American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


IN 1836, that portion of Michigan Territory which lay west of Lake Michigan, was erected into the Territory of Wisconsin. Within the borders of the nascent commonwealth there lived at that time about twelve thousand whites and nine thousand Indians. Many of the sites of future cities of Wisconsin were already occupied by agricultural settlers, isolated or in tiny groups.

Green Bay, a straggling French-Canadian settlement, had comer down from the seventeenth century, maintaining a sickly existence upon the fur trade and the coasting traffic of the upper Great Lakes; Forts Winnebago (at Portage) and Crawford (at Prairie du Chien) were surrounded by meagre hamlets, chiefly of French creoles; the lead mining region in the southwest, although sparsely settled, contained the bulk of the white population, with Mineral Point as its centre, a village having at the time an apparently brighter prospect than the new settlement at the mouth of Milwaukee River; there were also a few notches carved, at wide intervals, from the gloomy forest bordering the western shore of Lake Michigan. Outside of the settlements just enumerated, Wisconsin was practically un inhabited by whites. Here and there was to be found an Indian trader, the Yankee successor of the coureur de bois of the old French regime, or some exceptionally adventurous farmer; but their far separated cabins only emphasized the density of the wilderness, through which roamed untrammelled the shiftless, gipsy like aborigines, the comparatively harmless Chippewas, Menomonies, Pottawatomies and Winnebagoes.

On the 4th of July the territorial officers of Wisconsin qualified at Mineral Point, with Henry Dodge, a Black Hawk War hero, as Governor. In October following, the first Legislature assembled within a two story battlement fronted house in the little lead region hamlet of Belmont. The highway which it faced bristled with stumps, while miners' shafts and prospectors' holes thickly dimpled the shanty. neighborhood. A month was spent in selecting a capital for the infant Territory. There were seventeen applicants. Some of them were actual settlements, like Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, Racine, Portage, Belmont, Mineral Point, and Platteville; but others were ".paper towns," existing only on maps made by real estate speculators. Of such shadowy substance was Madison, the victor.

James Duane Doty, who had been United States Circuit Judge for the country west of Lake Michigan, had formed a town site partnership with Stevens T. Mason, then Governor of Michigan Territory. These gentlemen preempted several tracts of government land at presumably desirable spots in the wilderness. Doty advanced the respective claims of these tracts, giving them maps and attractive names. His favorite was an undulating isthmus between Lakes Mono and Mendota,(1) in the heart of Southern Wisconsin, midway between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. This claimant he named "Madison," after the third President of the United States.

It was freely alleged at the time that Doty presented choke lots in Madison to his legislative friends. However this may be, the ostensible arguments produced were: that the chief centres of settlement in the northeast (Green Bay), the southeast (Milwaukee), and the southwest (the lead region) were so widely separated and had such divergent interests that to select one would alienate the others and make it impossible to harmoniously conduct the territorial government; again, that to build up one corner of the Territory at the expense of the others would unequally distribute the population; it was also urged that the unsettled central portion of the Territory needed the incentive to growth which the capital would give it; and lastly, Dow, the only man in Belmont that winter who seems to have known Madison, declared the site to be the most beautful spot in the Wisconsin forest. And thus Madison won.

Beyond the understanding that the centre of the Capitol Park was to be the common corner of four sections of land which met near the middle of the isthmus, there had as yet been no thought of how this projected town in the woods should be laid out. A French half breed, Olivier Armel, who had a temporary trading shanty on the tract, half brush and half canvas, was the only man whom the surveyor found when he arrived in a blinding snowstorm in February (1837) to set the stakes in this virgin wilderness for the future State House of Wisconsin. The streets of the town were laid out, so far as possible, upon the lines of the national capital: wide avenues radiating from the Capitol Park upon the points of the compass were bisected by other highways paralleling the shores of the two principal lakes. For names of the thoroughfares, the patriotic surveyor had recourse to the list of signatures to the federal Constitution, probably the only instance of a city's streets being exclusively named from this venerable body of lawgivers.

