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Madison, Wisconsin History

On April 20, 1836, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the creation of the Territory of Wisconsin without specifying a territorial capital. Henry Dodge, the first Governor (appointed by President Jackson), convened the first Legislature at Belmont on October 25, 1836, to discuss a location for the capital city.

Several settlements wished the honor of being the capital city: French-Canadian fur traders had formed one of the first colonies at Fort Howard (Green Bay); newer, but more populated, was the southern lead-mining region centered around Mineral Point; at the mouth of the Milwaukee River a promising young village was growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan; and, to the west, Fort Crawford (Prairie du Chien) had a strategic view of all river traffic where the Wisconsin River emptied into the Mississippi River. One other candidate for the site of the territorial capital, known as the Four Lakes area, was centrally located between the other settlements. The lakes themselves, with high ground rising all around, were considered by occasional travelers as some of the most beautiful they had ever seen. The lakes would become designated as follows: the first lake, KEGONSA, signifying fish lake; the second, WAUBESA, meaning swan lake; the third, MONONA, meaning spirit or beautiful; and the fourth lake, MENDOTA, signifying the gathering of the waters.

Judge James Doty preferred this location, now known as Madison, for the territorial capital, and hired Moses M. Strong to plat out a "city" for him between the third and fourth lakes (Lakes Monona and Mendota). Familiar with buying and selling land for speculative purposes, he was able to interest a group to purchase land in the Four Lakes area and to form a land company, named Four Lakes Company, in 1836, for development. He purchased over a thousand acres of land from the government at $1.25 per acre.

At that first legislative session in Belmont (which lasted until December 9, 1836), a bill was passed which would locate the seat of government in Madison. However, the Legislature appointed Burlington, in Iowa, as the place of the next session, until proper buildings could be erected at Madison. Madison was named for the fourth President of the United States, James Madison, who had died that summer of 1836. The County of Dane was named for Nathan Dane, a Massachusetts Congressman who was instrumental in the ordinance that established the Northwest Territory.

Judge Doty asked Roseline and Eben Peck to move from Blue Mounds to Madison, at that time a virtual wilderness, to set up a tavern inn (the "Madison House"), so workers would have a place to live when they arrived. It consisted of three log cabins connected together, and stood at 128 South Butler Street. The 1836 Census showed about three dozen settlers in what is now known as Dane County; the 1837 Census of the "city on paper" totalled three. In June of 1837, Building Commissioner Augustus A. Bird made a ten-day trip from Milwaukee with 36 workers, six yoke of oxen, wagons, tools, supplies, cooking utensils, etc., to begin work on the Capitol building. They were met on June 10 by the Pecks.

The cornerstone of the Capitol building was laid in 1837, the location chosen because it overlooked the entire lake area and could be seen for miles around. The Legislature first met in Madison on November 26, 1838, assembled in the basement of the nearby American House. When the Capitol was completed, the cost of construction was somewhat over $60,000. It proved to be poorly constructed, as it leaked when it rained and was too cold for comfort in the winter (ink for the legislators' pens froze). The records, which were stored, were also very susceptible to fire damage, due to its oak and plaster interior. The decision was made to demolish the building; this began during the Civil War. It was replaced by a larger, second Capitol building, which was under construction for a dozen years. The new dome and rotunda were completed in 1869, and final finishing touches were completed in January of 1872. The Governor, Cadwallader C. Washburn, proudly announced, "The State Capitol is now finished at a total cost of $550,000." In 1883, the South Wing of the Capitol collapsed, killing seven persons. It was eventually replaced by a greatly enlarged building around 1884. In 1904, however, that building was extensively damaged by fire and, slowly, over the years 1906 to 1917, it was dismantled.

