Wisconsin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Like other upper midwestern states, received the bulk of its nineteenth century immigrants from northern and western Europe. Germans were especially numerous, and they left a lasting imprint on the state.

Between the time of American independence and 1830, Wisconsin remained sparsely populated, with small numbers of Native Americans and French along the Mississippi River. Lead mining in the southwest part of the state brought a mix of southern American, Cornish immigrantsCornish, and Welsh immigrants;WisconsinWelsh immigrants;minersWelsh miners. Wars with the Winnebago and other tribes, including the brutal Black Hawk war of 1832, drove most Indians from the state except for those remaining on reservations in the far north. Completion of the Erie Canal in 1832 linked the Great Lakes with the East Coast ports of entry, and Wisconsin’s population began to grow. In 1848, it became a state; two years later, the U.S. Census counted 300,000 people living in Wisconsin.WisconsinWisconsin[cat]STATES;Wisconsin

German Immigrants<index-term><primary>German immigrants;Wisconsin</primary></index-term>

Substantial numbers of Germans began immigrating into Wisconsin after the failed European revolutions of 1848, which gave these German immigrants the nickname “Forty-eighters.” However, some significant German settlement had actually begun earlier, mostly along the west bank of Lake Michigan. By the time of the 1850 census, Germans already made up almost one-sixth of Wisconsin’s population. In Milwaukee, Germans actually outnumbered native-born American residents, with 38 percent of the city’s population, against only 33 percent for the Americans.

The cultural imprint of Germans was evident for years in Wisconsin. Milwaukee hosted German operas and beer gardens. TurnVerein clubs in Milwaukee and Madison encouraged the development of gymnastic and artistic skills; Germans were also active in Wisconsin politics, and they quarreled in the state legislature with nativists over the use of German in public schools. After the Civil War (1861-1865), the state elected to the U.S. Senate Schurz, CarlCarl Schurz, a German immigrant who had served as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the war. For a time, German-language public schools and teacher-training academies flourished. German immigration declined during the twentieth century, but a German presence remained in Wisconsin. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 48,300 Wisconsin residents who reported that they spoke German at home.

Polish Immigrants<index-term><primary>Polish immigrants;Wisconsin</primary></index-term>

Poles seeking economic opportunities began arriving in Wisconsin around the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1855, they founded a farming community named Polonia, in which they grew what was then the principal Wisconsin crop, wheat. Later Polish immigrants, however, came seeking political freedom from Prussian domination of Poland and conscription into the Prussian army. Polish immigrants continued to seek farmland and helped to populate the far north, but other Poles were more attracted to industrial jobs in the Milwaukee area, where their strong prolabor sentiments worried employers.

Polish immigration declined during the twentieth century, but more Poles came to Wisconsin during after World War II–first as refugees from Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland and later from Soviet domination. In the census of 2000, more than 12,000 Wisconsin residents reported speaking Polish at home.

Other Immigrant Groups

Significant Hispanic immigration was slow to reach Wisconsin. During the 1970’s, economic crises in Mexico and increasing poverty in the other parts of Latin America caused a surge of Hispanic immigration into the United States, and Wisconsin got a substantial share. Between 1990 and 2000, the state’s Mexican immigrants;WisconsinHispanic population more than tripled–to 168,780 residents who reported they spoke Spanish at home. Most of these new immigrants were Mexicans.

In Wisconsin’s western counties, along the Mississippi River, some Norwegian immigrants;WisconsinNorwegian immigrants settled during the nineteenth century, although they were much more numerous across the river in Minnesota. Swiss immigrants;WisconsinSwiss immigrants settled in New Glarus and Monroe. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, New Glarus remained a tourist attraction, with Swiss restaurants and hotels, often staffed by Swiss nationals. Wisconsin also received its share of refugees from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. In 2000, Wisconsin’s 30,570 Hmong immigrants;WisconsinHmong constituted one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States.Wisconsin

Further Reading
  • Blashfield, Jean F. Wisconsin. New York: Children’s Press, 2008. Good overview of the state’s geography, history, natural resources, economy, culture, and people for younger readers.
  • Frazer, Timothy C., ed. “Heartland” English: Variation and Transition in the American Midwest. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Collection of essays describing the impact immigrants and settlement had on the spoken English of several midwestern states, including Wisconsin.
  • Jensen, Joan M. Calling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850-1925. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006. Study of how women helped shape the state’s history and how broader developments shaped their lives.
  • Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001. Collection of brief histories of twelve indigenous groups who have maintained their presence in Wisconsin from the point of European contact to the present.
  • McClelland, Ted. The Third Coast. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008. Includes a humorous chapter on Milwaukee’s beer tradition and another on Washington Island and its Icelandic immigrants.
  • Risjord, Norman K., ed. The WPA Guide to Wisconsin: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930’s Wisconsin. 1941. Reprint. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006. Compiled by writers who traveled the state during the Depression, this work includes descriptions of Wisconsin’s ethnic groups.

German immigrants

Language issues

Mexican immigrants

North American Free Trade Agreement

Polish immigrants

Schurz, Carl

Westward expansion

Categories: History Content