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Wisconsin and Its Resources

by James S. Ritchie   1857



IN the preceding pages we described the various resources of this, the Empire State of the Northwest; and will now give some account of the public lands within its limits, and an abstract of the pre-emption law, for the benefit of those desirous of availing themselves of its privileges. This law has, since the date of its passage, been one continuous source of benefit to the West. It is the best protection ever devised for the poor and industrious man against the speculator and the capitalist.

The public lands of the United States are that immense body of unappropriated and unsettled lands, commonly called Government lands, which have been acquired at various periods, both by treaty and purchase; and, in all action upon them, both by individuals and by public bodies, legislative or judicial, are treated as the property of the Government. President Buchanan, in his Inaugural Address, truly says: "No nation, in the tide of time, has ever, been blessed with so rich and noble an inheritance as we enjoy in the public lands. In administering this important trust, whilst it may be wise to grant portions of them for the improvement of the remainder, yet we should never forget that it is our cardinal policy to reserve these lands, as much as may be, for actual settlers and this at moderate prices. We shall thus not only best promote the prosperity of the new States, by furnishing them a hardy and independent race of honest and industrious citizens but shall secure homes for our children, and our children's children, as well as for those exiled from foreign shores, who may seek in this country to improve their condition, and to enjoy the blessings of civil and religious liberty. Such emigrants have done much to promote the growth and prosperity of the country. They have proved faithful, both in peace and in war. After becoming citizens, they are entitled, under the Constitution and laws, to be placed on a perfect equality with the native-born citizens, and in this character they should ever be kindly recognised."

The present system of public surveys is a complete admeasurement and marking of the whole body of public lands, and is very easy of comprehension. The land is first measured and marked in township lines, which are divisions of six miles square. Afterwards the township is divided into sections of one mile square, each section being marked by "blazing" a tree, as the technical phrase is for barking it with an axe; or, if the corner to be marled is in the prairie, by driving a stake and throwing up a sod, noting at the same time, on the tree or the stake, the number of the township and section. The townships are numbered from south to north on a base line, and the north, and south ranges are numbered on both sides of an arbitrary meridian, east and west. The meridian lines are established and surveyed from some important point, generally from the junction of some water-course. The "fourth" principal meridian commences on the Illinois River, at a point seventy-two miles due north from its mouth; (here also commences its base line, which runs due west to the Mississippi River). This meridian continues north through the State of Wisconsin. The sections are numbered, beginning at the northeast section of the township for number one, running west, and alternately east, terminating with number thirty-six in the southeast corner. Section numbered sixteen in each township is appropriated to schools, and transferred to the States for that purpose. The following diagram will serve to illustrate:


Those lands not entered under the pre-emption law are offered at sale, previous to which, no person, except having a pre-emptive right, can purchase. After they have been offered at public sale, they are open to every purchaser at private sale. The price of all the lands is fixed at a uniform minimum of one dollar and a quarter per acre, except those specified in the late land-grants.


The following abstract of the pre-emption law will prove of interest to such as design to avail themselves its provisions:

1. The settler must never before have had the benefit of pre-empting under the act.

2. He must not, at the time of making the pre-emption, be the owner of three hundred and twenty acres of land in any State or Territory in the United States.

3. He must settle upon and improve the land in good faith, for his own exclusive use or benefit, and not with the intention of selling it on speculation; and must not make, directly or indirectly, any contract or agreement, in any way or manner, with any person or persons, by which the title which he may acquire from the United States should enure, in whole or part, to the benefit of any person except himself.

4. He must be twenty-one years of age, and a citizen of the United States; or, if a foreigner, must have declared his intention to become a citizen before the proper authority and received a certificate to that effect.

5. He must build a house on the land, live in it, and make it his exclusive home, and must be an inhabitant of the same at the time of making application for pre-emption. [Until lately, a single man might board with his nearest neighbor; but the same is now required of single as married men, except that, if married, the family of the settler must also live in the house.]

6. The law requires that more or less improvements be made on the land, such as breaking, fencing, &c., but pre-emptions are granted where a half-acre is broken and enclosed.

