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Research & Thoughts

History Lesson #7: Wild West Madison

The "Wild West" began after the Civil War and west of the Mississippi River. But Wisconsin had its share of wild western times before the Civil War, as the Americans moved westward from the Atlantic seaboard after the Revolutionary War. The Madison area developed after War of 1812, which ended in 1815. This was the second clash over land between the Americans and British. In 1816 the first American fort in Wisconsin, Fort Crawford, was built at Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River.


Desire for resources had a major impact on western migration. Two were especially prized; lumber and lead. Mining for lead was a major industry by 1822 from Galena up through Prairie du Chien soon after. The first sustained and commercial lumbering sawmill was established north of Green Bay in 1827 by J.P. Arndt; the first uprising over the lead regions south of Madison happened that same year. Arndt built Durham boats to ship lead from the lead mining district via a portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers after the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Fort Howard in Green Bay was much older; first a French fort and then a British one.


The Winnebagoes (now Ho-Chunk), however, had pretty good control of the lead mining region all the way up to the Portage area, similar to what Americans would witness by the Sioux and Cheyenne later in the Black Hills. The Winnebagoes tended to charge Americans for trespass and mining privilege, and even began a kind of working relationship with some in the area. This was not to the liking of the Americans, however.


We all know that miners wanted the Sioux out of the Black Hills, and this led to that famous battle at the Little Bighorn. A lesser known battle happened in southern Wisconsin over lead mining. Said Spoon Decorah, years later: 


When the whites began to come among the mines, the Big Father said to his Winnebago children: ' I want this land and will have my own people to work it, and whenever you go out hunting come by this way, and you will be supplied with lead.' But this agreement was never carried out by the White Father or his agents. Never was a bag of lead or a bag of shot presented to us. For many years there was much sorrowful talk among the Winnebagoes, at the manner in which the Big Father had treated them, with regard to the mines. No, we never saw any of our lead again, except what we dearly paid for; and we never will have any given to us, unless it be fired at us out of white men's guns, to kill us off.


The Winnebago War of 1827 began with the attack and rape of Indian women. This same kind of event caused the Paiute War in Nevada in 1860, during the on-rush of speculators to rumors of gold and silver in the Comstock around Virginia City. Wise Paiute heads attempted to keep the peace there, until two men abducted two Paiute girls, molested and then hid them. Here in Wisconsin, during a drunken party between keelboat traders and some Winnebagoes near Prairie du Chien, their women were taken.


When the Winnebago men sobered up and found them missing, they became upset and demanded action. So Red Bird and his two companions visited some friends in Prairie du Chien, where they had always been received with friendly trust. But because word of these missing women may have reached that community, mistrust, anger, and perhaps lack of judgment led these former friends to reach for weapons and were killed by Red Bird and his party. Around this same time, another group of Winnebagoes went to the river to watch for the keelboats to return. When they saw the first keelboat they attempted to row out to get their women back but were fired on. So they fired back. This attack was exaggerated by the keel boatmen.


Alcohol was the reason for Red Bird's War, along with desire for the lead mines. In Wisconsin's Wild West, alcohol and soldiers who wanted women were a deadly combination. The Paiutes never tried to fight the Europeans again after their 1860 war, even though they'd won, and the Comstock Lode area around Virginia City came fully under European control. The Sioux beat Custer in 1876 over the government's desire for gold, but ultimately lost the Black Hills.


The first cattle drive west of the Great Lakes mimicked the later ones to Abilene, Kansas, and likely traveled through the Madison area. Around 1826 Ebenezer Childs was hired by J.P. Arndt to help with his timbering, but also to drive cattle for him from St. Louis back to Fort Howard in Green Bay. Childs started with 262 head and made it with 210, not bad in those days, especially since that may have entailed crossing the Mississippi River. There's a good chance he sold a few along the way, too.


Black Hawk's War

Indian cession of land in 1829 of the lead mining region encouraged the arrival of more Easterners. There were some Winnebagoes, however, still living in Madison in 1833; moving them across the river was not fully accomplished until 1855, and after that they continued to slip back into Wisconsin. 


