Old Settlers Club 1916

Early Milwaukee
Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club

Early Settlers

Paper Read by Peter Johnston Sept. 6th, 1897.

Source: Early Milwaukee, Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County, Published by the Club, 1916.

Henry Legler, in his excellent "Story of the State," gives a partial history of some of the early pioneers of Wisconsin from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century. But they were not settlers in the proper sense of the term. They were exploring adventurers and agents and employees of various fur companies of Canada and the United States and were sent by them to trade with the Indians for furs and peltries. And they had no desire or intention of opening the country to permanent settlement, or to civilization. In fact it was their intent and aim to keep as far from that as possible, because the fewer the settlers the more Indians and the more furs and better trade and larger profits.

By treaty with the Indians at Chicago in 1833 they ceded to the government the title to their lands in the State, excepting some reservations to which they could retire and live more closely and sociably together and where the Great Father at Washington could look after them and care for them until they became extinct or nearly so as at present.

It was not till 1834 that lands were surveyed and opened to settlers, and the first land sale was at Mineral Point in 1834. The population of the state was only 4,795. and it was scattered at a few places, the lead mines and trading posts along the rivers and at Green Bay.

In June 1835, the first steamboat landed at Milwaukee and from that time we may date the first waves of immigration that during the succeeding quarter of the Century rolled on these shores. I think it is James Fenimore Cooper, who in a couplet introductory to his novel of the Pioneers describes the situation at that time very well:

I hear the tread of Pioneers,
  A mighty Nation yet to be,
The first lone waves upon the Shore,
  Where soon shall roll a human Sea.

In 1836 eight hundred and seventy-eight thousand acres of land had been sold to settlers and speculators. But the waves of immigration did not assume large proportions till after 1840. At that date the population of the State was only 31,000. In 1846 it was 155,000, in 1850 it was 305,000, in 1855 it was 552,000, and in 1860 it was 776,000. In the early forties the advice of Horace Greeley to "Go West Young Man Go West" began to be heeded. And the tide of immigration to Wisconsin increased from year to year till it assumed vast proportions and the state was being settled rapidly with an enterprising and industrious population. I speak first of the foreign immigration. From what countries did it come and who and what were they as a class? They came from the best and most intelligent nations of Europe. Probably the greatest number were those speaking the German language. Germans, Austrians, Bohemians, Hungarians, Belgians and Hollanders. Scandinavians from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, English, Scotch and Irish from the British Isles. Some from Switzerland and France. And a few from some countries not mentioned.

In most of those nations education of the masses is general and very few of the immigrants were without some education in their own language.

There were few old people. They were from middle age to younger, married and single, young men and maidens and children. They were intelligent, enterprising and industrious. None were paupers or tramps. They intended to better their fortunes in Wisconsin by honest industry. They were of all trades and proficient farmers, mechanics, lawyers, teachers and preachers, merchants and sailors. No better class ever settled a new state. Webster says that an immigrant is one who moves from one country to an-other or from one state to another in the same country. I call the latter domestic immigration. There was a great tide of immigration from the Eastern states during those years. They came largely from New England and the empire state, some from Pennsylvania and from Canada. They were from the best families and blood of those states, descendants of pilgrims and Revolutionary ancestors. They came west for room to expand and grow up with the country. It is of no use to tell you what they did here. Their work speaks for them.

There is another class of early settlers who were not immigrants that came here during those years. They were very few in number at first, but they increased to many thousands as the years rolled on, and I give in illustration of the class the early history of our friend Capt. J. V. Quarles, as told by himself at the banquet of the Old Settlers' Club in February, 1896. As near as I remember he said in part:

"I came here in 1843. I was a very small boy and I came alone. I was a stranger and I had no money, and no clothes to mention. A kind family took me and cared for me. They were farmers and I helped on the farm. I did some milking and I raised much provisions with a spoon. They were good to me and sent me to school and educated me to be a lawyer."

I hope that others of his class had a different fate. But I don't know. I do know lawyers are very plenty.

In 1861 when our Southern brethren attempted to destroy this nation and commenced war against it, no state responded more quickly to the president's call for troops than did Wisconsin, and no better or braver men ever followed the flag than Wisconsin soldiers. And no state lost more men, killed, wounded and by the accidents of war, in proportion to their number than Wisconsin. Her soldiers were nearly all early settlers of native and foreign birth, and their sons who were old enough to go to war. There was no difference in the ranks. All were Americans.

In illustration of the loyalty of foreign born citizens to the country, I will relate one instance and to me it is a sad memory and the example is not extreme there were thousands of similar cases. When the war commenced in 1861 I had four brothers, native born Scotchmen and adopted citizens of Wisconsin. Three of them enlisted in the early regiments and one later. Two of them returned when the war ended and two were killed in battle and sleep where they fell in unknown graves in Tennessee and Virginia. Could any men do more for their country?

It is generally supposed that settlers suffered many hardships during early years, but I doubt if they were aware of them to any great extent. It is true they worked hard, but they were able and willing to work and did not count it hardship. They had plenty of good plain food and did not suffer hunger good warm clothing and did not suffer cold. They had few luxuries for the table because they were not to be had and few fine clothes for the same reason. But they were contented with what they could get and did not consider it any hardship. Many of them came from large cities and densely populated districts where a struggle for existence was their only prospect in future. But here they had a feeling of freedom and independence and assurance of future welfare that was new to them, and more than balanced any privation or hardships they might encounter. But they suffered some privations incident to a new country. Markets were few and distant, roads were bad, schools and churches were few and often far away, and in sickness or accidents, medical aid might be hard to get. Farming tools and machinery were crude but no better were in use anywhere. The strong arm of the farmer scattered the seeds, the scythe and grain cradle were mowers and self-binders and the flail and old horsepower thresher prepared the grain for use.

To be fashionable did not trouble them very much. Men were fashionable in satinet, jeans or hard times, ladies in alpaca, delaines or calicos. There were no high hat laws and their heads were level. Boys and girls were not yet masters and misses, and the new woman was not yet invented. The old woman was perfectly satisfactory, and divorce courts were a luxury reserved for the present, generation. They took their pleasure rides on the old buckboard or spring wagons or by Foot and Walker's line in place of bicycle, phaeton or electric car.

Money was scarce and hard to get. Gold and silver were at par, but 16 to 1, they had none of it. But an order on the store was just as good and easier to get. In fact they were not aware how much they were suffering and where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise.

The early settlers found Wisconsin a wilderness. They made it a cultivated, beautiful and prosperous state. They created state and local governments; they enacted wise, just and liberal laws; they founded public schools and the higher institutions of learning; they built hospitals and asylums for the insane and other unfortunates, churches for the good and prisons for the bad. And all that has been added in later years is built on the foundations laid by them, and to them belongs the credit of the state.  

At the close of the Civil War in 1865 the population of the state was about 900,000. By immigration and natural increase it has more than doubled and also doubled in wealth, commerce and production. All the early settlers now living are indeed Old Settlers, and a younger generation of men must guide the Ship of State.

May they be as wise, prudent and honest as their Fathers were, and guide her in the safe channel of equal rights and justice to all, and all will be well with the State.