the Wisconsin frontier, 1824-1860.Girlhood and motherhood on the Wisconsin frontier, 1824-1860.
Link to article: The surveyor that laid out Madison recalls his days in the field in 1837.The surveyor that laid out Madison recalls his days in the field in 1837.
Link to images: Early Wisconsin settler and Madison Promoter James Duane DotyEarly Wisconsin settler and Madison Promoter James Duane Doty
Link to images: Wisconsin's first Territorial Governor, Henry DodgeWisconsin's first Territorial Governor, Henry Dodge
Link to manuscript: Henry Baird objects to the location of the territorial capitol, 1836.Henry Baird objects to the location of the territorial capitol, 1836.
Link to map: The imaginary capital city that its chief promoter envisioned, 1836.The imaginary capital city that its chief promoter envisioned, 1836.
Link to map: States and territories created under the Northwest Ordinance.States and territories created under the Northwest Ordinance.
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