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19th-Century Immigration

The first quarter of the nineteenth century was marked by westward migration into the regions north and west of the Ohio River. Though Wisconsin was initially a distant frontier, the small numbers of French, English, Americans, and American Indians who resided there had nonetheless explored and used the rich land and water resources that would soon bring thousands of immigrants into Wisconsin.

Prior to the Black Hawk War in 1832, Indians primarily inhabited much of Wisconsin. By the mid nineteenth century, though, Indians had been induced to cede most of their lands to the federal government. Some were relocated west of the Mississippi River. Thus, the settlement of Wisconsin by European immigrants was preceded and made possible by the coerced reduction of tribal lands and the forced removal of Indian populations.

Between 1836 and 1850, Wisconsin's population increased from a mere 11,000 to over 305,000. Some of these settlers came from the eastern United States, while others came from Europe. The first immigrants tended to settle in the southern parts of Wisconsin. Economic and social changes in Europe, coupled with natural disasters such as the potato blight in Ireland, increased Europeans' discontent and desire to emigrate. Though each person came to the United States for different reasons, all immigrants sought a better life in Wisconsin. By 1850, one-third of the state's population was foreign-born.

Improving transportation routes and the opening of government lands encouraged the mass migrations westward. Immigrants came by ship, by steamboat, by railroad, on horseback, and in wagons. Milwaukee became a favorite landing place for lake passengers because of its expanding business opportunities and public lands office.

Of the more than 100,000 foreign-born Wisconsinites in 1850, only 48,000 could claim English as their native language. Nearly one-half of these English speakers were Irish. Of the non-English speaking immigrants, the Germans were by far the most numerous. Norwegians constituted the second largest group, followed closely by Canadians of primarily French descent.

Between 1852 and 1855, the Wisconsin Commission of Emigration actively encouraged the settlement of European immigrants in Wisconsin. Pamphlets extolling the state's virtues were published in German, Norwegian, Dutch, and English and were distributed throughout Europe as well as in eastern port cities. Advertisements were placed in more than nine hundred newspapers. By 1855, however, the rise of antiforeign sentiment, or nativism, led to the dissolution of the commission.

Wisconsin's foreign-born population continued to increase, though, owing to the efforts of the Commission of Emigration, the propaganda produced by land speculators, and the letters sent back to Europe by immigrants encouraging friends and family to join them. Although not as statistically significant in the overall population as the Irish, Germans, and Norwegians, many other ethnic groups left their mark on particular areas of Wisconsin, including the Finns in Douglas County, the Danes in Racine County, and the Italians in Kenosha.