In similar fashion to those later clamoring for the Black Hills were those in southern Wisconsin complaining that Indians were still in the way of the lead. In 1832 the Black Hawk War was fought between the U.S. Army and some Sauk and Fox who wanted to continue to work their corn fields on their homeland as they always did. There was a series of misunderstandings on both sides that led to war. Decades later, in 1867, the government sent a Civil War general, William S. Hancock, into Kansas to talk to the Sioux and Cheyenne, but he ended up threatening them, scaring them, and then burning their village. This led to general unrest that summer that resulted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie.


Here Colonel Dodge convinced the Winnebagoes not to join with the Sauk and Fox, and General Henry Atkinson was given the task of forcing Black Hawk's people back to Iowa to stay. They were accustomed to raising corn at their village near Rock Island but suddenly they were being forced away.


After a successful repulse of Atkinson's detachment under Stillman by Black Hawk's people in May (after trying to stop the attack with a white flag), there came a series of confrontations all that summer. On August 2nd the Sauk and Fox faced final defeat at Bad Axe River north of Prairie due Chien, now considered more of a massacre.


They were confronted by 4,000 military while trying to get across the Mississippi to the western side in any way possible. Black Hawk for the last time tried to surrender, but the captain of the steamboat professed to believe the flag of truce was a ruse and opened fire with a six-pounder and musketry. He ceased only when his supply of fuel gave out. The infantry now came up, pushing the Indians from behind. Men, women, and children were driven into the river at the point of bayonets, to be drowned or picked off by sharpshooters. This lasted three hours and at least 150 were killed and an equal number drowned.


President Andrew Jackson formulated the Indian Removal Act two years before this event; the Five Civilized Tribes were in their way. While Jackson remained president until 1837, the tide of opinion, or Congress, at least, must have turned against him by 1834. That was the year Congress organized the Department of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act.


By this time all the tribes in Wisconsin were in line to be moved out, including the Menominees, who signed a treaty in 1831 that gave J.P. Arndt control of the timber lands he had leased from them for his trees.


The Winnebagoes were continually told they were not welcome here. They signed a treaty in 1832 relinquishing lands south and east of the Wisconsin and Fox rivers. They were told they would no longer be protected from the settlers who were moving in at a rapid rate. The Treaty of 1837 forced them to cede all their lands east of the Mississippi River, along with some land west of the river. The Treaty of 1846 contained completely ambiguous language pertaining to the land they still occupied that they had to give up; they were dealing with remnants of the tribe who refused to move or who had wandered back.


The final treaty of removal from Wisconsin was in 1855, coincidentally through the same commissioner who handled the final land purchase of the Black Hills in late 1876, George Manypenny. This 1855 treaty was an exchange of one area of land in Minnesota for another parcel further west in that territory, with the money to be paid them expended to help them make this final move.


By 1838 there was some reluctance to continue this movement of Indians to the West, where they might form a "confederation" of common property. The president was now Martin Van Buren. The official reason given to discontinue the notion was that they might not all get along, not because they might provide an impenetrable force against further westward movement. As a result, the Menominees, Potawatomies and the Chippewas were given their own permanent reservations in Wisconsin, making Wisconsin the most eastern state to still have a large viable Indian population.


Building a Town

While these negotiations continued, so did fur trade in the Madison area on a large scale until 1835. Madison was only a "paper town" when Judge James B. Doty proposed it that year for the state's territorial capitol. Doty held court at Green Bay and Prairie du Chien but arrived in Madison in 1829 on his first trip to the area. Doty had also been the judge chosen for Red Bird's trial the year before, but he kept stalling because traveling to the area of the uprising put him at great risk, and, not being pro-Indian, wanted extra money for the job. Red Bird died of dysentery at Fort Crawford awaiting his day in court.


Cheyenne, Wyoming, a spirited western town, was settled in 1867 as a good location for a train stop, surveyed by Grenville Dodge (no direct relation to Henry Dodge). Settlement came so fast they called it "Magic City of the Plains." They immediately wanted to get into the Black Hills. To a lesser degree Madison grew, more as a trickle than a boom, and without the accompanying "hell on wheels" that the railroad tended to provide.


