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The land that became Madison was seized in 1832, surveyed in 1834, and put up for sale in 1835. Then history happened in decades, as Madison became the territorial capital and county seat in 1836, a village in 1846, and a city in 1856.
This is how it all began.
On August 1, 1835, land on and around the isthmus went on sale at the federal land office in Green Bay for $1.25 an acre. The land that became Dane County was then a part of the Michigan Territory, divided among the counties of Milwaukee, Brown, and Iowa. The opportunities of the isolated virgin land in the Michigan wilderness were evidently not obvious; it was not until October 7 that Francis Tillou of New York bought the first one hundred acres. James Duane Doty waited until October 28, 1835, to make his first purchase, about a hundred acres on either side of the river that meandered through the eastern edge of the isthmus. By then, Virginian William B. Slaughter had already purchased three hundred acres across Fourth Lake (Mendota), at Livesey's Springs, which was likely to become a canal connecting the Rock and Wisconsin rivers.
Perhaps Doty was focused on another August event-the completion, very close to Colonel Slaughter's land, of the military road connecting Fort Crawford (Prairie du Chien) and Fort Winnebego (Portage). Doty had lobbied aggressively for this first road through southern Wisconsin, and he was made commissioner in charge of its design. The thirty-foot-wide path was built by soldiers under the command of Zachary Taylor, who in 1849 would become the twelfth U.S. president.
April 1836 was the next momentous month for Madison. On the sixth, Doty and Stevens Mason, a former acting governor of Michigan, bought a little more than a thousand acres in the heart of the isthmus-centered on a hill about halfway between Third and Fourth lakes (Monona and Mendota), at the juncture of sections 13, 14, 23, and 24-for $1,500. On the twentieth, Congress adopted the Organic Act creating the Wisconsin Territory, which encompassed all of what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and part of North Dakota.
It was the Organic Act, which implemented the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, that began the course of events that led to one city's designation as territorial and then state capital. It was Doty's purchase that began the course of events that made that city be Madison.
On June 1, 1836, Doty solidified his control over Madison's development by organizing the Four Lakes Company. With power of attorney and trusteeship from Mason and Tillou, Doty claimed title to 1,361 acres covering most of the isthmus. Unfortunately, Doty's dealings with Mason left a cloud of confusion and controversy over legal title to isthmus lots.
On July 1, Doty drew up a plat of the "Town of Madison," to be built around a square at the juncture of his sections. Doty indeed donated the public square-and yet a few years later there would even be legal challenge over ownership of the Capitol Park itself.
President Andrew Jackson appointed as the first territorial governor a hero of the Black Hawk War, General Henry Dodge, who took office on July 4, 1836. A leader of the growing lead mining region in the southwest, Dodge served satisfactorily until William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren in 1840 and he was replaced-by his enemy, Doty.
After a census in the summer of 1836, Dodge apportioned the territory into six huge counties, set elections, and directed territorial delegates to meet in the southwestern community of Belmont on October 25 to choose a territorial capital. Fortunately for the future of Madison, Dodge declared he would support whatever choice the territorial legislature made.
It was an offer he would soon regret.
Doty by now was hedging his bets. He had struck a partnership with Slaughter in late December 1835, and on July 1, 1836, he filed the plat of another entry into the capital sweepstakes. With more promotional flair than practicality, Doty named the new development "The City of the Four Lakes." It prospered at first, with houses and people and a post office before Madison, but soon became abandoned.
Shortly before the new territorial legislature met, Doty and surveyor J. V. Suydam took two or three days to mark a preliminary layout of Doty's land, working off the federal survey and Doty's July 1 plat. Then they hurried to Belmont, where Suydam drew the official plat while Doty lobbied the legislators through means both foul and fair.
Doty finessed sectional rivalries, touted the value of the centrally located site, and played to patriotic sentiment by naming the town after the recently deceased President James Madison, its primary thoroughfare after George Washington, and its central streets after signers of the Constitution.
He also provided the shivering solons with buffalo robes and made sure a majority of the members had deeds to choice lots, often at reduced prices. Dodge himself indignantly-almost violently-rebuffed Doty's offer of investment opportunities, although his son, along with the clerks of both houses, did become new property owners.
Doty prevailed. On November 24, 1836, after several other sites all failed by one vote, the territorial council endorsed Madison's selection, 7-6. Two days later, the House of Representatives concurred, 15-11, making Madison-a town existing only on paper, with no permanent inhabitants-the territorial capital.
