History of Racine, Wisconsin (Part 1)
From: Racine, Belle City of the lakes
and Racine County, Wisconsin.
Fanny's Stone, Supervising Editor
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
Chicago 1916


Racine, the seat of justice of Racine County and the second largest city in the State of Wisconsin, is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, in the Town of Mount Pleasant, and at the mouth of the Root River. Actual surveys show that the court house is situated in latitude 42' 43' 45" north and longitude 87' 47' 01" west. The name "Racine" is of French origin and was in all probability first applied to the locality by the Jesuit missionaries when they visited the locality in the Seventeenth Century. It means, as nearly as can be determined, "a river filled with tangled roots," and was given to the river that flows into Lake Michigan at that point, though the Indian name of the stream was "Chip-pe-cotton," which means "root." Philo White, writing on the subject of the name in 1845, says: "Racine, in French, means not only root as applied to trees, shrubs and plants, but also signifies the principal, the base, the source, the foundation; and hence a French writer says, Je crois qu'il vent prendre racine ici.' " This expression Mr. White translates as "I think he desires to take up his quarters here," a translation that signifies a desirable place to dwell, which is borne out by the fact that the first white settlers in the county located at the mouth of the Root River.


As narrated in Chapter IV of this work, the first actual settlers in what is now the City of Racine were Gilbert Knapp, A. J. and William Luce and a man named Welch, the Luces and Welch being employees of Captain Knapp. After staking out his claim (all the land comprised in the original plat of Racine) and building a small cabin near the mouth of the river in November, 1834, Captain Knapp returned to Chicago, leaving his hired men to look after and protect his interests. During that winter and the following spring he interested Gurdon S. Hubbard, of Chicago, and Jacob A. Barker, of Buffalo, New York, in his project of founding a town at the mouth of the Root River. A name being necessary, the proposed town was called "Port Gilbert," in honor of the original settler, but that name was soon abandoned in favor of "Racine."

There is a story to the effect that a trading post of the American Fur Company was established several years before the arrival of Captain Knapp. Augustin Grignon, for many years associated with the affairs of the company, in his reminiscences, published in the Wisconsin Historical Collections (Vol. XX, p. 218), says that James Kinzie, a son of the well known Chicago trader, John Kinzie, was in charge of the company's post at Milwaukee in the early '20s and had a branch at the mouth of the Root River. This James Kinzie was born at Detroit in 1793, but went to Virginia in his childhood and lived with his mother's people until he was about twenty three years old. He then returned to the West and was in the employ of the American Fur Company until the post at Milwaukee was closed. In 1833 he built the "Green Tree Tavern" in Chicago, and was the first sheriff of Cook County, Illinois. From Chicago he went to Iowa County, Wisconsin, and died there on January 13, 1866. Just how much truth there is in this story, or just where the Racine post was located, is somewhat problematical.

On January 2, 1835, Stephen Campbell, William See, Paul Kingston and Edmund came from Chicago for the purpose of locating claims somewhere in the neighborhood of the Root River. They found the Luce brothers in the cabin erected by Captain Knapp's direction the fall before. William Luce pointed out the boundaries of the claim they were holding and warned the new comers not to trespass Mr. Campbell went back some distance into the dense woods, cleared a small space and built a shanty, but discovered that he was upon the Knapp claim. He then went farther west and built a second cabin in what afterward became the "Harbor Addition." Mr See went on up the river to the Rapids; Mr. Weed staked out a claim that was afterward owned and occupied by Nicholas D. Fratt, and Mr. Kingston staked out a claim just south of Knapp's, as he supposed, but learned when it was too late that he was a trespasser. After some conflict, he surrendered his claim there and it became the Knapp homestead.

