Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Life in Early Madison

Life in Early Madison | Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1800, the Madison area was Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Country. The Native Americans called this place Taychopera (Ta-ko-per-ah), meaning "land of the four lakes" (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa). Effigy mounds, which had been constructed for ceremonial and burial purposes over 1,000 years earlier, dotted the rich prairies around the lakes. In 1832, when the Black Hawk War ended, European settlers began coming to the area. An early pioneer was Ebenezer Brigham, a lead miner who built an inn and trading post near Blue Mounds.

Group of Native Americans. WHI 7418Enlarge

Group of five Native Americans with three men sitting, and one man and child standing.

When the Wisconsin Territory was established in 1836, legislators met at Belmont, where Judge James Duane Doty persuaded them to choose the site of Madison as the territorial capital. Doty, who had bought 1,200 acres of land on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona for $1,500, had surveyed and planned the city, naming it for the fourth president of the United States, James Madison. On his way from Belmont to Madison, Doty stopped at Brigham's in for travelers and workmen constructing the Capitol building. In April 1837, the Pecks moved into their unfinished log cabin near the corner of modern Butler and King Streets. In May, 36 workmen arrived from Milwaukee. On a smooth hill crossed by Native American trails, the Capitol was built. Stone was rafted across Lake Mendota from Maple Bluff, and paneling came from oak trees on a nearby hillside. During that first year, Peck's cabin served as home, inn, ballroom, post office, polling place, and even hospital. In this cabin, the first pioneer child in Wisconsin, Wisconsiniana Victoria Peck, was born. The Pecks were soon joined by other pioneer families.

First Buildings UW-Madison Campus, 1865, WHI 1885Enlarge

First Three Buildings on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus, 1865.
Madison, Wisconsin.

University of Wisconsin-Madison campus showing the first three buildings on campus.

In the second year of settlement, 1838, the first newspaper, The Enquirer, was published. Also in 1838, Louise Brayton of Aztalan was hired as Madison's first schoolteacher. She taught without textbooks in Judge Palmer's new log cabin, and received a salary of $2.00 per week. The following year, $70.00 was collected to build a schoolhouse. Soon, other civic institutions were treated. In 1846, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin was founded, and the Congregational church was erected. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the University of Wisconsin was established. North and South Halls were the first buildings, followed by Main (Bascom) Hall in 1857. In 1853, the Madison Institute was established to provide library facilities. The Madison Female Seminary converted girls into young ladies in a three-year course which included English, French, German, Latin, drawing, painting, piano and vocal music.

The capital city grew rapidly/ Leonard J. Farwell, who was governor from 1852 until 1854, helped promote the industrial and civic growth of Madison. In 1856, Madison was incorporated as a city with a population of 6,863. What would a visitor have seen in 1856? The Capital was surrounded by a white rail fence, and gas lighting, introduced in 1855, illuminated the streets at night. Stores on the Capitol Square had hitching rails in front. Houses were concentrated mainly in the area of the Square and the Near East Side. Elisha W. Keyes, postmaster and politician, described the view looking west from the Square: "West of the Capitol was an extensive field of woods and pastures; University hill appeared more like a primeval forest than anything else; there were no residents in that vicinity, nothing but a wild expanse of country… Cows in the streets found shelter beneath the shade of its trees; nimble porkers gathered acorns."

Billboard in 1856 advertised fortune tellers and phrenologists, and the Lake Side Water Cure on the southern shore of Lake Mendota offered recreation and water treatments to cure a variety of ills. A brass band serenaded Madison's first mayor, Jarius Fairchild. A volunteer fire department was formed at the insistence of the citizens. The Madison Institute Debating Department debated this question in January of 1856: "Resolved: that the people under our form of government should never disobey laws under any circumstances, unless by revolution." Lecturers who came to speak at the old Baptist Church included Horace Greeley, Bayard Taylor, and James Russell Lowell. Plans were made for the first City Hall, to be built in 1857. The University of Wisconsin proclaimed that "the faculty is composed of gentlemen eminent for their abilities and culture; the discipline is unsurpassed; and the cheapness of tuition and board [$100 a year] must soon attract a very large number of students."

Madison's growth slowed somewhat after 1860, as the country's energies were devoted first to the Civil War and then to the settlement of the Great Plains, but Madison boomed again in the 20th century. Although many of the old families and buildings have disappeared, there are still frequent reminders of life in early Madison. Street and park names recall the founders and some old mansions reflect the glory of the past.