The Founding of Major Cities

Until the nineteenth century, white settlement in Wisconsin was sparse and centered almost solely on the fur trade and military posts at Green Bay, LaPointe, and Prairie du Chien. With increased westward migration after the War of 1812, white settlers initially settled in two areas: the lead mining regions along the Mississippi and along the lakeshore in what later became the city of Milwaukee. Because water routes remained the only feasible means for travel and transporting goods in the early nineteenth century, towns and cities usually fanned out from rivers and lakes. Although the major lead mining towns of Platteville, Dodgeville, and Mineral Point were not themselves on navigable waterways, they depended on the Mississippi for transportation of people and goods.

Wisconsin's frontier towns did not appear arbitrarily or by magic at strategic locations. Land speculation was one of the most significant business opportunities on the Wisconsin frontier. Doubling as town promoters, land speculators advertised their settlements, provided money, and attracted merchants and workers to serve what they all hoped would rapidly become important towns in Wisconsin.

Many of the territory's early leaders had a special interest in seeing the development of particular towns and regions. Solomon Juneau, a fur trader and merchant, owned much of Milwaukee's east side with his partner, Morgan Martin. They hoped their land would become the center of a major Lake Michigan port city. Two other speculators, Byron Kilbourne and George Walker, owned tracts on Milwaukee's west and south side. Mutually interested in having their lands surveyed and opened to public sale, these rival promoters engaged in a bitter competition to improve their village sites to attract buyers.

Though the efforts of politician and speculator James Duane Doty played a large part in the selection of his own land as the territorial capital, the site that became Madison was also a compromise. Madison was located between the two most populous regions -- the Mississippi mining areas and the Lake Michigan shore -- of Wisconsin. Like many other towns, Belmont (Wisconsin Territory's first capital) never gained the lasting importance and population that its boosters had hoped.

The location of roads, canals, and harbors all gave certain towns an economic advantage over those of rival promoters and investors, and so did the location of government land offices. The federal government opened offices in Mineral Point and Green Bay in 1834. Another land office was opened in Milwaukee in 1838. As these regions became more settled, the land offices moved to other, less populated parts of the territory to encourage settlement. Land offices attracted settlers, lawyers, merchants, moneylenders, and speculators. Although these people brought business to the towns in the early formative years, the development of sustainable resources and accessible transportation routes were far more reliable indicators of a town's potential to become a major city. Long after many of the land offices closed, Milwaukee and Green Bay continued to expand to become significant Wisconsin communities, while Mineral Point, a town centered on lead mining, did not.

A desire for greater autonomy and more public services led villages to apply for city charters from the legislature. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, Milwaukee was its only city, though a city far different than it is today. At the time, Milwaukee was five separate villages or wards, and its mayor governed five sets of independent representatives from each area. Smaller cities that were chartered in the 1850s, such as Green Bay in 1854, had more centralized forms of government. Madison, incorporated as a village in 1846, received its city charter from the state legislature in 1856.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 1, 2, and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Risjord, Norman K. Wisconsin: The Story of the Badger State (Madison: Wisconsin Trails, 1995);]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A teenager comes to Green Bay as a new bride in 1824.A teenager comes to Green Bay as a new bride in 1824.
Link to article: An early Yankee settler recalls Prairie du Chien's infancy.An early Yankee settler recalls Prairie du Chien's infancy.
Link to article: A Green Bay girlhood in the 1820s.A Green Bay girlhood in the 1820s.
Link to article: Madison is promoted as a tourist destination in 1877Madison is promoted as a tourist destination in 1877
Link to article: Quality of life in Madison in 1850Quality of life in Madison in 1850
Link to article: A woman's memoir of the founding of SheboyganA woman's memoir of the founding of Sheboygan
Link to article: Memories of Milwaukee's first familyMemories of Milwaukee's first family
Link to article: Recollections of Old SuperiorRecollections of Old Superior
Link to article: The Origin of Milwaukee's nameThe Origin of Milwaukee's name
Link to article: A young boy's experience of Madison in the 1830'sA young boy's experience of Madison in the 1830's
Link to article: The founding of Portage, by Frederick Jackson Turner (1883)The founding of Portage, by Frederick Jackson Turner (1883)
Link to article: Letters from Milwaukee in its infancy, 1836-1846Letters from Milwaukee in its infancy, 1836-1846
Link to article: A journalist describes Ashland's premature demise, and its resurrection.A journalist describes Ashland's premature demise, and its resurrection.
Link to article: An Indian woman founds the town of MarinetteAn Indian woman founds the town of Marinette
Link to book: A local historian chats about Prairie du Chien (vol. 1)A local historian chats about Prairie du Chien (vol. 1)
Link to book: A local historian chats about Prairie du Chien (vol. 2)A local historian chats about Prairie du Chien (vol. 2)
Link to book: An early history of Madison illustrated with contemporary photographsAn early history of Madison illustrated with contemporary photographs
Link to book: An Abolitionist Recalls Anti-Slavery Days in WisconsinAn Abolitionist Recalls Anti-Slavery Days in Wisconsin
Link to book: A colorful and opinionated guide to Milwaukee businesses, 1877A colorful and opinionated guide to Milwaukee businesses, 1877
Link to book: Promoters try to entice settlers to Bayfield CountyPromoters try to entice settlers to Bayfield County
Link to book: Promoters describe Superior in its infancyPromoters describe Superior in its infancy
Link to collections: The Founding and Early History of MadisonThe Founding and Early History of Madison
Link to images: Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.
Link to images: Madison's first white woman settlerMadison's first white woman settler
Link to images: The first house in Madison, built in 1837The first house in Madison, built in 1837
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Bird's-eye views of Wisconsin cities and townsBird's-eye views of Wisconsin cities and towns
Link to manuscript: An early Milwaukee settler recalls the city's infancyAn early Milwaukee settler recalls the city's infancy
Link to manuscript: Oral traditions about Milwaukee's foundingOral traditions about Milwaukee's founding
Link to manuscript: A historian and old settler describes Milwaukee's origins, 1873.A historian and old settler describes Milwaukee's origins, 1873.
Link to map: A territorial leader lays out imaginary city blocks in Milwaukee (1835).A territorial leader lays out imaginary city blocks in Milwaukee (1835).
Link to map: Two founders of Milwaukee design its downtown in 1837.Two founders of Milwaukee design its downtown in 1837.
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.
Join Now.