Wisconsin Citizen Petition Exhbit | Wisconsin Historical Society

Online Exhibit

Wisconsin Citizen Petition Exhbit

Wisconsin Citizen Petition Exhibit

Wisconsin Citizen Petition Exhbit | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBridge Petition

Petition for a bridge over the Milwaukee River

The earliest petition in the collection, 1836

Citizen Petition Exhibit Home

The Wisconsin citizen petitions are a unique set of records because they are among the earliest legal records in the Wisconsin State Archives. They show the various ways residents of the Wisconsin Territory, and later state, interacted with the government. Petitions in the collection illustrate the development of the state as well connect Wisconsin to larger national trends.

Ten themes emerged from the Wisconsin Citizen Petition Digitization and Access Project, funded by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (opens in new window) when looking at the totality of petitions 1836-1880. Each of the themes below connects with multiple petitions are other resources at the Wisconsin Historical Society.  



Petition to incorporate Milwaukee

Petitioners lay out city government positions (such as Mayor and Town Council), elections, taxes, and other matters pertaining to the new jurisdiction.

Until the nineteenth century, white settlement in Wisconsin was sparse and centered almost solely on the fur trade and military posts at Green Bay, LaPointe, and Prairie du Chien. With increased westward migration after the War of 1812, white settlers initially settled in two areas: the lead mining regions along the Mississippi and along the lakeshore in what later became the city of Milwaukee.

In Wisconsin's early years, most of the wealth generated through trade, manufacturing, and land sales was directed toward construction projects and land investment, leaving few resources to develop social and intellectual institutions. Despite the more practical and functional economic objectives of Wisconsin's early white settlers, many quickly expressed an underlying concern for cultural and social improvement.

EnlargeSuffrage Petition

Suffrage Petition

Petition for repealing the law that prohibits African American men from voting

Black Americans have lived and worked in Wisconsin since the eighteenth century; in 1850, Black residents numbered 390 while white residents numbered 233,891, by the end of the century, the 1890 census counted 2,444 Black residents in comparison to 1,680,473 white residents.

In 1846, the majority-Democrat territorial legislature under Governor Henry Dodge pushed through a referendum on statehood. However, while an efficient transition to statehood initially seemed likely, the process of drafting and ratifying a state constitution rapidly proved far more complicated. 


Volunteer Aid Law

Petition for extending the benefits of the Volunteer Aid Law to the families of African American volunteer soldiers

Wisconsin sent over 90,000 soliders to the Civil War, forming 53 infantry regiments, 4 cavalry regiments, 13 light artillery batteries, and 1 heavy artillery battery. Petitioners wrote asking the state goverment for military aid, veteran assistance, and even assistance recoverying from the Ozaukee Draft Riots.  

New settlers brought business to towns in their formative years, the development of sustainable resources and accessible transportation routes were far more reliable indicators of a town's potential to become a major city. In Wisconsin's early years, community members and citizens involved with trade, manufacturing, and land sales submitted petitions relating to construction projects and land investment.

Immigrants from both the eastern United States and Europe tended to settle in the southern parts of Wisconsin. Milwaukee became a favorite landing place for lake passengers because of its expanding business opportunities and public lands office. Between 1836 and 1850, Wisconsin's population increased from 11,000 to over 305,000. 


Petition for ratifying a treaty with the Dakota Indians

Petition of Citizens of Milwaukee County urging the passage of a resolution praying Congress to ratify the Treaty lately made with the Dakota Indians


Wisconsin is the ancestral land for several Native American Tribes and is currently home to 13 American Indian Nations. Petitions in this collection reflect 19th century attitudes toward Native American’s and show efforts of white settlers to remove Native American residents from the state or demonstrate paternalistic attitudes toward Tribes. 


Petition to divide Iowa and Grant Counties

Petition for dividing Iowa and Grant Counties to better serve products headed to market

In the early nineteenth century, Wisconsin lead mining was more promising and attractive to potential settlers than either the fur trade or farming. By 1829, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwestern Wisconsin, producing 13 million pounds of lead a year. Miners petitioned the territorial legislature for some of the earliest labor protections. With the demand for Wisconsin lead diminishing the 1840s the lumber industry grew steadily. Rivers provided a convenient way to transport pine logs from the forests to the mills. 

Long before Wisconsin became America's Dairyland, Wisconsin was a beer state. Brewing began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and by the 1890s, nearly every community had at least one operating brewery. However, the brewing industry faced a longstanding opponent in the temperance movement. Temperance societies quickly formed around the territory as the population swelled, from 1839 on, widely-circulated petitions to modify territorial liquor laws joined those of citizens concerned with infrastructure, immigration, and personal life.