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Timeline for the Wisconsin Citizen Petitions, 1836-1880 | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Timeline for the Wisconsin Citizen Petitions, 1836-1880

Wisconsin Citizen Petitions

Timeline for the Wisconsin Citizen Petitions, 1836-1880 | Wisconsin Historical Society


From the 1830s to the late 1880s, Wisconsin citizens directly petitioned the territorial, and later, state legislature to approve, reject, and edit the legal decisions and policies that affected their lives. Citizens used petitions to advocate for the causes they considered for personal and public benefit, or protest against decisions they found damaging to their communities. 

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Wisconsin territory was included in the vast stretch of land claimed by the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlined a method to survey and denote the new lands so they could be sold to white settlers, despite the fact that native tribes had occupied the land for centuries or millennia. Wisconsin’s territorial status was formalized in 1836.

As settlers flocked to the new territory and established new urban centers, the popularity of handwritten and printed petitions swelled. Petition topics changed in response to local and statewide political, social, and economic developments. Concerns with national issues such as temperance, suffrage, civil rights, and education reform remained constant through the majority of the century.


This timeline is not a complete history of Wisconsin, but it seeks to provide context to the major topics found in the Citizen Petition Collection. 


1831 - Treaty signed with the Menominee in Washington, D.C. Menominee land from Milwaukee to Green Bay to Fox River is ceded to the Wisconsin territory. Dispossessed New York Indian peoples are settled in Wisconsin. 

1832 - Black Hawk War. 

1832 - Treaty signed with the Ho-Chunk, Sauk, and Fox at Fort Armstrong, IL. All Ho-Chunk land south of the Wisconsin River is ceded to the Wisconsin territory. Sauk and Fox lands on the Iowa shore of the Mississippi River are ceded to the Wisconsin territory. 

1832 - Wisconsin's first temperance society formed in Green Bay

1833 - Treaty signed with the Potawatomie, Ojibwe, and Ottawa in Chicago, IL. All remaining Potawatomie, Ojibwe, and Ottawa lands east of the Mississippi River are ceded to the Wisconsin territory. The Potawatomie are forced to leave Wisconsin for land west of the Mississippi River.

1834 - Federal land offices open in Mineral Point and Green Bay. Increased steamboat activity on the Mississippi River and through the Great Lakes brings white settlers and goods to the territory. The first major settlements begin to form along Wisconsin waterways and in lead mining regions, including the towns of Platteville, Dodgeville, and Milwaukee.

1836 - Wisconsin becomes a territory

1836 - Treaty signed with the Menominee at Cedar Point, WI. Menominee land from Green Bay to the Wolf River is ceded to the Wisconsin territory. The lumber industry starts gaining traction on the ceded land.

1837 - Treaty signed with the Ho-Chunk at Washington, D.C. All remaining Ho-Chunk lands east of the Mississippi River are ceded to the Wisconsin territory. The Ho-Chunk are forced to leave Wisconsin for land west of the Mississippi River.

1837 -Treaty signed with the Ojibwe at Fort Snelling, MN. All Ojibwe lands that drain southwest into the Mississippi are ceded to the Wisconsin territory, but the Ojibwe retain fishing and hunting rights.

1837 -The Panic of 1837. The Wisconsin territorial government defaults on many bonds financing public infrastructure. There is future hesitancy asking the government to fund public infrastructure projects.

1838 - Milwaukee and Rock River Canal Company chartered to build canal from Rock River to the Milwaukee harbor. Financial constraints severely limit canal construction and the project fails in 1841, sparking heated debate on how to refund citizens who settled on promised canal land.

1839 - Temperance advocacy groups establish Walworth County as dry county. The policy is eventually rescinded in 1850.


1840 - The first school house in Wisconsin establised in Prairie du Chine 

1842 - Treaty signed with the Ojibwe at LaPointe, WI. All remaining Ojibwe land in Wisconsin and Michigan is ceded to the Wisconsin territory.

