Old Settlers Club 1916

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

Pioneer Land Speculation in Milwaukee

Paper by Silas Chapman, Read Before the Old Settlers' Club,
Dec. 5, 1893.

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

For some time previous to the year 1836, money, or what is sometimes called money, the bills of banks of issue, was very abundant. Speculation ran rampant, prices of everything went upward, and this speculation culminated in 1836 by platting and throwing on the market lots, not only in cities and villages, but on mountain tops and under water. It mattered not where the real estate was, it became real to the speculator, and his credit, if not his money, was invested in it. It was supposed to be a fact that lots were platted and sold that were then, and are to this day under water. It was nearly true of lots in Milwaukee. As a takeoff it was gravely announced one morning in a New York paper that two paupers had escaped from a county asylum, and before they could be recaptured, each had made $40,000 by speculating in lots.

The land where our city now is had just been surveyed, and was an enticing field for speculation. The place was outside of civilization and only reached by tramp boats on the lake. The land was platted, the plats booked well on the map, and the maps were ready. All the present Seventh, Third and Fifth and parts of the Fourth, Second and Sixth wards were platted, and ready for sale. In all nearly 5,000 lots were in the market.

It mattered very little to the original settler or buyer where the great city of the future was to be, if, indeed, he concerned himself about the future. Only the owners of the south part of the Fifth ward named their plat "Milwaukee Proper" insisting that this was the true place for the city, and some of us uninterested agreed with them.

Then began the furious and reckless sale of lots. Sellers were as reckless as buyers, for everybody was a seller, and everybody was a buyer. There was no limit to the prices and expectation of prices. Lots were sold for a given price with a guarantee that within a named period they could be sold at a certain per cent advance. Mr. Juneau is said to have sold lots with such guarantee, and afterwards, according to his ability, honorably redeemed his pledge. Stories have come down to us, the truth concerning which I am glad I do not know, that business men would deny themselves to their customers and in their back room, with their bottle of wine, make themselves famously rich in trading in town lots. Having seen the results of such transactions, should some old settler press me hard, I should acknowledge a belief therein.

We can hardly realize it to be true, that while these lots were sold, and warranted titles given no individual owned in his own right one foot of ground, the title was still vested in the United States.

At that time the United States recognized no preemption claims. A settler might squat on an 80 acre tract or any other number of acres, build his cabin, and make all his improvements, and yet if he had not actually paid for his land in gold, any other person might pay for the same, oust the settler, and seize the land and improvements, without paying anything for those improvements.

On the east side, Solomon Juneau claimed all now the Seventh ward with a narrow strip south of Wisconsin street, Peter Juneau the rest of the Third ward, George Walker and others certain fractional lots now the Fifth ward and Byron Kilbourn was the first to perfect his title the Juneaus followed soon after. Walker's title was not settled till 1842, and then by an act of congress, some other claimant having "jumped" upon it.

Late in 1836 business circles throughout the country began to fear a financial panic. It could not be averted. 1837 came in with great and extensive failures. There was crowding and rushing to cover. I was then a resident of New York City, saw the swirl in that center of whirlpool and the memory of that excitement will not leave me should I live as long as this Old Settlers' Club, that is, a thousand years. Land speculation came to a sudden close. The supposed values of real estate in Milwaukee all at once disappeared.

Owners of lots in Milwaukee were living in eastern towns and cities. They had given value for that which was of no value something for nothing. Land was down nearly to its original acre value lots could not be given away.

A carpenter named Thurston, doing business here in 1836, had done some work for and had a claim against a neighbor. The debtor could not pay. Thurston obtained judgment, the claim and costs amounting to $175. The debtor having a lot, offered to pass that over to Thurston for satisfaction of judgment. Mr. Juneau was consulted but being in the depths himself, could hardly give a fair judgment. He told Thurston to let the lot alone Milwaukee had gone to the dogs never to come back. Thurston did not take the lot nor anything else. The lot is the one on which the old insurance building now stands. Some few years ago I met Thurston directly in front of that building. We looked at it, but neither of us said a word about it.

The recovery of real estate value was very slow. In 1841, four years after the crash, I met a gentleman of Salem, Mass., who said to me: "I have six lots in Milwaukee, my title is good, but there are some taxes still unpaid. If you will take these lots off my hands and save me from further anxiety I will give you a quit claim deed." I declined to relieve him. The lots are on West Water street, south of Grand avenue.

One could hardly be in an eastern city, without meeting owners of Milwaukee lots. As late as 1850, thirteen years after the failures, being in Philadelphia, a capitalist who had held on to his investments, wanted to know if he could get 50 per cent of what the lots cost him in 1836. "Doubtful." was my reply.

In 1845 I purchased the northwest quarter of block 133, First ward, the block on which was Juneau's home now the property of John Black, for $300.

Milwaukee did recover from the madness of 1836. It has since kept its real estate at a fair but not speculative value. What the condition is now and will be for the next ten years, I leave to the essavist who shall read to this club in 1950.