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Wisconsin 19th-Century Immigration and Growth | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

19th-Century Immigration and Growth

A Short History of Wisconsin

Wisconsin 19th-Century Immigration and Growth | Wisconsin Historical Society

Thousands of immigrants poured into Wisconsin in the 19th century. Some came from the eastern United States and others came from Europe. Most settled on farms, and all came seeking opportunity.

Lumbering, mining, and land sales generated most of Wisconsin’s wealth in the early years. Most of this money went toward construction, land investment, and development projects that state leaders hoped would propel the state’s economic growth and increase settlement. Railroads closed distances between cities and allowed for the transport of goods in and out of the state. Wisconsin grew tremendously during this century, transforming from a frontier to a modern and increasingly industrial state.


The first quarter of the 19th century was marked by westward migration into the regions north and west of the Ohio River. White settlers rushed into areas only recently left vacant by Indian removals.

Immigrants flooded into Wisconsin beginning in the 1840s. The 1870 census shows that over a million people came to live in the state. They were virtually all white (less than one-tenth of one percent were African American), and men outnumbered women by a slight margin, 52 percent to 48 percent.

By today's standards, the immigrants were young. About a third were children or teenagers, and about half were adults aged 18-45. Less than one in five were middle aged or elderly. Most had been born somewhere else. More than a third were born overseas: 16 percent from Germany, eight percent from the British Isles, five percent from Scandinavia, and the rest from elsewhere in Europe or Canada. About 11,000 Indians (one percent of the population in 1870) lived on or off reservations.

The newcomers carved out more than 100,000 farms, which occupied roughly half the state's acreage. About a quarter of adult men worked in one of the 7,000 factories built in 2,700 cities and towns. The remainder who weren't farmers worked as lumberjacks, miners, or merchants.

About a quarter of the population was Catholic, and the same number Methodist. The rest belonged to smaller Protestant sects.

Languages spoken in Wisconsin homes included Ho-Chunk, French, German, Menominee, Dutch, Norwegian, Oneida, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Potawatomie. All varieties of English accents were heard on the street, from Irish brogue to Southern drawl.

What were their day-to-day lives like? Read their firsthand accounts.

Economic Growth


All of these new residents needed homes, food, furniture, clothing and other goods, which fueled the young economy. No single commodity dominated 19th-century Wisconsin in the way that beaver had the fur trade industry, but farming, mining and lumbering touched most lives.

Farmers grew grains, fruit, and vegetables. They kept chickens, pigs, horses, and cattle. Most also grew cash crops, such as wheat for flour or hops for beer, to sell in urban markets. They needed mills to grind their wheat, banks to lend them money, schools to teach their kids, stores to sell them dry goods, blacksmiths to make their tools, and churches to soothe their souls. If these could be gathered together near a water source or railroad crossing, a rural village sprang to life.

Rise of Dairy Farming

During the Civil War chinch bugs began devouring Wisconsin wheat. Wheat had been an important early crop in Wisconsin. Even before the war, yields had already begun to decrease after years of soil exhaustion. States to the west were also able to grow more wheat at a lower cost than Wisconsin farmers. Farmers needed to do something new.

Dairy products emerged as the most viable alternative to wheat. By 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms kept cows. William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918) led this transformation. He tirelessly promoted the dairy industry for nearly 50 years, along with the University of Wisconsin School of Agriculture, whose faculty, such as professor Stephen Babcock (1843-1931, inventor of the first test for butterfat content), laid the scientific basis for efficient dairying. Their efforts brought farmers and scientists together to share ideas, which were dispersed more broadly through the Wisconsin Dairyman Association. By 1915, Wisconsin produced more butter and cheese annually than any other state.


After farming, logging formed the backbone of the state's economy. The 19th-century logging industry reshaped the landscape of central and northern Wisconsin. It provided a livelihood for thousands of workers, and formed the roots for today's thriving paper industry. By the late 19th century, Wisconsin was one of the premier lumber producing states in the U.S.  From 1890 to 1910, forest products led Wisconsin's developing industrial economy.

Forests along the Wisconsin River were the first to fall before the lumberjack's axe. Stevens Point and Wausau sprang up to support loggers and mill workers.

The Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin was a second major lumbering district. By the late 1840s, the Wolf had given birth to Neenah, Oshkosh, Appleton, and other towns at the river's end. Because the Wolf River ran through their reservation, the Menominee also developed a successful logging industry. The Black and Chippewa rivers in the northwest constituted the third major lumbering region.

Independent companies gradually combined into a conglomerate led by Frederick Weyerhaeuser that shipped logs and boards downriver to St. Louis, creating towns such as Eau Claire and Black River Falls.

Products made from Wisconsin trees included doors, window sashes, furniture, beams, and ships built in lakefront industrial centers such as Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee. Much of the lumber was also used in buildings.


Mining was the third force that drove the young economy. In the early 19th century, southwestern Wisconsin mines produced much of the nation's lead. Up until mid-century, more than 4,000 miners worked in that area, producing 13 million pounds of lead a year.

Communities such as Dodgeville, Mineral Point and Platteville sprang up quickly around the mines. Industries and businesses were founded to serve the residents that mining attracted.

When lead profits declined about 1850, investors discovered copper and iron ore in northern Wisconsin near Lake Superior. Northern settlement was shaped largely by and for the benefit of people outside Wisconsin; especially investors from Eastern cities who hoped to make a quick fortune through mining.

An intricate transportation system was developed to extract ore from the ground, load it onto a specialized fleet of lake ships and unload it in Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Ashland, Bayfield and Superior were founded to accommodate mining and shipping the ore.

Shipbuilding, flour milling, meatpacking, brewing, printing and the manufacture of everything from steam engines to musical instruments flourished in Wisconsin cities after statehood.


None of these enterprises could survive without a way to acquire raw materials and ship out finished goods. The glue that held the economy together was the railroad. In 1847, the Legislature authorized a line from Milwaukee to Waukesha, and the first train ran on February 25, 1851. In 1857, the first east-west railroad from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River was complete.

Within 15 years, railroads laced the southern two-thirds of the state. Railroads provided farmers with better prices and expanded marketing opportunities by offering a more reliable way to get products to eastern markets. Railroads also gave immigrants and settlers from the eastern United States another way to populate the Wisconsin countryside with farms and villages.

Investors who financed the vision, bankers who covered costs, politicians who gave permission and stockholders who profited on freight charges all grew rich during the second half of the 19th century.

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