 1844- Communes such as Ceresco, Spring Farm Phalanx, Pigeon River Fourier Company, and Hunt’s Colony form. Residents plant crops, construct houses and mills, organize children’s education, circulate literature, observe temperance, and hold religious services to combat “social evils.” Though Ceresco is economically successful, it is disbanded in 1849.

 1845 - Wisconsin’s population reaches 155,000. Germans and Norwegians make up a majority of the immigrant population.

1846 - The Territorial Anti-Slavery Society and Liberty Party Branch merge into the Wisconsin Liberty Party Association. 

1846 - Territorial legislature under Governor Henry Dodge pushes through referendum on statehood. The first proposed constitution follows a strong progressive platform, giving immigrants who apply for citizenship the right to vote, granting married women the right to own property, and making Black suffrage subject to popular referendum. The draft is rejected in 1847.

1847-1848 - Bricklayers and shoemakers form first Wisconsin unions in Milwaukee. In 1848, the Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Association strike over low wages, withholding of pay or irregular payment, and using unskilled labor for new technologies.

1848 - Treaty signed with the Menominee at Lake Poygan, WI. All remaining Menominee lands are ceded to the Wisconsin territory. 

1848 - University of Wisconsin established in Madison. Classes begin in 1850. State funding for the university is formalized in 1866.

1848 - Wisconsin holds Second Constitutional Convention and enters United States. Representatives meet in early 1848 to draft a more moderate constitution, omitting women’s property rights and the question of Black suffrage. In the new draft, the right to vote is given to white native-born men, immigrant men who intend to become citizens, and Wisconsin Indians declared to be United States citizens. The Wisconsin legislature is also granted authority to charter banks. The new draft is approved and Wisconsin enters the Union as the 30th state.

1848 - Martin Van Buren nominated as Free Soil Party presidential candidate. The party platform includes granting free homesteads to settlers, federal aid for internal improvements, and opposition to the extension of chattel slavery into new territories.

1849 - Gold Rush of 1849. Wisconsin’s mining industry booms, especially around the iron and copper mines of Lake Superior. The towns of Superior, Ashland, and Bayfield are founded. The Wisconsin Homestead Exemption Law is passed in response to increased settlement.


1850 - The Fugitive Slave Act is passed nationally. The Fugitive Slave Act is included in the Compromise of 1850, a package of bills meant to placate the tensions between northern Free-Soilers and those who held people in slavery. The act requires that all officials and citizens of free states must cooperate in returning fugitives from slavery to their enslavers upon capture. Rather than soothing regional tensions, the Fugitive Slave Act exacerbates the polarization of the country over the issue of chattel slavery.

1850 - Wisconsin’s population reaches 305,000. Immigration increases because of socioeconomic upheaval and natural disasters in Europe. By 1850, one-third of the population is foreign-born.

1854 - Treaty signed with the Ojibwe at LaPointe, WI. The Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff, and Lac du Flambeau Indian reservations are formally established.

1854 - Kansas-Nebraska Bill introduced to Congress. The proposed bill repeals the anti-chattel slavery provisions of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allows settlers to decide via popular vote whether to allow chattel slavery in new territories. Ripon lawyer Alvan E. Bovay leads protestors against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and calls for the formation of a new pro-abolition political party. In July 1854, a convention is held in Madison to organize the Republican Party. In the 1854 elections, Wisconsin Republicans win a U.S. Senate seat, two out of three U.S. Representative seats, and a majority in the state legislature.

1855 - State legislature authorizes natural history survey on effects of industrialization. As urbanized populations grow, there is a greater appreciation for nature. The conservation movement grows in the US. 

1855 - Rising nationalism leads to dissolution of Wisconsin Commission of Emigration. The Commission was originally established to encourage immigration to Wisconsin.

1855 - Wisconsin Supreme Court rules Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. Free-Soiler statesman Sherman Booth becomes known nationally in 1854 after his arrest for helping fugitive from slavery Joshua Glover successfully escape to Canada. Booth is prosecuted in 1855 by Glover’s enslaver, Stephen Ableman. Though the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in Booth’s favor, Ableman successfully appeals the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States and the ruling is unanimously overturned in 1859. 

