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The Creation of Wisconsin Territory | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Creation of Wisconsin Territory

A Plot of Land Becomes a City

The Creation of Wisconsin Territory | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeQuarter-length oval portrait of James Duane Doty.

James Duane Doty, 1856

Quarter-length oval portrait of James Duane Doty, who was a Wisconsin judge, territorial governor, congressman, and land speculator. View the original source document: WHI 10020

With the decline of British influence after the War of 1812, the population of the Great Lakes region increased dramatically. New territories were created from old, and the most populous ones became states.


Wisconsin was successively part of the original Northwest (1788-1800), Indiana (1800-1809), Illinois (1809-1818) and Michigan (1818-1836) territories before it became a territory in its own right from 1836 until it became a state in 1848.

By 1818 the boundaries of the Michigan Territory had been extended westward to the Mississippi River. Three counties were created out of the area beyond lower Michigan to administer local government: Crawford County in the west with its seat at Prairie du Chien, Brown County in the east with its seat at Green Bay, and Michilimackinac County, which included northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with its seat at Mackinac.

James Duane Doty

By 1835, the population of these three counties had grown sufficiently for Wisconsin to be authorized as a new territory. James Duane Doty, a Wisconsin land speculator who was the state's representative in the Michigan legislature, led this effort. On July 4, 1836, the Wisconsin Territory was born. President Andrew Jackson appointed General Henry Dodge as governor, with responsibility to conduct a census, hold elections and convene a territorial legislature.

Dodge acted quickly. The first census was taken in August 1836 and found only 11,683 non-Indian residents between Lake Michigan and the Dakotas. Elections were held October 10 to choose delegates to a territorial convention. That meeting opened October 25, 1836, in a chilly wood-frame building at Belmont, in the lead region. Among the delegates' first actions was choosing a capital.

Doty's Purchase

Doty had traveled to the land office in Green Bay in April 1836 and purchased 1,000 acres where downtown Madison now stands. He soon found a third partner who put in another 360 acres and the trio formed a corporation with 24 shares worth $100 each. On his way to Belmont that fall, Doty engaged surveyor John Suydam to quickly assess the site and map out a hypothetical city. If the territorial delegates chose it for the capital, Doty and his partners would earn a windfall by selling town lots to settlers and speculators.

On November 23, 1836, the delegates began to debate nineteen possible sites, each of which had advocates like Doty who hoped to get rich quick. Doty lobbied aggressively for votes, even sending a wagon to Dubuque for buffalo robes which he handed out to the freezing legislators. Doty even promised choice Madison lots at discount prices to undecided voters. Madison's uncontroversial location and Doty and Suydam's attractive map of a modern city  named for an admired Founding Father who had just died  also helped attract votes. On November 28, the territorial legislature chose Madison for its capital.

Planning the City

EnlargeMap of Madison and surrounding towns and lakes including Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, Lake Wingra, Lake Waubesa and Lake Kegonsa.

Plan Now to See Madison, ca. 1924

A map of Madison, included in the brochure intended for tourists titled "Plan Now to See Madison, The Four Lake City: 'The City Built on an Isthmus.'" View the original source document: WHI 112268

Government surveyors had already laid out the township and section lines, but the city proper still needed to be platted. Doty hired a young New Yorker named Franklin Hatheway for that work. In the summer of 1837 the city began to take shape on an isthmus between two lakes. The capitol grounds were established atop the highest hill, major streets were laid out, buildings were erected and speculators as far away as New York and Washington bought lots. Doty and his two partners brought in $35,510 on their investment of $2,400.

Over the next decade the Indian tribes in Wisconsin ceded land, the U.S. government surveyed it and farmers from eastern states and European immigrants moved to it in search of a better life. The population exploded from 11,683 in 1836 to 155,277 in 1846. Territorial governors appointed in Washington and legislators elected by residents were kept busy authorizing road and canal companies, overseeing new banks and private corporations and chartering public improvements. In 1848 Wisconsin became a state and when the census was taken in 1850, its population had grown to 304,456.

Learn More

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]