[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 (online at http://wiscinfo.doit.wisc.edu/mkilibrary/ethn-his.html#top)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The first Norwegian immigrants are recalled.  The first Norwegian immigrants are recalled.
Link to article: An Immigrant Who Became a Northwoods Missionary  An Immigrant Who Became a Northwoods Missionary
Link to article: Madison's Italian community in the early 20th century  Madison's Italian community in the early 20th century
Link to article: A Polish immigrant recalls coming to Milwaukee as a boy in 1868  A Polish immigrant recalls coming to Milwaukee as a boy in 1868
Link to article: A Connecticut Yankee writes home about Wisconsin's virtues in 1847.  A Connecticut Yankee writes home about Wisconsin's virtues in 1847.
Link to article: A real-life "Little House" girlhood in Waupaca County.  A real-life "Little House" girlhood in Waupaca County.
Link to article: Carl Schurz describes why he settled in Wisconsin.  Carl Schurz describes why he settled in Wisconsin.
Link to article: The first German women to settle in Milwaukee.  The first German women to settle in Milwaukee.
Link to article: An overview of Polish immigration through 1896  An overview of Polish immigration through 1896
Link to article: Recollections of Wisconsin slaves by pioneer settlers.  Recollections of Wisconsin slaves by pioneer settlers.
Link to article: Early History of the Brothertown Indians  Early History of the Brothertown Indians
Link to article: A Yankee Childhood in Dodge County  A Yankee Childhood in Dodge County
Link to article: A description of the early Polish immigrants to Wisconsin, 1901  A description of the early Polish immigrants to Wisconsin, 1901
Link to article: Milwaukee's 19th-c. Jewish neighborhood recollected  Milwaukee's 19th-c. Jewish neighborhood recollected
Link to article: Theodore Rodolf recounts his life in the lead region in the 1830s  Theodore Rodolf recounts his life in the lead region in the 1830s
Link to article: Recollections of Old Superior  Recollections of Old Superior
Link to article: Milwaukee's Irish neighborhood in the 19th century  Milwaukee's Irish neighborhood in the 19th century
Link to article: A Polish couple braves the loneliness to settle Pike Lake  A Polish couple braves the loneliness to settle Pike Lake
Link to article: A little bit of Italy in Vernon County  A little bit of Italy in Vernon County
Link to article: The early Jewish history of LaCrosse  The early Jewish history of LaCrosse
Link to article: The character and activities of Bohemian immigrants, 1901  The character and activities of Bohemian immigrants, 1901
Link to article: Fifty years of Polish settlement in Portage County, 1857-1907  Fifty years of Polish settlement in Portage County, 1857-1907
Link to article: Czech immigrants settle in Langlade County in the 1880s  Czech immigrants settle in Langlade County in the 1880s
Link to article: The history and settlement of Langlade County  The history and settlement of Langlade County
Link to article: The roots of Milwaukee's Jewish community in the mid-19th century  The roots of Milwaukee's Jewish community in the mid-19th century
Link to artifacts: A Norwegian trinket box  A Norwegian trinket box
Link to artifacts: Rosemaled Norwegian Immigrant Trunk, 1845  Rosemaled Norwegian Immigrant Trunk, 1845
Link to artifacts: Two sausage stuffers  Two sausage stuffers
Link to artifacts: The oldest toast in Wisconsin  The oldest toast in Wisconsin
Link to artifacts: A violin becomes a Norwegian fiddle, 1893  A violin becomes a Norwegian fiddle, 1893
Link to artifacts: A traditional Ukrainian Easter egg  A traditional Ukrainian Easter egg
Link to artifacts: A costume from a Racine Purim carnival  A costume from a Racine Purim carnival
Link to book: A popular handbook teaches immigrants about Wisconsin, 1851.  A popular handbook teaches immigrants about Wisconsin, 1851.
Link to book: Barron County officials encourage settlers to emigrate to the northwoods.  Barron County officials encourage settlers to emigrate to the northwoods.
Link to book: Northwoods officials try to attract settlers onto cutover lands, 1902.  Northwoods officials try to attract settlers onto cutover lands, 1902.
Link to book: A teenager's diary of coming overland from Ohio in 1846  A teenager's diary of coming overland from Ohio in 1846
Link to book: A German immigrant advises others about coming to Wisconsin (1849)  A German immigrant advises others about coming to Wisconsin (1849)
Link to book: Promoters try to entice settlers to Bayfield County  Promoters try to entice settlers to Bayfield County
Link to book: Promoters describe Superior in its infancy  Promoters describe Superior in its infancy
Link to book: An 1875 history of the Chippewa Valley  An 1875 history of the Chippewa Valley
Link to book: A survey report of migratory labor in Wisconsin in 1962  A survey report of migratory labor in Wisconsin in 1962
Link to book: The state markets itself to immigrants, 1867-1896  The state markets itself to immigrants, 1867-1896
Link to book: An Abolitionist Recalls Anti-Slavery Days in Wisconsin  An Abolitionist Recalls Anti-Slavery Days in Wisconsin
Link to book: A German emigrant guidebook, 1841  A German emigrant guidebook, 1841
Link to book: Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown  Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown
Link to book: A speech by Brothertown Indian leader Samsom Occom, 1771  A speech by Brothertown Indian leader Samsom Occom, 1771
Link to book: Horse thieves on the Wisconsin frontier, 1832-1865  Horse thieves on the Wisconsin frontier, 1832-1865
Link to book: A guide to the Mohican language, 1789  A guide to the Mohican language, 1789
Link to collections: Stories by and about immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.  Stories by and about immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
Link to collections: Stories by and about Dutch and Belgian immigrants.  Stories by and about Dutch and Belgian immigrants.
Link to collections: Stories by and about Italian immigrants.
  Stories by and about Italian immigrants.
Link to collections: Stories by and about Norwegian immigrants.
  Stories by and about Norwegian immigrants.
Link to collections: Stories by and about German immigrants.  Stories by and about German immigrants.
Link to collections: Stories by and about Swiss immigrants.  Stories by and about Swiss immigrants.
Link to collections: Stories by and about Czech and Hungarian immigrants.  Stories by and about Czech and Hungarian immigrants.
Link to images: An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s  An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s
Link to images: An advertisement tries to attract settlers to the cutover region.  An advertisement tries to attract settlers to the cutover region.
Link to images: Pictures of John Muir  Pictures of John Muir
Link to manuscript: 30 original manuscript letters of John Muir, 1861-1914  30 original manuscript letters of John Muir, 1861-1914
Link to manuscript: John Muir's younger brother recalls their boyhood.  John Muir's younger brother recalls their boyhood.
Link to manuscript: An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860  An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860
Link to manuscript: A Norwegian immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin in 1840.  A Norwegian immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin in 1840.
Link to manuscript: A German immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin.  A German immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin.
Link to manuscript: Ma Ingalls describes family life in 1861  Ma Ingalls describes family life in 1861
Link to places: Photographs of a Finnish homestead in northern Wisconsin  Photographs of a Finnish homestead in northern Wisconsin
Link to places: Miners build a little "Cornwall" in Mineral Point  Miners build a little "Cornwall" in Mineral Point
Link to places: Tobacco farming takes off in southern Wisconsin  Tobacco farming takes off in southern Wisconsin
Link to places: An Italian missionary who designs his own churches  An Italian missionary who designs his own churches
Link to places: Golda Meir's school in Milwaukee  Golda Meir's school in Milwaukee
Link to places: A Polish neighborhood in Milwaukee  A Polish neighborhood in Milwaukee
Link to places: A showcase of German American culture in Milwaukee  A showcase of German American culture in Milwaukee
Link to places: Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County  Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County
Link to places: Milwaukee's East Village Historic District  Milwaukee's East Village Historic District
Link to places: Namur Belgian-American Historic District  Namur Belgian-American Historic District