The first dwelling in Madison was a log house built in April by one Eben Peck, for the entertainment of the mechanics who were expected out from Milwaukee' to construct the State House. It was June Toth before the building commissioner and his thirty six workmen put in an appearance, after a toilsome overland journey of ten days through rain and mud, with no roads, and unbridged rivers which had either to be forded or swam. On the 4th of July the cornerstone was laid "with appropriate toasts and speeches" by a small knot of territorial officials. It was January, 1839, before the territorial Legislature could be accommodated at Madison; and even then the situation brought little comfort Says a pioneer of those days: "With the session came crowds of people. The public houses were literally crammed shakedowns were looked upon as a luxury, and lucky was the guest whose fortune it was to rest his weary limbs on a straw or hay mattress."

The little village was charmingly situated in the primeval forest. One of Madison's early teachers thus wrote of the hamlet of his young manhood:

"Those who only know of Madison now, have but a feeble conception of its wonderful and fascinating beauty at the beginning. In 183g it had the look of a well kept lawn, shaded by fine white oak and burr oak trees, with a fragrant fringe of red cedar all about the lake shores. There was then no underbrush and thicket such as sprung up soon, when the semi annual fires ceased to do the duty of the rake and mower; but the eye had a stretch quite uninterrupted, except as the surface rose in beautiful green knolls on either lake. The lakes then lay in natural silver beauty, prettily framed in pebbly beach. For simple, quiet beauty, Madison in 839 was unequalled bye anything I remember."

Despite its natural attractiveness, and its presumably favorable location, Madison was a plant of slow growth. In the summer of 1838 the census revealed the presence here of only sixty two people, and it is recorded that there were at that time "not more than a dozen houses, built and in process of erection, counting every cabin and shanty within three miles of the Capitol," while Indian wigwams were frequently set up within sight of the doors. Four years later there were but 172 people, and in 1846 but 632. By the close of 1850, however, the population had, largely as the result of a mild "boom" in that year, grown to 1672. Five years later Horace Greeley and Bayard Taylor paid the place a visit, and in letters to the New York Tribune highly extolled its beauties. As a result there was an almost immediate increase of population and a considerable advance in the price of real estate; so that at the outbreak of the Civil War there were 7000 Madisonians.

Notwithstanding the general prevalence of financial stringency, Madison prospered during the war. The State's troops were largely mobilized here, and constantly enlivened the streets; a great deal of money was necessarily spent by the State and nation for supplies and salaries, as well as by the soldiers themselves, so that throughout it all the town grew substantially. In 1870 there were 10,000 citizens, but the next decade only slightly advanced this census. About 1882, however, a variety of causes led to the commencement of a stronger growth, chiefly the rapid development of the State University, the expansion of the State's administrative affairs, the bettering of railroad facilities, and an enlargement of local manufacturing interests. During the past eighteen years there has been a steady gain, with every indication of permanency; the census of 1900 revealed the presence at the isconsin capital of 20,000 residents, while an additional 5000 dwell in closely abutting suburbs.

Frequent attempts to remove the capital to Milwaukee were long a potent factor in retarding the development of Madison. In 1870 the effort was nearly successful. The fact, however, that the State had by this time invested large sums of money in public buildings in and around Madison, particularly in the State University, which institution must, by the terms of the constitution, be situated "at or near the seat of State government," has of late years cooled the ardor of advocates of removal, so that no fear of renewed agitation is now entertained.

