in Wisconsin History
The first quarter of the nineteenth century was marked by westward migration into the regions north and west of the Ohio River. Though Wisconsin was initially a distant frontier, the small numbers of French, English, Americans, and American Indians who resided there had nonetheless explored and used the rich land and water resources that would soon bring thousands of immigrants into Wisconsin.
Prior to the Black Hawk War in 1832, Indians primarily inhabited much of Wisconsin. By the mid nineteenth century, though, Indians had been induced to cede most of their lands to the federal government. Some were relocated west of the Mississippi River. Thus, the settlement of Wisconsin by European immigrants was preceded and made possible by the coerced reduction of tribal lands and the forced removal of Indian populations.
Between 1836 and 1850, Wisconsin's population increased from a mere 11,000 to over 305,000. Some of these settlers came from the eastern United States, while others came from Europe. The first immigrants tended to settle in the southern parts of Wisconsin. Economic and social changes in Europe, coupled with natural disasters such as the potato blight in Ireland, increased Europeans' discontent and desire to emigrate. Though each person came to the United States for different reasons, all immigrants sought a better life in Wisconsin. By 1850, one-third of the state's population was foreign-born.
Improving transportation routes and the opening of government lands encouraged the mass migrations westward. Immigrants came by ship, by steamboat, by railroad, on horseback, and in wagons. Milwaukee became a favorite landing place for lake passengers because of its expanding business opportunities and public lands office.
Of the more than 100,000 foreign-born Wisconsinites in 1850, only 48,000 could claim English as their native language. Nearly one-half of these English speakers were Irish. Of the non-English speaking immigrants, the Germans were by far the most numerous. Norwegians constituted the second largest group, followed closely by Canadians of primarily French descent.
Between 1852 and 1855, the Wisconsin Commission of Emigration actively encouraged the settlement of European immigrants in Wisconsin. Pamphlets extolling the state's virtues were published in German, Norwegian, Dutch, and English and were distributed throughout Europe as well as in eastern port cities. Advertisements were placed in more than nine hundred newspapers. By 1855, however, the rise of antiforeign sentiment, or nativism, led to the dissolution of the commission.
Wisconsin's foreign-born population continued to increase, though, owing to the efforts of the Commission of Emigration, the propaganda produced by land speculators, and the letters sent back to Europe by immigrants encouraging friends and family to join them. Although not as statistically significant in the overall population as the Irish, Germans, and Norwegians, many other ethnic groups left their mark on particular areas of Wisconsin, including the Finns in Douglas County, the Danes in Racine County, and the Italians in Kenosha.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973); "Ethnic Groups in Wisconsin: Historical Background" Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies (online at http://wiscinfo.doit.wisc.edu/mkilibrary/ethn-his.html#top)]