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: An examination of the narratives of four immigrant women  An examination of the narratives of four immigrant women
Link to book: The people and places of Fond du Lac County  The people and places of Fond du Lac County
Link to book: Travel Guide to Lake Superior in 1872  Travel Guide to Lake Superior in 1872
Link to book: Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society  Collected historical documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society
Link to book: An 1874 guide to travel on the Great Lakes and Rivers of America  An 1874 guide to travel on the Great Lakes and Rivers of America
Link to book: An 1896 guide to settlement in Northern Wisconsin  An 1896 guide to settlement in Northern Wisconsin
Link to book: Reminiscences of early La Crosse by L.H. Pammel  Reminiscences of early La Crosse by L.H. Pammel
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: A popular German American cookbook (1897)  A popular German American cookbook (1897)
Link to book: A minister seeks to attract settlers to La Crosse in 1854  A minister seeks to attract settlers to La Crosse in 1854
Link to book: A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854  A historical, documentary, and descriptive history of Wisconsin to 1854
Link to book: An 1855 guide to Wisconsin for emigrants.  An 1855 guide to Wisconsin for emigrants.
Link to book: A prominent Norwegian-American remembers his life in Wisconsin (1915)  A prominent Norwegian-American remembers his life in Wisconsin (1915)
Link to collections: Harvard's Online Immigration Research Collection  Harvard's Online Immigration Research Collection
Link to collections: Belgian-American Research Collection  Belgian-American Research Collection
Link to collections: Biographical sketches and writings of some Wisconsin pioneer women  Biographical sketches and writings of some Wisconsin pioneer women
Link to collections: Over 2000 more pages of immigrant experiences  Over 2000 more pages of immigrant experiences
Link to manuscript: Letters from a pioneer African American community in Wisconsin  Letters from a pioneer African American community in Wisconsin

Related Links

Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Discover our series of booklets about ethnic groups who came to Wisconsin
A history of ethnic assimilation and the law, 1846-1920
Visit Old World Wisconsin, America's largest outdoor museum of rural life
Visit Heritage Hill State Historical Park
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Arrange a tour on this topic at our Museum
Visit the Wisconsin Black Historical Society
Read more about the Americanization of European barn styles
Read more about women's experiences in our book, Women's Wisconsin

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