The Making of Pioneer Wisconsin: Voices of Early Settlers

By Michael E. Stevens

Paperback: $18.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-889-8

192 pages, 18 b&w photos, 6 x 9

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From the mid-1830s through the 1850s, more than
a half million people settled in Wisconsin. While
traveling in ships and wagons, establishing homes, and
forming new communities, these men, women, and
children recorded their experiences in letters, diaries,
and newspaper articles. In their own words, they
revealed their fears, joys, frustrations, and hopes for life
in this new place.
The Making of Pioneer Wisconsin provides a unique and
intimate glimpse into the lives of these early settlers,
as they describe what it felt like to be a teenager in a
wagon heading west or an isolated young wife living
far from her friends and family. Woven together with
context provided by historian Michael E. Stevens, these
first-person accounts form a fascinating narrative that
deepens our ability to understand and empathize with
Wisconsin’s early pioneers.

1. Why did you write Pioneer Wisconsin?
This book emerged out of my belief that one of the best ways to understand history is to encounter it through those who lived in an era. By reading the words of men and women who lived in a time of tremendous change, we better understand the past. They didn’t know how their personal stories would turn out, and so there’s a sense of anticipation in their words.  In addition, the story told here is a timeless and universal one – of how hundreds of thousands of people decided to move to a new place, adapt, and create new lives.

2. Why did you choose to focus on this particular time and place?
During the pioneer era, between a half and three quarters of a million people moved into Wisconsin. Some came from other American states; others emigrated from Europe. This settlement took place at immense cost to the lives of Wisconsin’s native Indian population. There are numerous books that explain the policy and the impersonal forces that led to these events. What I wanted to do here, instead, was to illustrate how the pioneer experience – namely the process of moving to a new place and starting over – was encountered by ordinary people. Because of all the things that were happening in Wisconsin at this time, it was the perfect place to explore.

3. What do we learn about the pioneer experience?
This book presents the stories of pioneer men, women, and even children in their own words. By reading their letters, diaries, and other writings, we become aware of their emotions. They becme alive to us rather than cardboard figures. The material found here primarily focuses on the ordinary stuff of life. What did it feel like to leave home and move to a new place? How did settlers adapt to others who had different customs and ways of life? How did they find a spouse or make a living in a new land?  How did they experience weddings, childbirth, sickness, and loneliness in their new surroundings? Today, we know how their stories turned out, but the future was uncertain for settlers at the time they were writing.

4. Tell us about the kinds of people we meet?
I wanted this book to allow us to meet ordinary people from varying backgrounds with different experiences. We’re limited to knowing those who left a written record, but in the book, we encounter pioneers from northern and southern states as well as immigrants from abroad.  We meet an excited young bride describing her wedding, a young man delighted with the abundance of food, but also a rural wife struggling with loneliness. We hear pioneers who believe that moving to Wisconsin was the best thing they ever did as well as others who regretted the choice to move. There’s the voice of a teenage girl who kept a diary on the trip west by wagon, of a 27-year-old black man from Milwaukee talking about “sweet freedom,” and of a Brotherton Indian woman who was abandoned by her husband.  At its core, this book is about learning what this pivotal era felt like to the people who experienced it.

5. Do you have any favorite people in the book?
There are so many interesting people, but Racheline Wood Bass stands out because of the directness with which she expresses her feelings. Racheline was a 28-years old school teacher who had settled in Platteville. When her sister in Vermont tells her that she won’t come to visit her in Platteville, Racheline says “I have to-day had a little cry.”  At other times, one can still feel her exhilaration. At the end of a semester, she says her “shackles were off” and she felt free as a bird at not having to go to school the next day.  Yet on the very next day, she sees some of her students and says how much she misses them. 

6. These pioneers lived nearly two centuries ago, but in some ways, they seem very contemporary. In addition to better understanding the history, what else can the reader take away from your book?
The Wisconsin pioneer experience—moving to a new place, getting married, or starting a new job—can call up familiar emotions for the twenty-first-century reader. Some of their values and assumptions are very different than ours. Yet, at the same time, by hearing about their triumphs and defeats and sharing in their joys and their anxieties, we come to understand more about our own lives. Rather than encountering stern, dour people whose images are frozen in time, the voices captured in this book provide us with an opportunity to meet people from the past who had strong emotions and feelings and who faced similar challenges in a time of change. The exuberance and excitement of pioneers, as well as their loneliness and discouragement, are not unfamiliar to us. As we build our own lives and communities, we can take some comfort knowing that others have walked similar paths before us.