Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Madison, Wisconsin - A Brief History

Madison Wisconsin on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona in Dane County

A Brief History of Madison | Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison is located in south central Wisconsin on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona in Dane County. Between 300 and 1300 CE, Native American "mound builders" occupied the area and built thousands of effigy mounds. By the time white settlers began to arrive, the Ho-Chunk nation called the area home and continued to camp near the lakes into the 1940s.

Judge and land speculator James Duane Doty (1799-1865) traveled through the isthmus in 1829 and liked the site so much that he bought much of the area. In 1836, Doty persuaded the territorial legislature to make the area that became Madison the new capital. Doty named Madison for James Madison, 4th President of the U.S. The next year, in 1837, Eben and Rosaline Peck (1808-1899) became the first white settlers in Madison.

Eight years after Wisconsin became a state, Madison became a city boasting a population of 6,864. The first settlers were Yankees from the eastern states. They were followed by German, Irish, and Norwegian immigrants. Italians, Greeks, Jews, and African Americans came around the turn of the 20th century.

As the seat of government and home to the state's largest university campus, Madison has long been at the center of Wisconsin's political and intellectual life. Soldiers trained at Camp Randall during the Civil War. In the early 20th century, many progressive reforms, including workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, and Social Security, were created in Madison, giving the city a liberal reputation that lasted through the turbulent 1960s, when it was the center of anti-Vietnam activity.

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[Source: WHS Library-Archives Staff, 2009]