The New York firm of George B. Post & Sons was chosen to design the present Capitol building. It was begun in 1907 and completed in 1917, at a total cost of $7,258,763. After five attempts, the people of the State of Wisconsin had finally adorned their state with the Capitol they had always wanted. The white granite, classical-revival building has outlasted all four of its predecessors combined. It is a beautiful structure topped by the second highest dome (270 feet) in the United States, and lies in the middle of Capitol Park (13.4 acres). The exterior is made from white Bethel Vermont granite, while the interior is composed of a combination of granite and imported marble. The building is designed so the dome is at the center of four wings. Each wing faces a compass direction of North, East, West and South, and houses the four branches of Wisconsin government (Assembly, Senate, Executive and the courts). A gold-leafed bronze statue stands atop the 270-foot dome. This statue has come to be called "Miss Forward," and weighs over three tons. The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, also designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The interior of the Capitol is breathtaking. Inside the rotunda is a magnificent painting depicting the symbolic resources of Wisconsin. Each wing leading off the rotunda is highlighted with immense granite archways, and varying shades of marble provide perfect contrast. Each wall in the principal rooms (Reception room, Supreme Court room, Senate Chamber, Assembly Chamber and the Hearing room) has a large mural on it. Scenes such as the signing of the Magna Carta are depicted.

The Capitol dome is lit up at night by a series of intense flood lights and can be seen for miles around. Wisconsin law mandates that no nearby structure shall be taller than the base of the Capitol dome. In 1982, the State Capitol underwent improvements to the roof, outside steps and nearly half of the first floor. Outside, the grounds crew enhanced the beauty of the lawns with a landscape plan that won national recognition, including First place in the national Professional Grounds Maintenance Awards program, as well as the admiration of Madison residents and visitors.

Tracing the history of the Capitol buildings of Wisconsin, the two-story frame building and the grounds surrounding our first Capitol in Belmont have now become a state park.


Madison was first in the state to send soldiers to war. Soldiers numbering 157 enlisted; when the call for troops came at the beginning of the Civil War Governor Randall assembled them at the State Agricultural Society Fairgrounds. These ten acres of grounds were already enclosed by a board fence eight feet high with two guarded gates, and had several buildings which could be used until more substantial ones could be built. Carpenters and laborers were set to work.

The camp was named Camp Randall by the colonel of the first regiment formed here (the Second Wisconsin) in honor of Governor Randall. During the course of the war, over 70,000 men were quartered at Camp Randall. Many of them slept in barracks that formerly had been used as stables and cow sheds for the State Fair. Conditions were the worst at Camp Randall between April and June 1862, when it was used as a prison camp for Confederates taken at the capture of Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River. Prisoners totalled about 1,260.

The Wisconsin troops who trained at Camp Randall stayed there an average of a few weeks to two months or more. When the time came for a regiment to be mustered into the United States service, there was a fine supper, elaborate farewells, with the governor and other notables giving speeches, brass bands playing, church bells ringing and tremendous crowds. Many Union and Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War were buried in Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery, which was opened in 1858.

Today, Camp Randall is the site of the University of Wisconsin's (the Badgers) football stadium and adjacent Fieldhouse, which draw capacity crowds of enthusiastic Badger sports fans.


In 1846, Madison became incorporated as a village, with a population of 626. It later received its city charter in 1856, when the population had grown to 6,863. It was divided into four wards, with four main avenues as the dividing lines. Jairus Fairchild was the first mayor. City Hall was completed in 1857. During this time, Wisconsin became the 30th state (May 29, 1848), under the official signature of President Polk.

The telegraph reached Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1848, and was helpful to stagecoach travelers; by 1850, stages were running every weekday from Milwaukee to Madison. Wisconsinites, for the most part, had no lack of newspapers to read. In the single year 1852, no fewer than six local daily newspapers were available in Madison, one of which was the Wisconsin State Journal. The first railroad train traveled from Milwaukee to Waukesha in 1851. The Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad reached Madison in 1854, bringing 2,500 people. Railroad service was completed to Prairie du Chien in 1857. In 1864, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad reached Madison from Chicago.