But similarly, in 1835 the first road was built to Madison that connected Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien to Fort Winnebago in Portage, the fort built on the spot where Red Bird surrendered in 1827. His statue should be here; however, you will see this greater than life statue at High Cliff State Park. You can also still see parts of this "military road" marked on maps. Doty designed the road, after successfully lobbying for its creation. And then he proceeded to buy real estate and with others formed "The Four Lakes Company." 


Doty wanted to take the importance off the port of Green Bay and bring that importance to the southern part of the state, where he felt the location was more beneficial to capital enterprise. Land offices opened in 1835 in Mineral Point and Green Bay for land sales around Madison and Dane County. Milwaukee got a land office in 1838. 

President Jackson created Wisconsin Territory in 1836 and appointed General Henry Dodge as its first governor. Dodge and Doty did not get along. Doty once accused Dodge of taking more credit than he deserved for the removal of the Winnebagoes from the lead mining region.


Dodge tried to establish the capitol at Belmont; their historic museum is south of Madison off 151. Doty entered this gathering of legislators to push for his townsite of Madison. When I gave tours at Marinette Logging Museum, I was told to tell visitors that the buffalo robe on display was like the ones that Doty gave to the legislatures at Belmont who were shivering in the cold of November for lack of firewood. With Doty's persuasive manner, including handing out choice corner lots, they moved their headquarters to Madison. 


At the time of Madison's creation, Dane County had all of 40 non-native inhabitants.


The Panic of 1837 slowed Madison's growth, caused by Jackson's "Specie Circular," which required payments for public lands in either silver or gold instead of the growing use of "paper money" in circulation. Because of this, land sales were sharply curtailed. The first sawmill in the area was built that year, too, and trees were cut regardless of any potential ownership, because now a state capitol had to be built. Probably because of the panic, this took four years.


This compares to the Panic of 1873 out west, which was the results of abnormal railroad growth between 1866 and 1873. Jay Cooke's firm, Philadelphia Banking, had invested heavily; during its plans to build the Northern Pacific, Cooke realized it had over-invested and declared bankruptcy. Investment money dried up and construction in some areas ceased for two years. During that time 18,000 businesses failed, which led unemployment to rise to 14% by 1876.


Madison's growth remained slow here as well; in 1843, only 40% of the survey lots were owned by locals. Lead mining was still the area's primary occupation. Madison's future was uncertain because of sickness, mosquitoes, wolves, prairie fires and Indians—many Winnebagoes still defied banishment. Also poor roads, high prices and labor shortages all took their toll on its development. And quicksand. Yes, quicksand; the Great Central Marsh had a quicksand scare for at least one local resident.


School was first held in Isaac Palmer's log cabin in 1838, but by 1846, with education on everyone's mind, they got their first schoolhouse for 60 kids. Ten years later, only 450 of the city's 1600 children could attend public schools, which were classes held in that school house and any other building they could find, with one teacher to every 125 children. Indignation appeared in the newspaper: "We have plenty of saloons and tippling houses!" This same indignation later ruled the west.


Also in 1846, locals supported separate status for the races. Black suffrage was rejected by a vote of 176-18. There weren't many slaves in Wisconsin and there were several freed blacks who settled in the area before the Civil War; this population appeared to be just enough to make the ruling against allowing them to vote, even if they were gainfully employed. 


Carl Schurz, who founded the Republican Party in Ripon in 1854, was a German who lost taste for his fellow Germans when he couldn't win them to the party with suffrage as the party's platform. 


Crazy Wild Inhabitants

All kinds of colorful characters moved into the area, following Doty's establishment of the territorial capitol. In 1837 Madison got its first public house with a woman proprietor who had as tough a life as any pioneer woman out west. Doty talked her into opening a boarding house for visiting politicians and others destined to make the area boom. To sweeten the deal he offered her a choice piece of property. After a year Rosalie Peck and her husband started clearing the land to develop their farm when Doty told them there had been a mistake. He never promised her any land. From here they moved to Baraboo, but her husband left her and the children for another woman, and then she was tossed out of that homestead by a drunk who claimed her property.