In the spring of 1835 Joel Sage set out from Massachusetts to seek a new home somewhere in the West. Upon arriving at Chicago he met Captain Knapp, who provided him with an Indian pony, upon which he made the trip to Racine. He arrived at his destination in May and began looking about for a satisfactory location. West of the Root River an Indianian had made a claim, which Mr Sage bought, and of which he took immediate possession. His log house stood on top of the bluff, at a point that is now almost the exact center of State Street. During his absence one day in the fall of 1835, some evil minded person or persons tore down his house, hoping, no doubt, to frighten him away and get possession of his claim. But Mr Sage was not that kind of a man. He immediately rebuilt his cabin and firmly asserted his right to the 107 acres included in his claim. In his address to the Old Settlers in 1871, Judge Charles E. Dyer said:

"Joel Sage, in retaining his claim and title to the 107 acres, upon which he located, was spared the trials and troubles which congressional legislation had brought to other settlers. But he had a long and discouraging conflict with fraudulent float holders, who sought, by all means that were not honest, to oust him of his possessions. He journeyed to Green Bay and there resisted their pretenses; he went to Chicago and employed lawyers to assist him in his warfare, and with a just conception of the first great right and duty of an actual settler, he took good care to maintain actual possession of the lands upon which he had located. His theory was that his cabin was his castle; that possession was nine points in the law, and, adhering with courageous pertinacity his position, fraudulent floats and bogus titles could not prevail against him. His rights culminated in actual title in 1838, by virtue of pre-emption."

On February 7, 1836, Joel Sage's two sons - Sidney A. and Stephen H. - arrived in Racine, and in August his wife, Bethiah Sage, came with Rev. Cyrus Nichols and family. When Racine began to spread out, the 107 acres of Mr Sage's claim gained the appellation of "Sage Town," by which title it was known for many years. Mr. Sage died in September, 1840, but some of his descendants still live in Racine.

During the summer and fall of 1835 E. J. Glenn, James Beeson, Levi Mason, Amaziah Stebbins, Alfred and Dr. Bushnell B. Cary, Samuel Mars, John M. Myers, Eugene Gillespie, Joseph Knapp, Henry F. Cox, William Saltonstall and a man named Stilwell arrived and began the work of building homes. Dr. Elias Smith the second physician in the town, arrived in December. In the meantime five or six frame houses had been erected, one of which was a two story structure used as a tavern. It was built by John Pagan and the hotel was kept by Amaziah Stebbins and John M. Myers. Mr. Myers afterward went to Milwaukee, where he was engaged in the hotel business until his death His son, Henry S. Myers, was the first white male child born in the City of Racine, a daughter having been born to Levi Mason and his wife a short time before. By the close of the year 1835 there was an atmosphere about "Port Gilbert" that indicated the town had "come to stay."

The year 1836 witnessed a considerable increase in the population. Besides Rev. Cyrus Nichols and the family of Joel Sage already mentioned, William H. Waterman, Norman Clark, Alanson Filer, Marshall N. Strong, Timothy Knight and his son, Samuel G., Jonathan M. Snow, Enoch Thompson, Seth Parsons, Samuel Lane, William H. Chamberlin, Stephen N. Ives, Lorenzo Janes, James O. Bartlett, Charles Smith, Lyman K. Smith and a number of others settled in and around the village.

Marshall N. Strong was the first lawyer. He came with Charles and Lyman K. Smith and Stephen N. Ives on the "Pennsylvania," one of the first steamers on the Great Lakes Soon after his arrival he formed a partnership with Stephen N. Ives and they opened a store under the firm name of Strong & Ives. Previous to that time Captain Knapp had kept a small stock of goods to supply the immediate wants of the settlers, but the first established store in Racine was that of Glenn & Mason. Eugene Gillespie was the second merchant. Dr. Elias Smith and William H. Waterman opened the third mercantile house, and the firm of Strong & Ives was the fourth concern of that line. Concerning the year 1836, Judge Dyer says: "The year was, as all know who experienced its business history, a remarkable year. The mania for speculation raged wildly. Speculators were traversing the country looking for water powers and village sites; farmers and mechanics threw aside their work and began to buy and trade in village lots that were located in an unbroken forest. Racine was to be a great city, even three years before the land sales, and I have in my possession the estimated value of the town lots in Racine, made September 17, 1836, which discloses the interesting fact that, at that time, the value of the property in what is now the original plat of Racine, was $348,100. Upon the strength of such an assessment as that, what a pity they didn't issue some city bonds in anticipation of a railroad, via Ball's Bluff, a charter for which was obtained in 1838!"

