Peter Takes on History
May 29, 1849
Statehood granted to the land of cheese
On this day, the 29th of May, 1848 Wisconsin became the 30 of these United States.
Now we spell W-I-S-C-O-N-S-I-N despite the fact that Jame Duane Doty, the second governor of the Wisconsin Territory, a man who was instrumental in defining our state’s borders and advocating for our statehood, preferred spelling Wisconsin with a “K”. W-I-S-K-O-N-S-A-N. Many, many maps and official documents from the 1830s and 40s used that alternate spelling until the territory’s legislature finally declared that in order “to avoid future embarrassments” the K is not OK! It didn’t really matter all that much, as long as it sounded like Wisconsin. It was all phonetic back then. Based on native American names. It was how Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet interpreted something Chippewah, Ojibwe or Miami Indian said.
The meaning of the word Wisconsin is just as nebulous. I’ve read "Stream of a Thousand Isles," "Gathering of Waters," "Muskrat House," "Grassy Place," and even "Holes in the bank of a stream, in which birds nest." One early researcher lamented, "I have not found two Indians to agree on the meaning of this word." The Wisconsin Historical Society is calling it for “River Running Through a Red Place.” Shout out to the red sandstone of the Dells. Though Muskrat House will always be my favorite.
James Doty lost the spelling battle but won a more important war. James Doty and Henry Dodge were two powerful and influential political rivals in early Wisconsin history. Doty was a lawyer and judge; a man of letters. Dodge was a businessman with a substantial interest in mining. In the 1830’s western Wisconsin and northern Illinois were big lead mining areas. Back then Galena, Illinois was actually bigger than Chicago. In case there’s any question in your mind why lead mining is so important. One word. Bullets.
Another vestige of our lead mining past is our state nickname. The lead miners who flocked to Wisconsin and Northern Illinois in the early 19th Century were known for digging shelters and building homes underground, like a badger. So we’re the Badger State.
Henry Dodge, the first governor of the Wisconsin territory believed it made sense to put the capital in this bustling area. In 1836 he established the first capital of the territory in Belmont,WI, near Platteville. You can still visit a couple of optimistic structures on the proposed site - a meeting hall and an anticipatory hotel. But James Doty thought Madison would make a better location for a capital. Not to take anything away from beautiful Belmont, I agree with Doty. So did enough other citizens to make it so.
One last connection. Sitting atop our state capital building is a 15’ 5” tall, 3-ton gold gilt statue of a woman. Here raised arm and pointing finger is meant to personify our state motto; Forward! But that is not the name of the statue. The sculptor called it, simpl, “Wisconsin.” Now Wisconsin is wearing robes and a helmet with one odd detail atop her helmet. A pair of binoculars would reveal it's an animal. Yep, a badger. Yet she looks so calm.