Even the first religion that came to Madison in 1837 could have been a scam. The fellow claimed to be a Methodist preacher and gave the religion-hungry folk a right nice sermon. His "ministry" came up with $20 for him, and when he was about to leave, his horse came up lame. So they gave him another one and an extra $15. When his horse died a few days later in their care, they grumbled about being conned—they never saw the fellow again. Madison finally got its first church building in 1846. 


Fourth of July in 1839 demonstrated the value of both the beef on the hoof and whiskey, when a fellow hid his steer so he could join the festivities and relax. Three days of whiskey cavorting passed before he remembered what he did with his beefsteak on the hoof—after the whiskey ran out.


Politics made the whiskey climate even livelier—or vice versa. When the Madison legislature was in session the local women were appalled by the "drinking, profanity and wickedness that characterized the tiny town." Gambling houses operated without fear of law, much the same as they did in Aurora, Colorado, Virginia City, Nevada, or San Francisco, years later.


Shootings against unarmed people were claimed as self-defense here as well. There was an event in 1867 in New Mexico where State Legislator Rynerson walked up to a judge who was having dinner in public, told him to take back the things the judge had said about him, or he'd shoot him. Judge Slough responded, "Shoot and be damned" so Rynerson killed him on the spot. He was later found innocent by reason of self-defense.


In Madison, the same defense was probably sought, but with a twist, when on February 11, 1842, Charles Arndt, son of lumberman J.P. Arndt, was shot and killed in the council hall by fellow politician J.R. Vineyard, and yes, Vineyard was also found not guilty. They had been having an argument over who to nominate for sheriff of Grant County. Vineyard, a Kentucky Democrat, called Arndt a liar; Arndt struck him, so Vineyard pulled a gun and shot him. 


Moses Strong was Vineyard's attorney and drank a pitcher of whiskey while he addressed the jury. Even with that (or maybe because of that) Vineyard was acquitted. The records don't indicate if Strong was trying to prove how capable a man can be as a politician with whiskey on his breath, but heaven knows what other reason he might have had to drink whiskey in court.


While Vineyard soon moved to California, Rynerson began practicing law in Santa Fe again.


In 1842 an English visitor saw, during drab rainy weather, drunks lying in the mud beside the road, heard his fill of coarse language, and was treated to crude accommodations and a revolting menu. He threatened to kill anyone who mentioned that he had been in Madison.


No wild west story is complete without the story of a man who could have been somebody except for gambling and liquor. Here let's pick on Moses Strong. He was a Mineral Point resident, a surveyor, friends with future railroad man John Catlin, and a lawyer from Vermont. He helped to survey the land around Madison's capital. He was also on the commission of the first bank at Mineral Point, but nearly got killed for opposing the bank's operator; Strong refused the request for a duel. He was likely a lead miner because he was adamant about the Winnebagoes being entirely at fault for the uprising in 1827, regardless of what others said. With all his connections, his legacy is to be a lesser known except for this whiskey tale.


On May 29, 1848, Wisconsin became the country's 30th state. In this same year, the entire Southwestern U.S. was acquired because of the Mexican War; only two years before, Oregon Territory had been claimed.


Madison wasn't tamed quite yet. Sidewalks were a mess until 1855 and public sanitation before that time read like a page out of Santa Fe in the late 1860s: "garbage tossed in the river, defecation and urination on sidewalks, streets, roads and lanes within the city limits, residential debris spilling onto the sidewalks." Here in Madison they complained of "garbage and slop dumped in the streets, dead animals decaying where they dropped, and offal from slaughterhouses thrown into lakes, and horse manure and urine creating a health hazard."


Cholera epidemics ran through Madison in 1849, 1852 and 1854, and finally public sanitation became a priority, as it did in Santa Fe starting in 1868. Madison's great pig roundup began in 1855.


