Wisconsin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Influenced by a landscape shaped by ancient glaciers, Wisconsin developed into a state with three distinct regions.

History of Wisconsin

Influenced by a landscape shaped by ancient glaciers, Wisconsin developed into a state with three distinct regions. The southeast corner of Wisconsin, along the shore of Lake Michigan, is an urban, industrial area, dominated by Milwaukee, the state’s largest city. The northern third of the state is a sparsely populated area of forests and lakes, primarily used for tourism and recreation. Between these two regions, the southern, western, and central areas of the state are productive agricultural lands, particularly in dairy farming.

Early History

During the last two million years, glaciers advanced and retreated over much of North America. The last major advance began about twenty-five thousand years ago and reached its greatest extent around fifteen thousand years ago. At this time, it covered nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin. A smaller advance, about ten thousand years ago, covered only the northern part of the state. As a result of this glacial activity, this area now contains numerous streams and marshes, as well as more than fourteen thousand lakes. The areas of older glacial activity, which have been subjected to erosion, now contain flat plains and rolling hills. The southwest part of the state, which was not covered by glaciers, is an area of ridges and valleys carved by rivers.

The first humans to inhabit the area arrived about twelve thousand years ago, when much of northern Wisconsin was still covered with glaciers. These people, known as the Paleo-Indian culture, hunted bison and other large animals. About ten thousand years ago, as the climate warmed, the people of the Archaic culture hunted large and small animals and gathered wild plants for food. About three thousand years ago, the people of the Woodland culture used bows and arrows to hunt, made pottery, and built large mounds. About one thousand years ago, the people of the Mississippian culture lived in large, permanent villages and cultivated corn, beans, and squash.

In the early seventeenth century, just before Europeans arrived in the area, the major Native American peoples living in Wisconsin included the Santee Dakota in the northwest, the Menominee in the northeast, the Iowa in the southwest, and the Winnebago in the southeast. In addition to crops associated with the Mississippian culture, the peoples of northern Wisconsin also subsisted on wild rice growing in wetlands.

During the 1640’s, the Iroquois, a powerful confederation of Native Americans living in the New York area, launched a series of wars against Native Americans living to the west. The Iroquois were enemies of the French, while the peoples living in the Great Lakes region were generally allied with the French and participated in the French fur trade. The wars drove many Native American peoples westward into Wisconsin, including the Potawatomi, the Ojibwa, the Sauk, the Fox, the Ottawa, the Huron, the Miami, the Mascouten, and the Kickapoo. Many of these peoples later moved farther west, but the Ojibwa, the Menominee, the Winnebago, and the Potawatomi remained in the state. Other Native American peoples moved westward into Wisconsin in the 1820’s, including the Oneida, the Stockbridge, the Munsee, and the Brotherton. Most Native Americans in Wisconsin now live in reservations in the northern part of the state or in Milwaukee.

European Exploration and Settlement

The first European known to reach Wisconsin was the French explorer Jean Nicolet. In 1634 Nicolet journeyed from Lake Huron through the strait between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, becoming the first European to reach Lake Michigan. He then sailed into Green Bay, a narrow inlet of Lake Michigan, and reached Wisconsin. Here he negotiated a peace treaty with the Winnebago. In 1671, the French missionary Claude-Jean Allouez founded a mission at Green Bay. A fort was built on the site in 1717, and Green Bay served as the center of the fur trade in the area for one hundred years.

At the end of the French and Indian War, a struggle between France and Great Britain for control of North America, the area was acquired by the British. At the end of the American Revolution, twenty years later, the area was acquired by the United States. Wisconsin was part of the Northwest Territory from 1787 to 1800, part of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1809, part of the Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1818, and part of the Michigan Territory from 1818 to 1836. The Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836.

American settlement of the area began slowly. Although the future site of Milwaukee was settled as early as 1800, it did not develop into a town for thirty years. The United States built Fort Howard at Green Bay in 1816 and began building the town of Green Bay in 1829. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, made travel between the heavily populated eastern states and the sparsely populated Great Lakes region much easier. The discovery of lead ores in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1820’s also encouraged settlers. Mineral Point, established in the area of the lead mines in 1827, quickly became the most important settlement in the area and served as the first territorial capital.

Statehood and Economic Growth

At first, the Wisconsin Territory was settled mostly by Americans from eastern states. The lead mines brought immigrants from Cornwall, a region of southwestern England famous for mines, in the 1830’s. These were soon followed by immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy moving into southwestern Wisconsin. German immigrants also settled in Milwaukee in the 1840’s. After losing a large part of its western lands to the newly created Iowa Territory in 1838, the Wisconsin Territory became the thirtieth state ten years later.

After statehood, settlers entered Wisconsin from eastern and southern states, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. As lead mining played a less important role in the state, dairy farming and other forms of agriculture came to dominate the economy. Several institutes of higher learning were founded in the late 1840’s, and the nation’s first kindergarten was opened in Watertown in 1856.

The national crisis over slavery led to the creation of the Republican Party of Wisconsin in Ripon in 1854. During the Civil War, Wisconsin was firmly on the side of the Union. The Republican Party continued to dominate state politics for a century. The war brought industrial development to Milwaukee, and the city went on to be an important center of labor-union activity.

In the 1870’s, zinc ores were discovered in southwestern Wisconsin. Zinc mining remained an important industry in the state for more than one hundred years. The 1870’s also saw the rise of the production of lumber in the northern part of the state. Lumber resources were nearly depleted by the 1920’s, so the forestry industry turned from lumber to the production of woodpulp for papermaking. This would remain an important part of the economy. Iron mining developed in northern Wisconsin in the 1880’s and continued into the 1960’s.

The Twentieth Century

Wisconsin played an important role in the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, as political reformers fought corruption and the influence of the railroads and other powerful business interests. A national leader in the Progressive movement, Wisconsin native Robert M. La Follette, Sr., served as governor of the state from 1900 to 1906, and as a U.S. senator from 1906 until his death in 1925. The Progressive movement remained a faction within the Republican Party until 1934, when the Wisconsin Progressive Party was created. The party rejoined the Republicans in 1946, but many of its members joined the Democratic Party instead.

Influenced by the Progressive movement and labor unions, Milwaukee elected Socialist mayors in 1910, 1916, and 1948. Despite the state’s reputation for reformist and radical politics, it also produced numerous conservative politicians. One of the most controversial was Wisconsin native Joseph R. McCarthy, who served as a U.S. senator from 1946 until his death in 1957. McCarthy drew national attention with accusations that a large number of Communists had infiltrated the government of the United States.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Wisconsin’s economy, balanced between manufacturing and agriculture, suffered less than those of most states. Agriculture in particular remained remarkably stable, with Wisconsin leading the nation in dairy farming after 1920. Despite this stability, Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, saw a shift in its population from farmlands to cities. In the 1920’s about half of the state’s residents lived in rural areas; by the 1980’s, about two-thirds of the population lived in urban areas.

The need for military equipment during World War II greatly increased industrial production in the southeastern part of Wisconsin and made it one of the leading manufacturing states in the nation. The rise in the tourism industry in the second half of the twentieth century also greatly benefited the economy. Wisconsin’s economy was slowed by a nationwide recession in the late 1980’s, but to a lesser extent than most other states. During the 1990’s, Wisconsin maintained a reputation for economic stability; an honest, efficient state government; and innovative, if controversial, public policies.

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