In the early annals of this peaceful little city in the undulating oak grove between Monona and Mendota, surrounded on every hand by far stretching lakes and marshes, and thus in a measure isolated from her rural neighbors, the historian finds little of stirring interest; and that little almost always the reflex of the Legislature, which annually until 1882, when the sessions were made biennial, came and went with much bustle and sometimes brawl. The legislative sessions were, in ante bellum days, the events of the year, and attracted prominent men from all quarters of Wisconsin. The crude hotels were filled each winter with legislators, lobbyists and visiting politicians. The humors of the time were often uncouth. There was a deal of horse play, hard drinking, and profanity, and occasionally a personal encounter during the heat of discussion: as in 1842, when Charles C. P. Arndt, of Brown, was killed on the floor of the council chamber by his fellow member, James R.Vineyard, of Grant, an event to which Dickens alluded in his American Notes, and which gained for Wisconsin an unenviable notoriety the country over. But an undercurrent of good nature was generally observable, and strong attachments were more frequently noticeable than feuds.

Dancing and miscellaneous merry making were the order of the times, and society at the capital was, from the first, thought to be fashionable. Even when the Legislature was not in session, Madison long remained the social as well as the political centre of Wisconsin, and overland travellers between the outlying settlements on the shores of the Mississippi and Lake Michigan or Green Bay were wont to tarry here upon their way. Several of them have left us, in journals and in letters, pleasing descriptions, of their reception by the good natured inhabitants, and the impressions made on them by the natural attractions of this beauty spot.

In 1856, Madison was the scene of political excitement of a serious character. William Barstow (Democrat) claimed to have been reelected Governor over Coles Bashford (Republican), by 157 majority. The Democrats controlled the State board of canvassers, and the Republicans claimed that this board had tampered with the returns. Upon January 27th both Barstow and Bashford took the oath of office, but the former and his friends continued to hold the State House. The State Supreme Court was called upon by Bashford, in a quo warranto suit, to oust the incumbent and give the office of Governor to the relator. Thus commenced the most celebrated case ever tried by this bench. This was the first time in the history of the United States that a State court had been called upon to decide as to the right of a Governor to hold his seat. Its jurisdiction was questioned by Barstow's attorneys. The contest waged fiercely for some weeks, with eminent counsel on both sides, the court at last holding that it had jurisdiction. The court then proceeded with its inquiry, and March 24th declared that Bashford had received a majority of 1009. A few days before this Barstow had resigned, and Lieutenant Governor McArthur was holding the office by virtue of the constitution. McArthur was defiant, and announced his determination to hold the post at all hazards. But the court promptly ruled that Barstow's title being worthless, McArthur could not, of course, succeed to it.

Throughout this long contest, it may well be imagined that popular excitement in and around Madison ran high. The respective bands of partisans were armed and drilling, in anticipation of a desperate encounter. It would have taken small provocation to ignite this tinder box, but the management on both sides was judicious; and although the opposing forces had frequent quarrels, and made numerous and vigorous threats of violence, no blows were struck. Upon the day after the court's decision Bashford and a bodyguard advanced through corridors crowded with his followers, to McArthur's office, and, showing his writ, quietly announced that he would henceforth take charge. of State affairs. McArthur hesitated, but a glance at the threatening crowd induced him to retire hurriedly through the door. The friends of Bashford cheered in triumph, and then poured into the office to congratulate the new Governor.

As has been previously stated, the cornerstone of the old territorial State House was laid July 4, 1837. The building cost about $60,000. An old engraving of the structure, which we herewith reproduce, shows that it was of the then prevalent Americanized Greek style of which there are still remaining a few examples, chiefly in the Southern States; cointemporally accounts agree that it was rather superior in character to most of the Western capitols of sixty years ago. In 1857, the Legislature authorized the enlargement of the capitol. This "enlargement" was but nominal; the plans developed into a new building on the site of the old, to cost somewhat over half a million dollars. Lack of funds because of the Civil War caused the work to proceed slowly, so that it was 1870 before the dome of the new State House was completed. In 1882, two new transverse wings were provided for. Thus the total cost of the present capitol and the development of the surrounding park has been about $900,000. The building is, however, now sadly behind the times in respect of light, ventilation and sanitary conveniences, and there is some thought of a new State House which shall be more nearly worthy of a rich and fast growing commonwealth of over two millions of people.

