in Wisconsin History
The Founding of Major Cities
Until the nineteenth century, white settlement in Wisconsin was sparse and centered almost solely on the fur trade and military posts at Green Bay, LaPointe, and Prairie du Chien. With increased westward migration after the War of 1812, white settlers initially settled in two areas: the lead mining regions along the Mississippi and along the lakeshore in what later became the city of Milwaukee. Because water routes remained the only feasible means for travel and transporting goods in the early nineteenth century, towns and cities usually fanned out from rivers and lakes. Although the major lead mining towns of Platteville, Dodgeville, and Mineral Point were not themselves on navigable waterways, they depended on the Mississippi for transportation of people and goods.
Wisconsin's frontier towns did not appear arbitrarily or by magic at strategic locations. Land speculation was one of the most significant business opportunities on the Wisconsin frontier. Doubling as town promoters, land speculators advertised their settlements, provided money, and attracted merchants and workers to serve what they all hoped would rapidly become important towns in Wisconsin.
Many of the territory's early leaders had a special interest in seeing the development of particular towns and regions. Solomon Juneau, a fur trader and merchant, owned much of Milwaukee's east side with his partner, Morgan Martin. They hoped their land would become the center of a major Lake Michigan port city. Two other speculators, Byron Kilbourne and George Walker, owned tracts on Milwaukee's west and south side. Mutually interested in having their lands surveyed and opened to public sale, these rival promoters engaged in a bitter competition to improve their village sites to attract buyers.
Though the efforts of politician and speculator James Duane Doty played a large part in the selection of his own land as the territorial capital, the site that became Madison was also a compromise. Madison was located between the two most populous regions -- the Mississippi mining areas and the Lake Michigan shore -- of Wisconsin. Like many other towns, Belmont (Wisconsin Territory's first capital) never gained the lasting importance and population that its boosters had hoped.
The location of roads, canals, and harbors all gave certain towns an economic advantage over those of rival promoters and investors, and so did the location of government land offices. The federal government opened offices in Mineral Point and Green Bay in 1834. Another land office was opened in Milwaukee in 1838. As these regions became more settled, the land offices moved to other, less populated parts of the territory to encourage settlement. Land offices attracted settlers, lawyers, merchants, moneylenders, and speculators. Although these people brought business to the towns in the early formative years, the development of sustainable resources and accessible transportation routes were far more reliable indicators of a town's potential to become a major city. Long after many of the land offices closed, Milwaukee and Green Bay continued to expand to become significant Wisconsin communities, while Mineral Point, a town centered on lead mining, did not.
A desire for greater autonomy and more public services led villages to apply for city charters from the legislature. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, Milwaukee was its only city, though a city far different than it is today. At the time, Milwaukee was five separate villages or wards, and its mayor governed five sets of independent representatives from each area. Smaller cities that were chartered in the 1850s, such as Green Bay in 1854, had more centralized forms of government. Madison, incorporated as a village in 1846, received its city charter from the state legislature in 1856.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 1, 2, and 3 (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); Risjord, Norman K. Wisconsin: The Story of the Badger State (Madison: Wisconsin Trails, 1995);]