in Wisconsin History
Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin
Although southwestern Wisconsin is best known today for its rich farmlands, place names such as Mineral Point and New Diggings evoke an earlier time when local mines produced much of the nation's lead. In the early nineteenth century, Wisconsin lead mining was more promising and attractive to potential settlers than either the fur trade or farming. Its potentially quick rewards lured a steady stream of settlers up the Mississippi River and into Grant, Crawford, Iowa, and Lafayette counties in the early nineteenth century. By 1829, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwestern Wisconsin, producing 13 million pounds of lead a year.
Europeans had known of the presence of lead ore in the upper Mississippi since the seventeenth century, and for hundreds of years before that, the Ho-Chunk, Mesquaki (Fox), Sauk, and other Indian tribes had mined its easily accessible lead. French fur trader Nicolas Perrot began actively trading in lead mined by Indians in the 1680s. When the French withdrew from the area in 1760, Indians guarded the mines carefully, revealing their locations only to favored traders such as Julian Dubuque.
Settlement in the region remained slow until a series of treaties between 1804 and 1832 gradually ceded all Indian lands south of the Wisconsin River to the U.S. This coincided with a strong demand for lead, which was widely used in the manufacture of pewter, pipes, weights, paint, and of course, ammunition for the firearms of an expanding U.S. military.
Miners who moved to the area in the 1820s and 1830s wasted little time in constructing shelters. Some simply burrowed holes into hillsides, earning miners the nickname "badgers." The tools and techniques involved in lead mining in these early years were relatively simple and inexpensive, allowing lucky miners to strike it rich with little personal expense.
Many of the first miners came to Wisconsin from Missouri, which had experienced a similar lead boom a few years earlier. Communities sprang up quickly around the mines, as other industries and businesses were founded to serve the residents that mining attracted. In the 1830s, experienced miners began arriving from Cornwall in southwestern England. The Cornish settled primarily in Mineral Point and constructed small, limestone homes similar to those they had left in England.
Wisconsin lead mining peaked in the 1840s. Although our state's mines then yielded more than half the national output, demand for Wisconsin lead was beginning to decline. Miners had exhausted the supply of easily obtainable ore, which made mining more expensive and less appealing to investors hoping to make money quickly. In 1844, a third of the region's residents left for copper and iron mines elsewhere and the discovery of gold in California caused many others to head west in 1849.
For those who remained, mining often became a part-time supplement to farming. Some men began to mine for zinc, and for a few years in the late nineteenth century, Mineral Point had the largest zinc smelting facility in the world. With mining restricted to only the most profitable localities by 1850, more than 90 percent of the land was free for farming. By 1860, the former lead mining region of southwestern Wisconsin had become recognized as one of the best agricultural areas in the state.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol.2 (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); Gara, Larry. A Short History of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962); Thwaites, Reuben Gold " Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever (or Galena) River Region" Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 13 (Madison, 1895)]