Samuel Lane was the first shoemaker. Soon after his arrival in 1836 he opened his shop in the old claim shanty that had been built by Captain Knapp. William H Chamberlin, the first blacksmith, also began business in this year, and Benjamin Pratt, who came in 1835, established a brickyard, from which came the bricks for the chimneys of the Racine Hotel and the old light house. The first school was taught in the winter of 1836 by a man named Bradley, in a little house sixteen feet square, which stood on the lot where McClurg's Block was afterward erected.

When Racine County was created by the act of December 7, 1836, Alfred Cary and Joel Sage were appointed justices of the peace. It is said that Mr. Sage did not desire the honor and declined to qualify until Alfred Cary, who was a warm friend of Mr Sage, announced his intention of getting married and requested Mr Sage to perform the ceremony. To accommodate his friend he took the oath of office and his first act in an official capacity was to solemnize the union of Alfred Cary and Miss Mary Knight, a daughter of Timothy Knight. The marriage occurred on December 29, 1836, and was the first wedding in Racine.

The great event of the year 1837 was the building of the Racine House - the town's first "big" hotel. It was erected by Alfred Cary at a cost of over ten thousand dollars The site was in the woods and a clearing had to be made before work on the hotel commenced. Albert G. Knight hauled the lumber from See's saw mill at the Rapids; Lucius S. Blake burned the lime, and Benjamin Pratt furnished the bricks. When the frame was ready everybody in the community turned out to an old fashioned "raising," and the skeleton went up with a rush. When the hotel was completed a celebration was held and "in the dancing room, which had been particularly prepared, from close of day until early morn a happy crowd danced away the night under the inspiration of music furnished by a hod carrier on a three stringed fiddle." John M. Myers was the first landlord and conducted the house for some time before his removal to Milwaukee.


Various statements have been made regarding the first survey of Racine. Judge Dyer says, in his Old Settlers' address: "In the winter of 1835 and 1836, the City of Racine was laid out into lots and blocks" - a statement that is repeated in Chapter V of this work. The History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, published in 1879, says, on page 361: "The first survey of the village north of the river was made by Milo Jones; that south of the stream by Joshua Hatheway," but does not give the time. Franklin Hatheway, who was one of the government surveyors in Racine County, and a nephew of the Joshua Hatheway mentioned above, in an article on "Surveying in Wisconsin," published in the Wisconsin Historical Collections (Vol. XV, p. 391), says: "We left Milwaukee on Christmas Day (1835), on foot, and before the end of the year were actively at work. Two months sufficed to complete the survey; about the first of March, 1836, a portion of the party was dismissed and the others spent about a month in surveying and laying out the future City of Racine, under the lead of David Giddings."

While Mr. Hatheway's statement does not altogether agree with the others, it does not seriously conflict, and as he was one of the party he should be regarded as competent authority. The survey he speaks of as having been completed in two months included Townships 1, 2 and 3 North, of Ranges 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 East. This district embraced all of the present County of Kenosha and the southern half of Racine.

After the survey was completed, a map or plat was drawn by Joshua Hatheway. On this original plat the streets running north and south, beginning next to the lake, were Michigan, Chatham, Main and Wisconsin, which extended both north and south of the Root River, while west of Wisconsin Street south of the river were Barnstable and Chippeway Streets. From the river north the east and west streets were shown as Dodge, Hamilton, Hubbard, Barker and Kewaunee; south of the river were Water, Front, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Streets. Running along the east bank of the river from Chippeway to Water Streets was West Street. A number of the names of these streets have since been changed; for example, Barnstable Street is now College Avenue, and Chippeway Street is Park Avenue. The public square is shown as being comprised of one tier of lots on the west side of Main Street, from Fifth to Sixth Streets, and the opposite tier on the east side of Main Street, with that street running through the center.