The University of Wisconsin was incorporated under an act of Legislature approved the 26th day of July, 1848; but it was the 16th of January, 1850, before the first chancellor was inaugurated, and the 5th of February before the doors were opened for the reception of pupils. During the first twenty years of its existence, the institution was beset with' vicissitudes, and obliged to battle against popular indifference and even opposition. The congressional land grants which were designed to create a fund for its endowment were recklessly disposed of by the legislatures of the '50's, avowedly to encourage speedy settlement of the State, under the plea that when the commonwealth became well populated it would be rich enough to support the University by taxation; it was also maintained that pioneers had little need for or patience with higher education. Gradually, the University gained recognition as the logical head of the educational system of the State; and at last, after a half century of growth, it has developed from a rustic academy of twenty students into an institution of national reputation, with a talented faculty giving instruction to nearly 3000 students, assembled from many States and countries.

The University is admirably situated, chiefly upon two hills lying a mile to the west of the State House and commanding wide views of the surrounding country. The grounds comprise about 350 acres of hill and plain, the western half of which is occupied by the buildings and experimental farm of the College of Agriculture. Mendota, the largest and most beautiful of the chain of lakes, lies directly to the north, its attractive shores often rising into steep bluffs, Surmounted by summer cottages, or swelling into distant hills besprinkled with prosperous farmsteads, while the towers and chimneys of the State Hospital for the Insane fret the skyline beyond the farthest bay. A broad straight avenue leads directly eastward to the ridge crowned by the white dome of the State House; while to the south the view ordinarily ends with the silvery expanse of Lake Monona, glistening through the trees, but when the foliage has thinned, the southern horizon is sufficiently extended, both from town and university vantage points, to comprise the far-off waters of Lake Waubesa. The outlook from University Hill, over topping the tree embowered town, which spreads gracefully, with up thrust tower and dome and steeple, over Monona Ridge, is, particularly upon a moonlit night in summer, one of the most charming in America; while from Observatory Hill, just westward, one obtains a widely extended view of lakes and forest and purple hills which, especially under the glow of sunset, has won the unstinted plaudits of competent critics, some of whom have likened it to Old World scenes farfamed in song and story.

Few of the buildings of the State University are architecturally worthy of mention here. The original structures were North and South Halls, mere four story stone boxes. The Doric University Hall, surmounting University Hill, and one, of the early buildings, has of recent years been greatly improved and extended, and now, has some dignity of outline as well as historic association. The new Engineering Building, in gray brick, is pleasing in form and color; Science Hall and the Gymnasium, great piles of staring red brick, are conspicuous examples of the average college buildings of our day; while the best one can say of the old Library Hall, Chemical Building, Machine Shop, and Chadbourne Hall (the women's dormitory) is that they will continue to serve a useful purpose until the day when the State feels inclined to replace them with creditable structures. Upon Observatory Hill is the dignified Washburn Observatory, and upon the western slope the growing, mass of buildings appertaining to the State Experimental Farm maintained by the College of Agriculture.

At the eastern (downward) front of University Hill, and occupying land once a part of the campus, a building has of late been reared by the commonwealth which not only is far better than any of the University structures, but quite outranks in dignity and thoroughness of modern construction and equipment all other buildings owned by the State of Wisconsin. This is the home of the library and museum of the State Historical Society. The University library and its accompanying seminary rooms for advanced study, each with its special library, occupy quarters here, but the building itself is administered by the society, which serves as the trustee of the State. Built in the Italian Doric order, of Bedford sandstone, the State Historical Library Building is massive, dignified, and graceful, a worthy housing for one of the most, important reference libraries in America. The Wisconsin Historical Society(2) has long ceased to be merely a feature of Madison or of Wisconsin; it is to-day regarded as one of the foremost institutions of this character in the country its splendid library of 235,000 volumes being one of the finest collections of Americana extant, rich in maps and manuscripts as well as books; and its publications rank with those of the similar societies of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Madison is fortunate in her elementary and secondary public schools as well as in possessing the State University; while several admirable private and denominational schools have found it desirable to settle here, under the wing of the great group of State colleges. As is becoming in an educational centre, much attention is here paid to church life. The large congregations have been careful to select for their pulpits men of prominence and ability, fitted to attract the student mind; and the Christian associations connected with the State University are conducted upon a high plane of usefulness.

