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The Territorial Era: 1787-1848

Sidebar 4: Elizabeth and Henry Baird

Elizabeth Baird (1810-1890) and her husband Henry (1800-1875) typified prominent white settlers who inhabited 19th-century Wisconsin. Read more...

WHI 27578 and 5210

The American Revolution made little, if any, difference to people in Wisconsin. The handful of French-Canadian fur traders cared little about the squabbles of English-speaking Protestants in Boston and London, and Indian hunters and matriarchs presumably cared even less. Furs continued to flow from the Ojibwe, Menominee and other tribes through French-speaking traders in La Pointe and Green Bay to English-speaking merchants in Montreal and London. A generation later, when the War of 1812 broke out, few Wisconsin residents paid any more attention than they had in 1776. Most traders and Indians sided with the British rather than the Americans, though many struggled to remain neutral. When it was over, and the Americans emerged victorious, the U.S. erected military posts at Prairie du Chien (Fort Crawford) and Green Bay (Fort Howard) — the only towns then in existence — and at present-day Portage (Fort Winnebago).

These forts were built to protect not only furs but also minerals. Lead was needed for ammunition, so in 1822 the federal government issued licenses to mine in southwestern Wisconsin on land they believed had been ceded by the Sauk Indians in 1804. Over the next decade miners flowed up the Mississippi into Grant, Crawford, Iowa and Lafayette counties. By 1829 more than 4,000 of them were producing 13 million pounds of lead a year. With so much mineral wealth at stake, U.S. officials hurried to wrest control of the area from its native inhabitants. In August 1825 thousands of Indians from Wisconsin tribes gathered in Prairie du Chien, and federal officials engineered a general treaty of peace among them. Later negotiations with individual tribes soon transferred nearly all of Wisconsin to U.S. ownership, as most tribes were coerced to new lands west of the Mississippi or confined onto reservations.

The most dramatic event in this process came in 1832 when a portion of the Sauk Indians who resisted removal were met by an overwhelming military machine that showed no mercy. An 1804 treaty negotiated in St. Louis had led government officials to believe that they had secured the right to open Sauk lands to settlement. Chief Black Hawk and a substantial portion of the community, on the other hand, considered the 1804 treaty invalid. Although Black Hawk initially moved to Iowa in 1829, in compliance with a government order, he and about 1,200 men, women and children re-crossed the Mississippi on April 6, 1832, to occupy their old homes on the Rock River. There the Illinois militia confronted Black Hawk's band, which fled east up the Rock River valley. Throughout that summer Black Hawk's warriors tried to hold off the soldiers while leading their people back to the Mississippi. During their retreat, several attempts to surrender were ignored or misinterpreted, and many very young and very old people died of hunger, thirst or exhaustion. On August 1, 1832, the surviving Sauk reached the Mississippi at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, below La Crosse. A final surrender flag rejected by the Americans left the Sauk warriors caught between a gunboat in the river and pursuing troops on the bluffs. The next day the Americans massacred most of the surviving men, women and children. Of 1,200 people who had crossed with Black Hawk in April, only about 150 survived.

The message was clear to other Indian leaders: refusal to accept U.S. terms would lead to slaughter. With this sword dangling over their heads, the Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Fox, Potawatomie and Ottawa soon gave up their lands east of the Mississippi and left the state (though many Ho-Chunk and Potawatomie later returned). By 1840 most of Wisconsin belonged to the U.S. rather than to its original inhabitants. The Menominee had already given up much of their territory to the Oneida, Munsee, Brothertown and Stockbridge nations, which had relocated to Wisconsin from their homelands back east. In 1854 the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands ceded ownership of the northern forests (but retained rights to hunt and fish in them forever), and U.S. control over Wisconsin was complete.

Sidebar 5: Souligny

Menominee war Chief Shu'nuni'u, better known by his French name, Souligny, fought with Tecumseh against the U.S. during the War of 1812 but with the Americans against Black Hawk. Read more...

WHI 1868

White settlers rushed onto land left vacant by Indian removals. Lead miners from southern states (some with slaves) and from Cornwall were joined in the 1830s by farmers and developers from New York and New England. Emigrant groups from Britain, Norway and Switzerland came en masse to found colonies. Wisconsin's population in 1820 was estimated at 1,444; by 1836 it had passed 10,000, making Wisconsin eligible for its own territorial government. The first territorial representatives convened on October 25, 1836, at Belmont, the first territorial capital in the lead region, and chose Madison as the site of the future capital. Over the next decade, as Indian tribes ceded land, the U.S. government surveyed and divided it for settlement by farmers and immigrants. Territorial officials authorized roads and canals, chartered corporations and sanctioned public improvements. The population exploded from 11,683 in 1836 to 155,277 in 1846 — a more-than-tenfold increase, and far above the 60,000 citizens required by law for a territory to become a state.

In the fall of 1846, delegates to a constitutional convention argued for 10 weeks over a constitution for the new state. Their proposal outlawed private banks, allowed immigrants to vote, permitted married women to own property and left the question of black suffrage up to a popular vote. This was too radical for voters, who rejected the utopian 1846 constitution and sent delegates back to the drawing board. While deliberating the failed constitution, however, a group of delegates determined to establish a historical society to record the history they saw unfolding around them, thus founding the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The following year they drafted a more moderate version of the constitution that omitted any mention of women's property rights or black suffrage and permitted the Legislature to charter banks. Wisconsin voters accepted this in March 1848, and Wisconsin became the 30th state on May 29. When the census was taken in 1850, its population had nearly doubled again in just four years, from 155,277 to 304,456. At its birth Wisconsin was the same size or larger than a third of the states formed from the original 13 colonies.

Next Section: 19th-Century Wisconsin

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