The official plat of the town, as made by Mr Hatheway, was lost (supposed to have been destroyed by fire) many years ago, but Captain Knapp had a copy, which was reproduced by John W. Knight in 1887, and from which the above description was taken. In one corner of the sheet Mr. Knight wrote: "Copy of the plat of Racine, Wisconsin, in possession of Captain Gilbert Knapp up to the time of his death in the year 1887. I have taken great pains to make this a correct and faithful copy of the plat of Racine held by Captain Knapp, which is supposed to be a copy of the original plat of Racine by Hatheway, as Captain Knapp was a large owner of lots at that time. The plat gives no dimensions and has no certificate attached. Irregular dimensions of streets, lots or blocks on this plat are copied from the other, and (are) not errors by me."


The loss of the original plat caused a great deal of trouble in laying out additions to the city, which is now fully twenty times as large as shown on Hatheway's plat of 1836. Concerning this condition of affairs, David H. Flett, former municipal judge, has prepared the following statement:

"Considerable trouble has been experienced in Racine in correctly locating the street and property lines. Especially is this true of Section 16, generally known as the School Section. The section itself was originally surveyed and the lines located by the United States Government surveyors. Under the Federal laws, this section became the property of the state, the proceeds of sale to be used for school purposes. The section was resurveyed and platted in 1848 by Moses Vilas under the direction of the State of Wisconsin.

"At the time of both surveys, the land was more or less covered with trees and brush, and neither survey was very accurate. By the first survey the section was not a perfect square, the south side being somewhat longer than the north side, and the west side being somewhat longer than the east side.

"This gave rise to two methods for the establishing of street, block and lot lines. One of the local surveyors adopted Seventh Street for the base line for the north and south streets, running them all at right angles to Seventh Street, and Main Street as the base line for the east and west streets, running them all at right angles to Main Street. This, of course, had the effect of creating some quite large blocks in the southwest corner of the section. The other local surveyor took the position that the several blocks should be of uniform size, as far as possible. This gave rise to much controversy and uncertainty as to lines.

"To make matters still worse, very few original government monuments remained and each surveyor, from time to time, established monuments in different places in accordance with his own theory. The situation became so acute that in 1882 one Beniset Williams, of Chicago, was employed to resurvey and endeavor to establish the true lines His work was a compromise between the theories of the other two and a map was prepared showing the lines as located by each of the three surveys. Thereupon an ordinance was enacted by the City Council, in accordance with the Williams survey, and all surveys made by the city since that time have been governed by this ordinance."


On February 25, 1836, a postoffice called "Root River" was established, with A. B. Saxton as postmaster. Some authorities state that this postoffice was at the Rapids, but that statement cannot be fully verified. Mr. Saxton was succeeded, on May 19, 1836, by Dr. B. B. Cary, who made his first report on the last day of June, showing the total receipts of the office since its establishment to be $122.69, and the postmaster's commissions $37.79, or a little less than ten dollars a month. After the passage of the act by Congress creating the Territory of Wisconsin, the name of the office was changed to "Racine, Wisconsin Territory."

For many years the postoffice was kept in such quarters as could be obtained by the different postmasters. At one time it was in the Blake & Elliott Block, on Main Street, and from there it went to the Gordon Block, on the corner of Main and Fifth Streets. Several efforts were made to have Congress appropriate a sum of money for a postoffice building and, finally, through the persistency of the member of Congress from the First District and the representations of influential citizens of Racine, an appropriation of $50,000 was made. This sum was found insufficient for the purchase of a site and the erection of a suitable building and a second appropriation was secured, which swelled the amount to over $100,000. The Baker property, on the southeast corner of Sixth and Main Streets, was then purchased and the present building erected thereon. It was occupied in the fall of 1898. The cost of the building was $100,000 and the site is now valued at $50,000.

