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19th-Century Wisconsin

Sidebar 6: Mathilde Anneke

Author, reformer, and educator, Mathilde Anneke was a staunch advocate for women’s rights and founded the first feminist newspaper in the U.S. Read more...

WHI 3701

Who were these people who flooded into Wisconsin during the mid-19th century? The 1870 census shows that just over a million people came. They were virtually all white (less than one-tenth of 1 percent were African American), and men outnumbered women by a slight margin, 52 percent to 48 percent. By today's standards they 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 someplace else, more than a third overseas: 16 percent from Germany, 8 percent from the British Isles, 5 percent from Scandinavia, and the rest from elsewhere in Europe or Canada. About 11,000 Indians (1 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.

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, but farming, mining and lumbering touched most lives. Farmers grew grains, fruit and vegetables, and 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 (or taverns) to soothe their souls. Anywhere these could be gathered by a water source or railroad crossing, a rural village sprang to life.

After farming, logging formed the backbone of the state's economy. Forests along the Wisconsin River were the first to fall before the lumberjack's axe, and 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 it had given birth to Neenah, Oshkosh, Appleton and other towns at the river's end. Because the Wolf 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: Wisconsin's 19th-century forest still surrounds us today in the shapes of our houses, schools and churches.

Mining was the third force that drove the young economy. Until mid-century, lead was extracted from southwestern counties in huge amounts, funding the development of Dodgeville, Mineral Point and Platteville. When lead profits declined about 1850, investors discovered copper and iron ore near Lake Superior, and Ashland and Superior were founded to bring them to market. Ship building, flour milling, meat packing, 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. By 1857 rail lines linked Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, and within 15 years railroads laced the southern two-thirds of the state, bringing crops to market and supplying factories. 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.

Sidebar 7: Byron Paine

Attorney Byron Paine gained state and national prominence when he defended abolitionist Sherman Booth before the state Supreme Court for violation of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1854. Read more...

WHI 33144

The business of creating farms and fortunes was interrupted in 1861 when national tensions erupted into full-scale civil war. By then Wisconsin had a critical mass of citizens who believed that slavery was wrong and secession from the union was illegal; they had helped found the Republican Party in Ripon in 1854, voting to bring Abraham Lincoln to the White House in 1860. When war broke out in April 1861, Wisconsin quickly rallied to the Union cause, supplying not one regiment as Lincoln requested but several.

Since the early 1840s many Wisconsin residents had denounced slavery. The first anti-slavery society was formed in 1842, and the first slave to escape to Canada through Wisconsin Territory, 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls, passed through the next year. A strong uniting force in the anti-slavery movement was the American Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper based in Waukesha. The paper's third editor, Sherman Booth, attained national attention for his rescue and championship of the fugitive slave, Joshua Glover. Glover was a Missouri slave who sought asylum in Racine in 1854. His master, learning his whereabouts, came to Wisconsin and, under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, had him arrested and placed in the Milwaukee County jail. Abolitionists from all around southeastern Wisconsin surrounded the jail, broke down its doors, and got Glover safely to Canada. For helping Glover escape, Booth was arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately vindicated him and declared the federal act unconstitutional.

Although most Wisconsin residents disapproved of slavery, the right of black citizens to vote was disputed until after the war. In 1849 a majority of Wisconsin voters approved black suffrage, but voting rights were consistently denied to African Americans due to legal disputes over what constituted "a majority." With the encouragement of abolitionist Sherman Booth, Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader in Milwaukee's black community, attempted to register to vote in 1865 and was refused. Gillespie took the election inspectors to court, working with attorney Byron Paine who had argued the Glover case a decade earlier. Gillespie's case went quickly to the state Supreme Court, which in 1866 voted unanimously in favor of Gillespie and secured the right of African Americans to vote.

Wisconsin soldiers fought in every major battle of the Civil War. When it ended in 1865, 91,000 had served in 56 regiments. Recruits were trained in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine and Madison. Many units were largely composed of single ethnic groups: the 9th, 26th, 27th and 45th, for example, were mainly German, and Norwegians filled the ranks of the 15th. The 8th Wisconsin became known as the "Eagle Regiment" because it carried a pet bald eagle named Old Abe into battle on a perch with an American flag. The Iron Brigade, composed largely of Wisconsin units, suffered unusually high casualties at Antietam and Gettysburg. Many Wisconsin men did not return: nearly 12,000 died, and thousands more were wounded or held captive in infamous Southern prisons such as Andersonville.