Dodge, who favored locating the capital about a hundred miles north and was outraged at Doty's conduct, strongly considered breaking his pledge not to veto the legislature's action. Still, perhaps hoping for congressional rejection of the selection, Dodge signed the bill into law on December 3, 1836.
When it came time to name the new county Madison would also be the seat of, Doty suggested honoring the late U.S. Representative Nathan Dane, primary author of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. On December 7, 1836, the territorial legislature did so memorialize the man whose mind and pen brought republican self-government, a Bill of Rights, and the abolition of slavery to the west two years before adoption of the Constitution.
At its creation, Dane County had fewer than forty known nonnative inhabitants.
A Capital City, but Not a Capital Plat
Just as Doty gets the credit for Madison's existence as territorial capital, he gets the blame for Madison's limitations as a city.
First, he and surveyor Suydam did a such a slap-dash job in their rudimentary work while hustling to Belmont that they named two different streets Henry. And the plat contained claims that were public relations puffery at best, if not outright deception-like the assertion that the proposed canal four blocks east of the planned capitol was "perfectly practicable," notwithstanding the forty-foot hill right in its path, or that almost the entire isthmus was "high, dry & well situated for Building," when vast areas out East Washington Avenue were in fact marshland and would remain so well into the twentieth century.
The plat, fit for a city of about ten thousand, did have some positive elements. The rudimentary radial design showed that Doty tried to be creative even if his execution was lacking. That he doubled the width of Wisconsin Avenue meant Doty understood the power of that view both to and from the capitol.
But the plat had three fundamental flaws, each of which caused the city future development woes and each of which came about because Doty didn't accommodate the physical reality of the land.
First, there was the lost opportunity for lakefront access and other public parklands. Despite the stunning setting, the only public open space is the 13.5-acre Capitol Park and the public waterfront is limited to street ends and the inlet for the industrial canal-an utter failure to capitalize on the new town's unique and most important attribute.
Doty also failed to complete the axial streets properly. Other than West King (State) Street, their design ranged from mediocre to harmful. South Hamilton sliced a residential block in two before its abrupt end, while its northern terminus was at the mouth of the canal. The end of that canal was even worse; that's where Doty thought the mills should go-not only through deep rock but only three blocks from the capitol. As Doty saw, so it was done; within a few years, and for many decades, both the King and North Hamilton axials would indeed end in industrial uses. It would be left to Leonard Farwell, more than a decade later, to locate the mill at the obvious place-where the river already was.
Seventy years would pass before the city started to address the other shortcomings. Because Doty and Suydam failed to provide opportunities for inland and lakefront recreation, John Olin, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, and the parks philanthropists had to. And because Doty and Suydam failed to capitalize on the width of Wisconsin Avenue by reserving the end lots for public use, the city wouldn't consider a grand mall and esplanade until John Nolen urged it to.
Finally, Doty's street-grid ignored geography, with predictable results. Other than West King Street connecting the capitol with what would become the campus, every street west of the capitol on Doty's plat ended in the marsh and open water of Lake Wingra, and no street served the major land mass to the northwest. Because Doty refused to look beyond the edge of the isthmus, it was left to the University Addition in 1850 to provide a western connection -a development with its own series of drawbacks (see page 29).
Madison's settlement began in early 1837. It was a time of firsts, and would remain so for several years.
Moses M. Strong, who would later levy the most serious legal challenge to Doty's ownership of the isthmus, surveyed and platted the town site for Doty in February. Assisted by postmaster John Catlin and the Canadian- Winnebago trader Michel St. Cyr, Strong fought through difficult and dangerous winter conditions to mark the metes and bounds.
It was about this time St. Cyr became Madison' first contractor, building a log cabin for Catlin on the corner of East Mifflin Street and Wisconsin (Monona) Avenue. Although the building burned before Catlin could occupy it, the site would remain significant for postal purposes until 1929.
The first white family, the Pecks, arrived on a snowy Saturday, April 15, to start Madison's first business-the hospitality industry. Their first guests, among them three of Madison's most important men, arrived within hours of each other on June 10-the capitol construction crew under charge of Commissioner Augustus A. Bird and including carpenter Darwin Clark, followed later that afternoon by Madison's first great entrepreneur, Simeon Mills. Catlin began his federal duties and his role as the settlement's first lawyer later that month.
