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(journey icon)1843

Annual Address Before the Old Settler's Club of Milwaukee County

I. A. Lapham

Original Cover

... This county when first organized, was taken from Brown County, and was one of the largest in the Territory; which was then (1834) attached to and formed a part of the Territory of Michigan. It has been the mother of all counties in the south-eastern part of Wisconsin as far west as Dane; the original plot of Madison having been recorded in Milwaukee as the county seat. Milwaukee County has now been reduced to a length of twenty-four miles along the shore of Lake Michigan and to an average breadth of a little less than ten miles; the superficial area being 237 square miles: thus it has been reduced from one of the largest to one of the smallest counties in the State. It is much less noted for its agriculture than for its position on the Lake and for its city of the same name, which is the commercial metropolis of the state. Owing to the proximity of the great city the demand for land has been such that every section has been subdivided until but very few large and well appointed farms remain.

The name Milwaukee, is of Indian origin, its derivation is uncertain, probably for the reason that it may have been given by some ancient tribe whose language had become extinct in the northwest before the exploration of this part of the continent. This may also be the case with the name of the state Wisconsin. So early as 1678 or 1680 the "Melleoki" river, is mentioned, by Zenobius Membre, as a tributary of Lake Dauphin, as Lake Michigan was then called, at about 43' north latitude on which was an Indian village.

Nearly a century afterwards Lieut. Gorrell gives information of the existence of the "Milwacky," on which there was still an Indian village and also a resident trader. Half a century more elapsed before Solomon Juneau, in the Autumn of the year 1818, became, what is claimed to be, the first permanent resident of what is now Milwaukee. It remains for the Antiquaries and historian to fill up the gaps in these dates and to supply the incidents connected with the history of our city, prior to the year 1818.

Not till the Autumn of 1835 can the settlement of Milwaukee be dated. At that time nine families made their homes here and laid the foundation of the future commonwealth. The occupation by fur traders, prior to this date had no reference to any permanent settlement or to the founding of a political community. ...

... During the year 1836 much of the public land of this and the adjacent counties was entered upon, and claimed by people who expected to occupy and improve them, and ultimately to secure the title from the general government at the minimum price of a dollar and a quarter per acre; but as there was not then as now an adequate pre-emption law securing to them this right, the tenure by which these claims were held was quite uncertain.

What amount of land each person should be allowed to claim; what improvements were necessary to secure such claim; what time should be allowed in which to make such improvements, and many similar questions were asked and discussed, but not answered or settled. Encroachments were made upon what were deemed to be the rights of some parties; difficulties of various kinds arose, for the settlement of which no legal, or other tribunal existed; and hence a resort to brute force seemed inevitable. In all such contests the strongest party whether in the right or wrong carried the day. Serious disputes of this kind became quite common; some of you will remember that parties were often made up in Milwaukee to go out and remove some one who had been guilty of "jumping" some other persons "claims;" riots and bloodshed were very likely to arise from this state of things.

But the healthy public sentiment would not allow the sovereignty of Judge Lynch thus to continue; public policy required a change; and the necessity of some movement by which to avert the impending evils: was sufficiently apparent. To Mr. Byron Kilbourn is due the credit of having prepared the unique and original code of laws which were solemnly adopted by the people at a meeting held in the newly built Court House. On the 13th of March, 1837, under these laws the county was settled and improved without further trouble. The present writer was appointed "Register of Claims" and gratuitously made a record of every man's entry upon the public lands. His certificate of title presented to the "Judiciary Committee" was duly accredited as a bar against all the world. Under this code of laws the lands were finally purchased of the United States at the minimum price, each claimant securing his land and his improvements without trouble or difficulty. The present pre-emption laws render all such proceedings unnecessary. ...

... The proximity to a large and rapidly growing town affording a ready cash market and fair prices for everything that could be produced, either for immediate consumption or exportation, had its effect in hastening improvements and stimulating production. The bad roads leading through the Milwaukee woods were the dread of all teamsters; and the time was when it cost the farmers in the interior counties the whole value of their surplus crops to haul them to market! This state of things gave much greater value to the lands lying in Milwaukee County nearer to the market.

On the 28th day of January, 1837, a meeting of the citizens of Milwaukee County was held, at which the first Agricultural Society in Wisconsin was organized, "for the purpose of introducing into the county of Milwaukee the best system of agricultural operations, the best kinds of stock, grains, fruits, roots, and all other agricultural products, and for the purpose of making experiments in relation to the adaptation of our soil and climate for the production of such stock, grain, &c." ...

At the first fair held by this society near the close of the year, 1837, premiums were awarded as follows:
To George Reed for the best bull, (named Jupiter) imported into and to remain in the county, $30.00
To George Reed for the best cow, 15.00
To Dr. Wm. P. Proudfit for best boar, 10.00
To A. A. Bedford for the best sow, 5.00
To Isaac Bigelow for best corn, 5.00
To George F. Knapp, for a fine sow imported by him, 3.00

... The plank roads built some years ago leading into Milwaukee had a very decided effect in adding to the prosperity of the towns through which they were constructed. They radiated from the city as a center towards the north, north-west, west, and south-west, thus affording facilities for the people of nearly all parts of the county to transport their surplus products and supplies by the use of their own teams. Many of these roads were changed from plank to gravel roads; as the plank gradually decay gravel was substituted thus making a much more permanent and valuable road. Though plank roads were thus of great value to farmers along their course, enabling them to do their marketing within their own means, and increasing the value of their lands, they were generally but poor property in the hands of the stock-holders who built them.

Lapham, Increase A. Annual Address Before the Old Settlers' Club. Milwaukee: Daily Commercial Times, 1875.
From the Pamphlet collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Pam 57-325