Immigration in the 19th Century | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Immigration in the 19th Century

Europeans Come to Wisconsin

Immigration in the 19th Century | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePainting of Black Hawk by Robert M. Sully.

Black Hawk

Painting of Black Hawk by Robert M. Sully. Black Hawk, a Native American Sauk warrior and leader, sought to attack and drive out the settlers in the Blue Mounds of Wisconsin in 1832. After his capture and release, he became a symbol of a diminishing and no longer threatening culture. View the original source document: WHI 11706

European-Americans began moving west in the first quarter of the 19th century. At the time, Wisconsin was a distant frontier. The state's inhabitants were mainly Native Americans, although a small number of French, English and Americans had already made their way to Wisconsin.

Indian Relocation

Before the Black Hawk War in 1832, Native Americans inhabited much of Wisconsin. They were forced to cede most of their lands to the federal government in the mid-19th century. Many were relocated west of the Mississippi River, which opened up land for American and European settlement.

Immigration Explosion

Between 1836 and 1850, Wisconsin's population increased from 11,000 to over 305,000. Settlers mostly came from the East Coast and Europe. Economic and social changes in Europe and natural disasters  such as the potato blight in Ireland  increased discontent and Europeans' desire to emmigrate. Immigrants came by ship, by steamboat, by railroad, on horseback and in wagons. Milwaukee was a favorite landing place for lake passengers because of its public lands office and expanding business opportunities.

EnlargeBlack and white photograph of the first Norwegian church in Wisconsin.

First Norwegian Church in Wisconsin, 1894

Wisconsin's First Norwegian Church, in Muskego in Waukesha county. View the original source document: WHI 53131

There were more than 100,000 foreign-born Wisconsinites in 1850 — more than a third of the state's population. But only 48,000 could claim English as their native language. Nearly one-half of the English-speaking immigrants were Irish. The most common immigrants who spoke no English were Germans, followed by Norwegians and French Canadians. Many Finns settled in Douglas County. Danes flowed into Racine County. Italians populated Kenosha.

Commission of Emigration

The Wisconsin Commission of Emigration was created in 1852 to encourage the settlement of European immigrants. The Commission published pamphlets in German, Norwegian, Dutch and English to promote the state. The pamphlets were distributed throughout Europe and eastern ports where immigrants arrived in the U.S. such as New York. The Commission also placed ads in over nine hundred newspapers. The Wisconsin Commission of Emigration was dissolved in 1855 because of anti-foreign sentiment. But immigrants did not stop coming to Wisconsin after the Commission ended. Land speculators soon began making their own booklets and posters that encouraged people to live in Wisconsin.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973); "Ethnic Groups in Wisconsin: Historical Background" Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies]