The Physical Geography of Wisconsin

All history happens in some place. The names, facts, and dates in our history books sometimes leave the impression that the past exists only on paper between two covers, but the past is actually all around us. On at least one morning during the past 14,000 years, Indians pursued game just outside your window. With more than 100 centuries of human history behind us, crossing any bridge or hiking in any park we share the space with a Jesuit missionary or French fur trader. Less than a mile from where you're sitting, 150 years ago a pair of surveyors made notes about the landscape as they marched by, laying out the boundaries of our suburban roads, city blocks, and rural farms.

All history happened in some actual place, and the nature of that place affected what could or couldn't happen. The features of our landscape help explain Wisconsin's past, and understanding the lay of the land helps us understand the events that happened here.

On the east Wisconsin is bordered by Lake Michigan; on the west, by the Mississippi River (mostly). On the north and south it is bounded not by natural features but by human imagination: a line run across the prairies by surveyors in 1832 separates us from Illinois, while another line run in 1847 divides us from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The eastern lakeshore is generally low and sandy or marshy, with only a few harbors deep enough to handle large ships. The western edge of our state is formed of immense bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, punctuated by steep ravines, or coulees. The southern border runs mostly through fertile land that is nearly flat and watered by sluggish, shallow rivers. The northern boundary crosses through dark forest relieved by high wetlands and the lakes that draw thousands of tourists each summer.

These four principal habitats -- eastern lowlands, southern prairies, western valleys, and northern forests -- overlap and blend into one another in the interior. Moving east to west in the southern part of Wisconsin, the rich prairie becomes increasingly hilly, until west of Madison few large tracts of perfectly level land can be found. The northern forest is quite dense above a line from Green Bay to Minneapolis. It grows gradually less thick as one travels southward, until it gives way to open lands along a line roughly from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien. Many unique, smaller landscapes, such as the Door Peninsula and the Kettle Moraine, intersect the four major ones.

Human history happened first in our river valleys, which provided easy transportation, nutritious soil for growing food, and diverse habitats for game animals and birds. The rivers tend to flow either northeast into the Great Lakes and eventually the Atlantic, or southwest into the Mississippi and, in the end, the Gulf of Mexico. In many places one can stand on a ridge between two streams, one headed for the icy waters of the North Atlantic and the other for the sultry swamps around New Orleans. Besides the Mississippi, several other rivers helped shape Wisconsin history. The state is bisected north to south by the Wisconsin River, which starts in the forest near the Michigan line at Lac Vieux Desert and runs south to Portage, where it veers southwest before emptying into the Mississippi. Other important waterways that flow into the Mississippi are the Black, the Chippewa, and the St. Croix rivers in the northwest and the Rock River in the south. The most important rivers running in the opposite direction are the Fox, the Wolf, and the Milwaukee, which empty into Lake Michigan.

Today's rivers, lakes, and landforms are largely the result of glaciers that drifted slowly down from the north during successive ice ages. Most of the state was bulldozed by the repeated visits of these glaciers, some of which were as much as a mile thick. The last of them was the Laurentian Ice Sheet, whose petal-like lobes stretched down over northern and eastern Wisconsin about 17,000 years ago. The southwestern third of the state was untouched by these glaciers, leaving unique formations such as the Wisconsin Dells, Devil's Lake, and the Baraboo Hills. This so-called "driftless area" contains many ancient landscapes that Wisconsin's native peoples have considered uniquely powerful and important.

[Sources: Birmingham, Robert A. and Leslie E. Eisenberg. Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, c2000). Theler, James L. and and Robert F. Boszhardt. Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley (Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c2003). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Increase Lapham surveys Wisconsin's trees, 1858Increase Lapham surveys Wisconsin's trees, 1858
Link to article: Memorable weather from 19th century MadisonMemorable weather from 19th century Madison
Link to book: A clergyman locates the Biblical Garden of Eden in Wisconsin, 1886A clergyman locates the Biblical Garden of Eden in Wisconsin, 1886
Link to book: A Dells Tourist Brochure, 1932A Dells Tourist Brochure, 1932
Link to book: A British scientist makes a geological tour in 1835.A British scientist makes a geological tour in 1835.
Link to book: Increase Lapham describes territorial Wisconsin for new settlers.Increase Lapham describes territorial Wisconsin for new settlers.
Link to book: American Indian legends about Wisconsin localities.American Indian legends about Wisconsin localities.
Link to book: An eyewitness history of the New Richmond tornado, 1899An eyewitness history of the New Richmond tornado, 1899
Link to images: A field in a glaciated part of Wisconsin, 1960A field in a glaciated part of Wisconsin, 1960
Link to images: A cliff in the driftless region of Wisconsin.A cliff in the driftless region of Wisconsin.
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868