With railroad service to and from Madison, the city was able to prosper and grow as new persons moved to Madison. The streets were lighted with gas in 1855. Madison's growth was also due to the fact that it was an educational center, and the capital of the state. Its natural beauty was also an attraction for newcomers.

Industries of many kinds located in Madison and built industrial plants. Principal products manufactured included machine tools, gasoline and oil engines, electrical machinery, hospital supplies, horse collar pads, dry batteries, candy, agricultural implements and seeds. Some of the well-known early industries in Madison were: Gisholt Machine Company; Fuller & Johnson; Madison Saddlery Company; Scanlan Morris Company, Techmeyer Candy Company; Madison Plow Company; and Marshall Dairy Laboratory.

The first school was opened in 1838 in one end of a log house on King Street. The following year, Madison's first schoolhouse was erected on the corner lot at Pinckney and Dayton Streets. It was built of logs and cost about $70 to construct. Between 1847 and 1857, there were many struggles within the Pioneer School System. School equipment was unheard of, and there were no regularly adopted textbooks. The Madison Board of Education was organized in 1855. Damon Y. Kilgore, the first superintendent, and Richard B. Dudgeon, who followed him, did much to improve the school system. In 1856, when the city was divided into four wards, a city school lot was placed in each ward. The first high school building was erected in 1857 on the site of the present downtown campus of Madison Area Technical College. It would be the only high school in Madison until 1908. Today, Madison has one of the finest public school systems in the nation, with over 40 schools, four of them high schools.

The first sermon was preached by Reverend Solomon Stebbins (a Methodist preacher), on November 28, 1839. In the same year, a Sunday School was opened in the schoolhouse. In 1843, Father Martin Kundig conducted the first Catholic service, and a Catholic church was erected in 1850 on the site of the present St. Raphael's Church. The first parish of the Episcopal Church was formed in 1839. Christ Presbyterian Church was organized on October 4, 1851. The Congregational Church was organized in 1840 and the Baptist Church in 1847. The Madison Church of Christ was organized in 1923. The First Church of Christ (Scientist) was organized in 1894. The Hillel Foundation, a Jewish institution, was organized for religious and social activities by Jewish students of the University. The first Unitarian Society of Madison was founded in 1879. Today, there are over 160 churches, representing 45 denominations.

University of Wisconsin - Madison

The University of Wisconsin was established by the first State Legislature in 1848, in accordance with the constitution and the Congressional Act of 1838, which set aside land for the support of a "Seminary of Learning" in the territory. Regents were appointed by Governor Dewey. There were no funds, faculty or buildings. Tuition was to be free as soon as income from the university fund, to be realized from land sales, would permit.

They hired as chancellor the president of the University of Missouri, John H. Lathrop. The first college in the University was the College of Mathematics, with John W. Sterling as professor. The first class of seventeen students assembled on February 4, 1849. In 1850, Chancellor Lathrop and his wife showed a foreign guest the new university's first building, being constructed on College Hill. A plain but well-proportioned stone structure, it commanded a breathtaking view of the lakes and woods and the village of Madison. In 1851, that first building, North Hall, was completed.

In 1854, the first class of two members was graduated—the entire attendance at that time was four persons. By 1857, the University appeared to be thriving financially, its lands selling well, though it was to receive no regular tax support for nearly twenty years. Two buildings, North Hall and South Hall, were in use, and a third, much later to be known as Bascom Hall, was being built. In 1855 and 1856, bills were introduced in the Legislature for distributing the university funds among all the colleges of the state, but the proposals did not receive much support.

In 1863, a normal department was opened and women numbering 66 were allowed to attend. Although admitted to hear lectures, they were denied the regular courses in mathematics, languages and philosophy. Paul A. Chadbourne was president of the University at that time. In 1874, John Bascom became the president of the University. At the beginning of his administration, he saw some weaknesses—income was not sufficient and the buildings, library and the scientific equipment did not meet the needs of the students. The faculty was not large enough and conditions for women were in need of improvement. Bascom worked enthusiastically to improve the University of Wisconsin.

