COVID-19 Updates: For the most up-to-date information on accessing our services learn more here.

Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Lead Mining in Southern Wisconsin

The Birth of the Badgers

Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA photograph of men standing along the sides of a lead mine in Webb City, MO.

Lead and Zinc Mine

Webb City, Missouri was known as the world's largest and most productive lead and zinc mining field in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was part of the "Tri-State Mining District." An underground view is shown of the mine with a group of workers. View the original source document: WHI 72676

Although southwestern Wisconsin is best known today for its rich farmlands, place names such as Mineral Point and New Diggings evoke an earlier time when local mines produced much of the nation's lead. Lead brought thousands of miners into Wisconsin in the 1820s and 1830s. The lead industry formed the foundation of the state's 19th century settlement and growth.

Early Lead Mining

Europeans had known of the presence of lead ore in the upper Mississippi since the 17th century. For hundreds of years, the Ho-Chunk, Mesquaki (Fox), Sauk and other Indian tribes had mined its easily accessible lead. French fur trader Nicolas Perrot began trading in lead mined by Indians in the 1680s. When the French withdrew from the area in 1760, Indians guarded the mines carefully, revealing their locations only to favored traders such as Julian Dubuque.

Settlement in the region remained slow until a series of treaties between 1804 and 1832 ceded all Indian lands south of the Wisconsin River to the U.S. The treaties coincided with a strong demand for lead. Lead was widely used in the manufacture of pewter, pipes, weights, paint and ammunition for the firearms of the expanding U.S. military.

Growth of Lead Mining

By the 1820s, lead mining was more promising to potential settlers than either the fur trade or farming. The hope of quick rewards lured a steady stream of settlers up the Mississippi River and into Grant, Crawford, Iowa and Lafayette counties.

Many of the first miners came to Wisconsin from Missouri, which had experienced a similar lead boom a few years earlier. Communities quickly sprang up around the mines, as other industries and businesses were founded to serve the residents that mining attracted.

In the 1830s, experienced miners began arriving from Cornwall in southwestern England. The Cornish settled primarily in Mineral Point. They constructed small, limestone homes similar to those they had left in England. By 1829, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwestern Wisconsin. They produced 13 million pounds of lead a year.

Badgers

Miners who moved to the area in the 1820s and 1830s didn't spend much time constructing shelters. Some simply burrowed holes into hillsides, earning them the nickname "badgers." The tools and techniques involved in lead mining in these early years were simple and inexpensive, allowing lucky miners to strike it rich at little personal expense.

Decline of Lead Mining

EnlargeAerial photograph of Mineral Point taken as part of a survey by the Wisconsin Power and Light Company to promote economic development by emphasizing available buildings and building sites.

Aeroplane View of Mineral Point, 1925

Aerial photograph of Mineral Point taken as part of a survey by the Wisconsin Power and Light Company to promote economic development. The city was named after its lead mines. View the original source document: WHI 3447

Lead mining peaked in Wisconsin in the 1840s. Although the state's mines yielded more than half the national output, demand for Wisconsin lead was beginning to decline. Miners had exhausted the supply of easily obtainable ore. Mining became more expensive and less appealing to investors hoping to make quick money.

In 1844, a third of the region's residents left for copper and iron mines elsewhere. The discovery of gold in California caused others to head west in 1849. Some that remained began to mine for zinc. For a few years late in the 19th century, Mineral Point had the largest zinc smelting facility in the world.

From Mining to Farming

For many of those who remained, mining became a part-time supplement to farming. With mining restricted to only the most profitable sites by 1850, more than 90 percent of the land was free for farming. By 1860, the former lead mining region of southwestern Wisconsin had become one of the best agricultural areas in the state.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol.2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Gara, Larry. A Short History of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962); Thwaites, Reuben Gold " Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever (or Galena) River Region" Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 13 (Madison, 1895)]