Establishing the Roadways

The road created the town, and not vice versa, here as well as out west. Mollenhoft referred to the railroad as a "prerequisite for urban success." I would call law, public sanitation and settled property just as necessary, by American standards. The railroad, however, certainly aided the speedy transportation of goods necessary for growth, and we can understand how highly desired it was out West because of how wide, open (and dry) that land is. But the railroad alone brought no taming to the West; they still needed law, public sanitation and settled property.

Regular roads led to the establishment of Madison, but in 1836 the first railroad out of Chicago ran to the lead mines of Galena, called the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. Previous to 1854 the company had built a branch line from Belvidere, Illinois to Beloit, Wisconsin and in that year it leased the Madison & Beloit Railroad, a line projected and partly built from Beloit to Madison. This road, the name of which was changed about this time to the Rock River Valley Union Railroad Company, was consolidated in 1855 with the Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad Company, which was incorporated in Illinois in 1851. The title adopted after this consolidation was the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad Company. 


According to Mollenhoft, however, the first rail line into Madison was the Mississippi and Madison Railroad, under John Catlin. Elsewhere referred to as the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, ending at Prairie du Chien, the line passed through Madison with great fanfare in 1854 (see historic depot building).


As Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien was built to protect the growing swell of Americans to the area, Fort D.A. Russell was built in 1867 to house the army that protected the Cheyenne Wyoming railroad, its workers and settlers who came to take advantage of this "terminus town." Real estate speculators, merchants, gamblers and tradesman all converged in the area, and trouble soon developed over who had the right to sell the land around the station. Land jumpers were run out of town and the railroad's rights confirmed. By the end of that first year, Cheyenne had 4,000 settlers along with churches and schools. 


Madison's west demonstrates what the westward ho priorities were for development. But even with all these civilizing factors, Cheyenne in 1867 was overrun in lawlessness.


By 1853 in Madison 75% of properties owned by locals, and the Madison "wild west" era could be said to have ended. In 1855 Horace Greeley called it "the most beautiful townsite in the west." So here we'll end the tale of the Wild West Madison era, with the railroad not a "hell on wheels" here as it was in Cheyenne but it was military roads that created Madison's "wild west." Because whatever brought settlers in for resources before law, you have the makings of some wild times that would probably make even State Street Halloween parties today seem tame in comparison.




WESTERN SITES TO SEE related to Madison's Old West: The Old Spring Tavern was built in 1854 by Charles Morgan, native of Connecticut who went "west" for his health. 3706 Nakoma Road, sitting on the historic Milwaukee to Platteville Road. Hyer's Hotel was built in 1854. David came to Madison to help build the first capital in 1837, the one that took four years because of the panic. He probably wanted to get the capitol done before working on his hotel at 854 Jenifer Street. Shortly after he built it, however, he sold it. And speaking of German immigrants and "tavern" fun, we have the Plough Inn, built in 1854 at 3402 Monroe Street. Sadly most of this has been recovered or rebuilt from its original stone by Frederick Paunack, who was a stonecutter and built his house from stone cut the sandstone from the nearby quarry that is now the Glenwood Children's Park. Book binding arrived with a German immigrant, Gottlieb Grimm, who bound the first book in Madison in 1850. The Grimm Book Bindery was founded in 1874 at 454 W. Gilman Street. Religion did come successfully to Madison, as this Grace Episcopal Church at 116 W. Washington Avenue shows, built in 1855 for the congregation that began in 1839. The earlier church mentioned is no longer standing.



Jonathan Carver's Travels Through America, 1766-1768

 Larry Gara, Short History of Madison

Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Prairie du Chien Agency, M234, R696, P90-1778

Dr. Herbert Kuhm, "Mining and Use of Lead by the Wisconsin Indians," Wisconsin Archeologist, Volume 32, #2.

The Story of Mineral Point, 1827-1941

 Lucy E. Murphy, A Gathering of Rivers

Nicolas Boilvin Letters, 1820-1823, Prairie du Chien Papers, 1809-1847, Box 1, Folder 3, David Mollenhoft, Madison: History of the Formative Year.

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