7. It is necessary that no other person, entitled to the right of pre-emption, shall reside on the land at the same time.

8. No person is permitted to remove from his own land, and make a pre-emption in the same State or Territory.

9. The settler is required to bring with him to the land-office a written or printed application, setting forth the facts in his case as to the 1st, 2d, and 3d requirements here mentioned, with a certificate appended, to be signed by the Register and Receiver, and make affidavit to the same.

10. He is also required to bring with him a respectable witness of his acquaintance, who is knowing to the facts of his settlement, to make affidavit to the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th requirements here mentioned, with the same set forth on paper, with a corresponding blank certificate attached to be signed by the land-officers.

11. The pre-emptor, if a foreigner, must bring with him to the land-office, duplicates of his naturalization papers, duly signed by the official from whom they were received.

A minor who is the head of a family, or a widow may also pre-empt--their families being required to live on the land.

The settler is required to file a written declaratory statement of his intention to pre-empt, before he can proceed with his pre-emption.

FEES.--1st. The fee required by the Register for filing a declaratory statement is one dollar.

2d. For granting a pre-emption, the Register and Receiver can receive fifty cents.

3d. For duplicate of the map of any township, one dollar is required by the Register."


We assure all our readers, that the closing of the land-offices need deter no one from immigrating to Wisconsin, and none there from making claims. The Railroad Grant, in its terms, respects all pre-emptions made up to the time the roads are actually located. After the location, pre-emptors are excluded from pre-empting odd-numbered sections only, within six miles of either side of the roads as located; but the Government price for all lands within six miles of the railroads, is $2.50 per acre. If they wish to go further off than six miles from the proposed railroad, then the price of the lands will be $1.25 per acre.

The closing of the land-offices is a real benefit to the settler, by preventing speculators (the bane of all new States,) from taking up all the public lands along the line of the proposed roads.


Besides the lands which have been surveyed and brought into market, there are large tracts yet unsurveyed, and almost unexplored. The amount of these lands is estimated at about 14,500 square miles; principally lying in the north-eastern part of the State, and almost without inhabitants The soil of this region is of an excellent quality, &c.1


There are six land-offices in Wisconsin, each of which represents several counties, viz.: Mineral Point, Manasha, Hudson, Stevens' Point, La Crosse, and City of Superior. At either of these offices, settlers will be furnished with small township maps, showing all the vacant or unentered lands, up to the date of application.

The right of pre-emption gives to Wisconsin an advantage over other Western States, for it precludes entirely the possibility of its becoming, as are the States of Illinois and Iowa, a country of speculators, who feel no interest in them, except that of having their lands increase in value, as the result of the public spirit and enterprise of others.

There are still thousands of persons at the East, farmers, mechanics, artisans, working-people, who look toward Wisconsin with a disposition to emigrate--perhaps they mete out from year to year a bare subsistence--the year rolls by, and if they have enjoyed the right to labor during the bulk of it, they have accumulated but little; and when we look back at the condition of things a winter or two ago, in the large cities, when the most hard-working, honest, proud-spirited mechanics were straitened for want of the means of keeping themselves and their little ones from starvation, we cannot help wondering why more of them do not come to this favored State. And who can tell when these things will occur again? Neither honesty, industry, nor capability, are a protection when there is no work. The very men who have barely enough to eke out a miserable subsistence in the cities, could command in Wisconsin, through the whole winter, from $2.50 to $3.00 per day, and be sought after gladly, and begged to work. What, too, would be their opportunities, rising in a new country; at home among people like themselves; their children imbibing health and happiness from the air they breathed, instead of disease and crime; they themselves known and respected according to their deserts; and possessing the many advantages for a rapid accumulation of fortune, known only to a new country! Who would ask to exchange such a pure, free life, for the crowded miseries of the Eastern cities, their uncertainty of employment, and the few rugged, scrambling roads by which the poor can rise! Surely no sensible man would hesitate long as to his choice.