More log structures sprang up-a dormitory in Capitol Park for the construction crews, a boardinghouse, and the first store, run by Mills and Catlin.
On the Fourth of July 1837, the settlement celebrated the sixty-first Independence Day by laying the cornerstone for the territorial capitol. Then it celebrated some more.
But the next month Madison's prospects suffered with the implementation of President Jackson's Specie Circular, which required that payments for all public lands be made in either gold or silver. The order sharply curtailed land sales and helped trigger the Panic of 1837 and a depression that seriously retarded Madison's early growth. It would not be the last time national economic news dimmed Madison's development.
There were other difficulties as well. The land, isolated in the primeval wilderness, was surrounded by water on two sides and marshes at either end; far from population centers or transportation hubs, the town offered farmers no easy access to markets. Early speculation by nonresidents had driven land prices beyond what most settlers could afford, while the continuing efforts by some to relocate the capital to Milwaukee made investment a risky proposition. Further eroding investor confidence was the complex and bitter battle Doty and Mason waged over conflicting claims to title of town lands, litigation not resolved in Doty's favor until June 1841. Finally, there were the standard (and not-so-standard) frontier hardships of Indians, prairie fires, mosquitoes, polecats, and wolves.
Slowly, the accoutrements of modern society developed, starting with a debating society-the Madison Lyceum, organized by carpenter Darwin Clark in August 1837. That summer, Clark helped William Wheeler build the settlement's first steam-powered sawmill, on the Lake Mendota shore a little west of Butler Street. Trees were cut without regard to ownership and the mill kept busy day and night for about two years. Scows made daily trips from McBride's Point (Maple Bluff) to a wharf at the foot of North Hamilton Street laden with stone for the capitol walls.
Although Madison would later be defined by its active and aggressive newspapers, the settlement lagged behind other communities in the early days; Green Bay, Milwaukee, even Mineral Point all had newspapers before Josiah Noonan began publishing the Wiskonsin Enquirer on November 8, 1838. But then the papers came quickly-the Madison Express (1839), the Wisconsin Democrat (1842), the Argus (1844), the Statesman (1850), the Wisconsin State Journal (1852), and the Patriot and Staats-Zeitung (1854).
As the cause of Madison's existence, the territorial government dominated its early development, particularly the need to feed and care for legislators. The government was responsible for Madison's existence, but its impact on Madison was not uniformly positive; legislators were among the regular clientele of two prominent gambling dens across from the capitol, the Tiger and the Worser.
Madison's often contentious relationship with alcohol regulation started in these settlement days. Abner Nichols of Mineral Point was outraged when he couldn't get a tavern license, so he and his partner vowed to establish something "worser," which they did-a two-story frame building on South Pinckney Street where men could not only drink and gamble but venture into the dark cellar and wrestle a wild animal in its den. The building later burned to the ground. The Tiger and the Worser caused so much social stink that a group of women convened a settlement-wide mass protest meeting at the capitol in 1841. After spirited debate-many of the men were already drunk-the meeting adjourned without action.
In March 1839, the legislature approved the formal political organization of Dane County and the election of county officers. Among the first acts of the new Dane County Board of Commissioners-setting tavern licenses. Even then, the county board knew Madison was more economically important than other communities, setting the tavern license at twenty dollars compared to twelve dollars elsewhere in the county.
That spring, the settlement held about one hundred fifty residents, a third of whom were adult males; the built environment totaled thirty-five buildings, including two stores, three public houses, three groceries, and one steam-powered mill.
Upon public demand, the county board in September set bounty on wolf scalps-but business was apparently so brisk that within days it cut the bounty from three dollars to one. The area we know as Mansion Hill was dense forest where hunters tracking partridge and other game made their way with great difficulty.
A mile east of the capitol hill, the heavy marsh become so covered with water in spring that fishermen in boats could spear fish in abundance. Horses, pigs and cows-and the occasional mad dog-roamed the region at will.
Winter thaws turned the dirt streets into muddy slush that in 1841 became so deep the territorial council considered an amendment concerning the ability of fish to make their way up King Street from Third Lake (Monona) to the capitol.
On February 11, 1842, the county jail received its first inmate of note-Grant County legislator J.R. Vineyard, who had shot Brown County legislator Charles Arndt dead on the territorial council floor. The council rejected Vineyard's resignation and immediately expelled him, but he was somehow found not guilty of manslaughter. He soon moved to California.
Excerpted from MADISON 1856-1931 by Stuart D. Levitan Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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