1857 - Panic of 1857. The Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company’s failure triggers a full-scale market meltdown. Plunging railroad shares result in a farm mortgage crisis after farmer-investors lose their properties and go into bankruptcy.


1860 - Indian boarding-school era begins. The federal government launches a program of assimilationist Indian boarding-schools designed to destroy Indian culture, language, family, and spirituality.

1861 - American Civil War breaks out. Citizens volunteer for the Union Army in droves. Recruits begin training in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine, and Madison. Camp Randall is built as Wisconsin’s major training facility in Madison and serves as a camp for Confederate prisoners throughout the war. With 91,000 men serving in 56 Union regiments, Wisconsin soldiers are involved in every major battle of the Civil War.

1861 - Wisconsin women form aid societies. The Women’s Soldiers Aid Society sends money and inspectors to hospitals, hires nurses for army hospitals, and distributes food to soldiers. Cordelia Harvey, widow of former governor Louis Harvey, is a major player in the organization of charity groups and medical aid to wounded soldiers and hospitals across the state. The Harvey United States Army General Hospital opens in Madison in 1863 as a hospital for convalescing soldiers.

1862 - Draft riots occur in Port Washington and other cities. Popular opposition to the draft dies down as citizens increasingly value the Union cause. The Iron Brigade, Wisconsin’s most famous war unit, suffers high casualties at the Battle of Antietam.

1862 - War brings economic prosperity to Wisconsin after initial shock. Wages increase due to the shortage of labor as men go to war. Increased trade to the east grows northern industrial activity. Wisconsin railroads thrive after the Confederate states blockade the lower Mississippi River. The demand for wheat skyrockets, leading to a boom in the mechanization of agricultural production. The number of women involved in industrial and commercial industries grows by 500%. 

1863 - Currency Act and National Banking Act of 1863 is passed nationally. The federal government takes over the responsibility of printing paper money and chartering national banks.

1865 - American Civil War ends. By 1865, Wisconsin soldiers’ deaths number 12,000.

1866 - Divorce after voluntary separation of five years is legalized. Wisconsin becomes one of the first states to permit no-fault divorce.

1867 - Increase Lapham publishes Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin. The report warns about deforestation and the necessity to protect natural resources. Lapham is generally considered the founder of the conservation movement in Wisconsin.

1869 - Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association begins organized suffrage campaign. Women’s groups across Wisconsin primarily focus on temperance, suffrage, and attaining more liberal property rights for married women. Their connection to the temperance movement generates hostility from both the brewing industry and German-Americans.


1872 - Farmers form Wisconsin’s Dairyman Association in Watertown. The dairy and cheese industries continues to establish professional organizations to help farmers transition to dairy farming and production throughout the decade.

1878 - 760 square miles in northern Wisconsin becomes the first state park. With the American frontier dwindling, the North Woods and beautiful natural scenery draw visitors to Wisconsin. Wisconsin Dells becomes one of the first resort areas of Wisconsin. Photography by H.H. Bennett and Increase Lapham’s geological surveys make Wisconsin increasingly attractive to tourists


1884 - Women gain right to vote in elections related to school matters. This is not enforced in practice. By the end of the century, suffragist leaders will turn their focus more toward incremental change and social reforms.

1886 - Milwaukee Labor Reform Association pushes for an eight-hour work day. A national strike begins. Protests in Wisconsin are subdued by the military. The conflict results in nine casualties, slowing the momentum of the labor movement in Wisconsin.

1889 - Bennett Law introduced to state legislature. The Bennett Law requires stricter enforcement of attendance in public and private schools, forces students to attend parochial schools only within their public school districts, and requires all schools be taught in English. The law is highly controversial, especially among German-Americans, as many children attend private German schools and learn in German. Severe backlash from immigrants ousts Republicans and wins a Democratic majority in the 1890 election. The Bennett Law is repealed soon after.

1890 - Wisconsin’s lumber industry booms. The state census reveals that one quarter of Wisconsinites are employed in the lumber industry, with 23,000 working in logging camps and 32,000 working in mills. Disputes over dams and water rights increase as navigation privileges become more economically essential.

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