In Madison there dwell three well accentuated classes of inhabitants: those relying upon trade and industry, the State and federal officials, and the university element, each of them growing in numbers and importance. There is, however, far less differentiation of interests and aspirations than is commonly seen in college towns. It has for many years been the continual aim of several influential clubs, notably the Woman's, the Literary, the Contemporary, the Six O'clock, and the Town and Gown, in which both "townfolk" and "gown folk" freely commingle, to break down the usual class barriers. The result is that college men coming to Madison from other institutions find here few of the sharp social distinctions to which they have elsewhere become accustomed.

But while town and gown are practically one in Madison, the official class has not until of late been conspicuous in her social life. The brevity of political tenure, rendering the permanent inhabitants in a measure indifferent to the "come and goes," has doubtless had much to do with this; while a contributory element has been the fact that many State officials, finding the cost of living at the capital somewhat higher than in the small interior towns, have heretofore left their families at home. With the new statute prohibiting public employes from using railroad passes, transportation to and from home now forms an important item of expense to the office holder, and a large proportion of them are moving their families to the seat of government. It is fair to predict that, through the influence of the clubs, which have recently taken upon themselves the payment of social courtesies to the official class, these barriers may in turn be removed, as they have between town and gown.

The native American element in Madison is chiefly from New York State, with a large sprinkling of New Englanders, especially from Vermont. Perhaps one third of the 25,000 people in this community are of German parentage, and there is a considerable and influential Scandinavian element, mostly Norwegian; numerous other nationalities there are, but these are the most conspicuous. Despite this large foreign contingent, however, and the cosmopolitan tone of university society, the strong flavor of Vermont and New York, originally given to this community in the days before the Civil War, is still the dominant characteristic in the social life of Madison. Many discriminating visitors frequently in their hours of first impressions, liken her to a staid New England college town; while others revert to some demure hill town of Western New York for the type which best describes the social side of this city of the Wisconsin lakes.

The railroad facilities of Madison are undoubtedly remarkable for a town of its size; these are attracting wholesale houses and warehousemen, and new factories are talked of. The existing industries employ some fifteen hundred men. The schools, the university, the unusual library facilities and the beauty and healthfulness of the town bring to it an ever increasing accession of cultured people with moderate fixed incomes. Summer visitors from St. Louis, New Orleans, and other southern cities of the Mississippi Valley are encouraged to come to the Four Lakes. The comfort of the inhabitants is greatly enhanced by a system of macadamized streets which is relatively the best in Wisconsin; and there is also maintained, by popular subscription, a labyrinth of twenty five miles of suburban drives, enriched by the art of the landscape gardener, and leading to favorite view points. A "Forty Thousand Club" is strenuously seeking to exploit and 'double the material interests of the town, within the present decade. But when all is said, Madison's distinguishing characteristics, as well as her neighborhood gossip, will probably long remain such as properly pertain to the political and educational centre of a rapidly developing commonwealth.

1 The Indian names now given to the lakes of this region are modem appellations; originally they were numbered First, Sec­ond, Third, and Fourth as they progressed towards the source-the order in which they were encountered by the federal surveyors in ascending the Catfish, a branch of Rock River, and the outlet of the lakes. Their present names, adopted in 1856, are Keg­onsa, Waubesa, Monona, and Mendota, respectively.

2 The author has, of course, omitted to say what many of his read-en understand, that as secretary he has had a large share in giving the Wisconsin Historical 'Society its conspicuous position in the public mind. -EDITOR.

Historic towns of the Western States

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