The addition of a gymnasium in 1894 gave new life to the physical and social activities of students. Intercollegiate sports came in with a rush after 1890, and within three to four years football, rowing and field and track became distinctive college games.

Today, the University of Wisconsin-Madison includes 13 schools and colleges and 133 academic departments. It serves an enrollment of over 38,000, and consistently ranks among the top educational institutions in the country. It employs approximately 25,000 faculty, academic staff and classified staff. There are 22 libraries available, including Memorial, the central campus library. The main campus covers 908 acres of land, and attracts students from all 50 states and approximately 125 foreign countries. Intercollegiate athletic events include: basketball, crew, football, gymnastics, hockey, soccer, swimming, tennis, track, volleyball and wrestling.


Although no longer the "uninhabited forest" that it once was, Madison still charms residents and visitors alike with its enchanting natural beauty. The Capitol can be seen from miles around as it stands prominently above the narrow strip of land separating Lakes Mendota and Monona.

On another hill just west of the Capitol, the University of Wisconsin-Madison rises up and stretches out along the shoreline of the larger Lake Mendota. Parks, beaches and marinas dot the shorelines of all four lakes, where swimming, sail-boarding, canoeing, rowing, sailing, water-skiing, fishing and skating are favorite leisure time activities. Other popular recreation activities include softball, tennis, golf, biking, hiking, jogging, and skiing. The activities provided by the city, together with the University's athletic programs, furnish plenty of events for sporting enthusiasts. Since Eben Peck built that first log tavern, Madison has long been known as a mecca of dining and entertainment. Shops and restaurants offer opportunities to share the cultures and cuisines of several different nationalities and ethnic groups.

As a political, educational and social center, Madison provides a variety of cultural facilities and opportunities for its residents and visitors: Public, governmental, special and academic libraries; churches; at least 120 community organizations encouraging participation in music, dance, theatre, visual and literary arts, architecture and local history and preservation; five museums with art, history and science collections; the Civic Center, with a 2,000-seat theater for the performing arts and a 400-seat playhouse; and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Concerts on the Square on the Capitol grounds during the summer.

Many other features attract new residents and visitors to Madison, the City of Four Lakes. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Health Sciences is foremost in the country in research, teaching and testing, and noted for Nobel Prize-winning work in medicine, genetics and cancer research. The University's faculty and graduates, as well as those of Edgewood College and Madison Area Technical College, provide excellent consulting resources and a talented work force which have attracted private research and high-technology firms to the area. Close to one-sixth of all the farms in Wisconsin are located in the Madison trade area, which is also well supplied with local manufacturers, among them Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation and Rayovac. Among cities with similar population, around 200,000, Madison consistently rates in the top ten of those having the lowest crime rate. As it did when it first became the territorial capital, Madison continues to invite visitors and new residents to share its quality of life, natural beauty and warm hospitality!

15,000 B.C.
Madison area under 300 miles of glacial ice

10,000 B.C.
Glacial ice gone from Madison; Lake Mendota twice present size

3,000 B.C.
American Indian population flourishing

1,000 B.C.
First signs of Indian mounds

First European settler

Madison becomes territorial capital

Wisconsin becomes 30th state; Madison population 300

First UW class for 17 students; Tenney Locks constructed

Beginning of Lake Mendota and Lake Monona ice records

First noxious algae growth documented (Madison population 12,000)

Carp introduced

Madison population 35,000

Sewage diverted around Lake Monona

Madison population 67,000

Madison sewage diverted around Lakes Monona, Waubesa & Kegonsa

Eurasian watermilfoil invades Madison Lakes

Waunakee & DeForest sewage diverted around Lake Mendota

Madison population 173,000

Lake Mendota Biotic Manipulation Program begins

Lake Mendota Priority Lake Project begins