Back home, the Civil War altered nearly all aspects of daily life. After an initial financial shock, the war brought prosperity. Railroads were overwhelmed with business. Farmers, facing labor shortages, increased wages, and crop prices multiplied as the demand for food skyrocketed, which in turn increased demand for agricultural equipment made in Wisconsin cities. Middle- and upper-class women set aside religious, ethnic and political differences to form aid societies throughout the state. The Woman's Soldiers Aid Society sent medical inspectors to improve sanitary conditions among the soldiers and delivered thousands of dollars worth of supplies to the frontlines and hospitals.

During the war disaster of another kind struck when chinch bugs began devouring Wisconsin wheat. Yields were already decreasing after years of soil exhaustion, and states to the west were able to grow more wheat at a lower cost than Wisconsin farmers. Dairy products emerged as the most viable alternative to wheat, and by 1899 more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms kept cows. This transformation was led by William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918), who tirelessly promoted the dairy industry for nearly 50 years, and 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.

When the Civil War ended, Republicans, the party of Lincoln and the Union, possessed a virtual monopoly on state government. Until the 1890s a handful of party leaders such as Oshkosh politician Philetus Sawyer (1816-1900) tightly controlled Wisconsin's legislative agenda. At the same time, the growth of powerful corporations in lumbering, railroads, mining and banking concentrated economic power in the hands of a tiny elite. These two groups — Republican Party leaders and captains of industry — substantially overlapped as government and business converged. As long as the huge number of Civil War veterans continued to identify them with the party of Lincoln, the state's wealthiest citizens controlled the halls of the Capitol, the contents of railroad cars and factory floors in lakeshore cities.

Of course, everyone in Wisconsin did not approve of this arrangement. During the last third of the century, increasing numbers of people who with their own hands dug the ore, milled the boards, laid the bricks, wrought the iron or built the machines demanded a larger share of the wealth they created. In Milwaukee bricklayers organized the first union in 1847, followed by carpenters in 1848 and shoemakers in 1867. By the 1880s workers in Milwaukee were agitating for the eight-hour day that we now take for granted. During the first five days of May 1886 their demonstrations closed all industrial plants except the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5 a crowd of unarmed demonstrators there was attacked by troops; five people died and four were wounded in Wisconsin's worst labor-related tragedy.

Modern skilled manufacturing began during the war and dominated the state's economy for more than a century. Edward P. Allis purchased Milwaukee's Reliance Works in 1860 and began producing steam engines and other mill equipment just at the time that many sawmills and flour mills were converting to steam power. Allis also installed a mill for the production of iron pipe to fill large orders for water systems in Milwaukee and Chicago, and developed a high-speed saw for large sawmills. By the late 1880s the Allis Company was Milwaukee's largest industrial employer, building a world reputation as the center of heavy machinery for mines, power plants and public utilities. In 1901 the company merged to become the Allis-Chalmers Company, producing machinery and other products until the late 1980s. In Sheboygan the Kohler Company, founded in 1873 by John Michael Kohler, became the nation's leading manufacturer of plumbing fixtures and related products. In Racine J.I. Case produced threshers that became an industry standard as well as the steam engines that powered them. The Rock River Valley supported a variety of manufacturers of machine tools. Large-scale papermaking took root on the waterpower of the lower Fox River during the 1880s. The first wood pulp mill began operations in Appleton in 1871, and paper companies eventually became the state's fourth largest industry by 1925.

As the century drew to a close, many observers could see that the transformation of frontier Wisconsin had caused problems no one had anticipated in 1836. Large cities had created not only more jobs but also more poverty, disease and crime. Businesses had created not only great wealth but also great concentrations of power. Industrial technology had created not only more efficient factories, but had also trapped thousands of people at the bottom of society. The democratic institutions so painfully crafted in 1836 and 1848 had evolved into a closed system that mainly benefited party insiders. Something had to change.

Next Section: Progressive Era, 1895-1925

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