In 1850 the office was made presidential, and in 1882 the free delivery system was inaugurated, with five carriers. At the close of the fiscal year on June 30, 1916, there were ninety two people employed in connection with the office, to wit: Postmaster, assistant postmaster, 38 clerks, 2 substitute clerks, 35 city carriers, 6 substitute carriers, 4 rural carriers, 3 engaged in carrying the mails to and from the railroad stations, and 2 janitors. The receipts in 1915 reached $382,000 - quite a development since Dr. Cary made his first report on June 30, 1836, when the receipts amounted to $122.69.

Following is a list of postmasters, with the year when each was appointed or entered upon the duties of the position: A. B. Saxton, who served from February 25 to May 19, 1836; Dr. Bushnell B. Cary, who took the office on May 19, 1836; Elias Smith. 1841; Bushnell B. Cary, 1845; Eldad Smith, 1849 (Mr. Smith was the first postmaster appointed by the President; he was confirmed by the Senate on September 28, 1850); Tallmadge Stevens, 1853; Bushnell B. Cary, February 23, 1854; N. H. Joy, 1860; John Tapley, 1861; William L. Utley, 1869; Henry W. Wright, 1877; Norton J. Field, 1881; Clarence Snyder, 1886; Hiram J. Smith, 1890; Andrew Simonson, 1894; Jackson I. Case, 1898; Hiram J. Smith, 1902; Christopher C. Gittings, 1906; James E. Pritchard, 1910; George H. Herzog, 1915.


About the time the Root River postoffice was established, or perhaps a little later, an act of Congress authorized a mail route from Chicago to Green Bay, passing through the present Towns of Evanston, Waukegan, Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, West Bend, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha, Appleton and Kaukauna. The carrier on this route was Alexis Clermont, who had served during the Black Hawk War as one of Colonel Tyler's "home defense" men at Fort Howard. Pierre B. Grignon was the contractor and employed Clermont to carry the mail. He made his trips on foot, accompanied by an Oneida Indian. They depended on the Indian villages along the route and what game they could kill for their food, though each always carried a bag of parched corn "to fall back on" in case game was scarce or they were delayed in reaching one of the Indian villages. It required about a month for the round trip and the wages ranged from sixty to seventy dollars per month, owing to the season of the year.

In 1892, when in the eighty fifth year of his age, Alexis Clermont walked the entire distance over his old mail route from Green Bay to Chicago, a distance of 240 miles. He was dressed in the same kind of costume that he wore when carrying the mails sixty years before, and carried with him the mail pouch, his rifle and the bag of parched corn His object in making the journey was to raise money enough to "smooth his pathway to the grave," but the receipts did not come up to his expectations. Friends in Chicago sent him back and he died at DePere, Brown County, Wisconsin, February 8, 1899.

In 1839 a Concord wagon, drawn by two horses, was put on the mail route between Chicago and Milwaukee. In favorable weather the trip could be made in two days. The mail driver also took passengers, which added to his income The first night out from Chicago the stage reached Kenosha - sometimes after darkness had fallen - and by leaving there early the next morning the driver and his passengers could take breakfast in Racine. From Racine they went west, crossed the old plank road (or where the old plank road was afterward built), about two miles from the village; then turned north and crossed the Root River on a bridge at Beardsley's tavern, where horses were changed; thence three miles or so in a northwesterly direction, and struck the Milwaukee road near the north line of the county.

Another mail route ran from Racine westward to Mineral Point, where it connected with routes running to Prairie du Chien and Dubuque. The first postoffice in this route was at Foxville (now Burlington). From that point the mail carrier passed through the present Towns of Whitewater, Jefferson, Madison and Dodgeville. On the return trip he followed a route farther south, through Darlington, Monticello, Janesville and Elkhorn to Burlington, and from there to Racine. Eastern mails were carried on vessels around the lakes. In the summer months a letter from New York would reach Racine in about two weeks. but in bad weather it sometimes would be a month, or even more, before the vessel reached the mouth of the Root River on its way to Chicago.


During the years 1839 and 1840 there was quite a tide of immigration to Wisconsin and Racine received its share of the new comers Among those who settled in the village in those two years were: S. B. Peck, John A. Carswell, Consider Heath, Delavan Wood, Eli R Cooley, Truman G. Wright, Lucius S. Blake and Isaac Harmon. According to a statement in the first city directory (1850) Racine had a population in 1840 of about three hundred. The first number of the Racine Argus was issued on February 14, 1838, with Delavan Wood as editor. A few weeks later the paper contained an editorial setting forth the advantages of Racine, as follows:

"We have a jail, two fine public houses (the Racine and the Fulton Hotels), a number of stores, dwelling houses, mechanics' shops, etc. It was first settled about three years ago. Its growth since that time, although not as rapid as some others, has been gradual and permanent. While many places that, during the rage of speculation for the last two years, have outstripped us now retrograde, or at least have to stand still, for the country which sustains them to settle and improve, our march, not having been in advance of the surrounding country, which is now rapidly settling, will continue onward.

"A number of farmers in the immediate vicinity of this place, who struck the first blow on their farms only two years ago, have, during the past season, raised from one thousand to two thousand bushels of grain. No finer beef cattle can be found than those which graze on these prairies. Our Legislature at its last session passed laws incorporating a bank here, with a capital of $200,000; a mutual fire insurance company; a railroad from this place to an extensive stone quarry about three miles distant, and also a railroad to Rock River, about sixty miles west. Congress last winter made an appropriation of $5,000 for a light house at this place, which is to be erected this spring; and the committee reported in favor of a harbor here, but the bill did not become a law. The United States engineers reported that a harbor can be made here for $55,000. There is not a place in the Territory that promises a more rapid and permanent growth."

With the increase in population, and the citizens holding such optimistic views as those expressed in the Argus, the sentiment in favor of the incorporation was a perfectly natural one. A movement to that end wads started in 1840 and on February 13, 1841, Governor Dodge approved "An act to incorporate the Village of Racine, in Racine County." An election for village officers was held early in April and resulted as follows: President, Dr. Elias Smith; Trustees, Allison Filer, Sidney A. Sage, Marshall M. Strong and Consider Heath; Clerk, Levi S. Cary; Assessor, Amaziala Stebbins.

The first meeting of the Village Board was held on April 12, 1841, when Dr. Smith and Mr Stebbins tendered their resignations as president and assessor. The resignations were accepted and Alanson Filer was chosen president pro team. But little business was transacted. Alfred Cary was appointed assessor, a tax levy of $300 was ordered for the expenses of the current year, and a special election was ordered for May 5, 1841, to elect a village president. Charles S. Wright was elected and was the first active president of the village. At a subsequent meeting Levi S. Cary resigned as clerk and on November 13, 1841, Isaac Harmon was appointed to the vacancy. He continued to serve in that capacity as long as the village government lasted.

During the first year, the principal business of the board was to improve the streets. When the town was first laid out a heavy growth of timber marked the site. Trees were cut down, but the stumps were left standing in the streets, and in some of them the brush wood had not been burned at the time Racine was incorporated. The first contract for street improvements was made with Socrates Hopkins, who agreed to remove the stumps and turnpike Main Street, from Second to Seventh, 125 rods, for $1.00 per rod. S. H. Fenn was awarded a contract to remove the stumps from a portion of Sixth Street, and an appropriation of $14.00 was made for sidewalks on Main Street, from Third to Fourth. The clerk received $10.00 for his first year's services.

Officers were elected annually. The last election under the village charter was held in April, 1848. Those who served as presidents of the board while the village government was in existence were: Charles S. Wright, 1841; Bushnell B. Cary, 1842; M. B. Mead, 1843; Warren Cole, 1844; John A. Carswell, 1845; C. W. Spafard, 1846; C. W. White, 1847; Eli R. Cooley, 1848.

At the beginning of the year 1848 the population of Racine was estimated at nearly three thousand. Wisconsin was admitted to statehood on May 29, 1848, and a week later the first State Legislature assembled at Madison. Philo White was a Senator from Racine County, and in the House were Samuel E. Chapman, Julius L. Gilbert and David McDonald. Through their influence a bill was passed authorizing the incorporation of Racine as a city.

[Continued in part 2, city Government and services.]

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