"The working-man in Wisconsin need never be idle, and it is pre-eminently the place for working-people; the whole country is in a state of transition, rapidly going on. What has been done at the East, has yet to be done here; the numerous channels of business, into which it requires years to attain a successful position there, are either just opened to enterprise in this State, or await, perhaps, another year's agricultural settlement as we chance to look at a point just bursting into notice or another with a few years the advantage--hence, the newly-arrived mechanic, artisan, or manufacturer asks himself, not, Where can I find an opening? but, Which is the best?"

The Emigrant's Journal says: "We do know that the Beneficent Creator of all things, in his sovereign benevolence, has thrown wide to humanity millions upon millions of untilled acres in the Great West, that lie there waiting for hands to cover them with harvests. And we also know that, in the crowded cities of our own land, and in the crowded States of Europe, thousands on thousands of our fellow-beings are toiling through life to obtain a miserable subsistence, who on those broad acres, would soon find ease, and comfort, and affluence. Now, to assist that emigration, seems to us one of the noblest works to which man could devote himself. To illustrate our purpose, let us stop at this corner of a great city, and see the population set past us. It is sunset. Note that poor laborer; he comes from a hard day's work. From morning to night that man's muscles have been going. The miserable pittance he receives is scarce enough to keep his wife and children in food and lodging. The benefit of all his toil goes to some one--not to himself.

"Imagine that man set upon his own land, the plough in his grasp, and his fortune before him. Where, then, would be the result of his labor? House, ploughed land, fences, barns, would grow under his hand with half the labor he now gives to procure a living, and every day's work would be for himself, and would add to his own personal wealth. The heavens would smile above him, the great earth would yield him her fruits; and he would leave his children--instead of sickness, sin, and poverty--health, happiness and prosperity."

Another journal forcibly remarks: "We say, then, to the mechanic, pent up in dense, suffocating cities, or crowded towns, toiling at the selfish dictation of arrogant employers, who derive at least three-fourths of the profit of your labor--to such I say, Come to the fresh and fruitful West, where you may easily have an independent and pleasant home.

"To the young farmer, who works the long hot days for the paltry sum of ten or a dozen dollars per month, to him who rents land, returning to others the 'lion's share' of all the products of his industry--to all who would better their condition and regain new energies, unto such I say, confidently and in a lively friendship, Come, and appropriate to yourselves any necessary and proper amount of these gardens, boundless and beautiful, which you can, so many of you, easily do.

"They will return you a greater yield of crops, for less labor, and then you can obtain prices but little under Eastern markets; transportation is so cheap and speedy, which renders these Western lands as valuable as those of the East."

An intelligent writer in the New York Herald says.--"Having visited Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, I can speak from knowledge and experience in regard to their present and future. I am desirous of stating, through your columns, my opinion as to which of these Territories or States, emigrants, particularly those of the Northern States, and who are practical farmers, will, taking all the circumstances into consideration, find it most to their advantage to settle in. Wisconsin is my choice, for the following reasons: First, good water, a healthy climate, plenty of wood, all kinds of grain and fruit in abundance, an intelligent population, railroads traversing every part of the State, and a home market at almost every door. It is interspersed with lakes and streams, and bounding with fish and game. The time is not far distant which will witness the value of all the middle portion of that State at fifty dollars and upwards for an acre. The pineries are supposed to be less in value than the prairie and oak openings. This is not so at present. There are lands there now that cannot be purchased for two hundred dollars per acre. There are now more than three thousand shingle-makers, lumbermen, and others, in these dense forests; and if a shingle-maker, with his machine, cannot make twenty dollars per day, and drink his quart of whiskey, he won't work. The shingle-makers frequently pay five to eight dollars for a single tree. The lumbermen will take a whole tree, and throw it in a stream but a trifle wider than the tree itself, and, as they term it, log it down to some larger water. This is done only when the snow is going off, in the spring, or when there is a rise of water in the fall of the year. To mount some high eminence on a cold, frosty morning, and cast your eye over these dark forests, and behold the smoke standing, like the shaft of Bunker Hill Monument, in the air, is indeed a sight worth seeing."

It is surprising to see so many hard-working farmers, laboring in the Eastern States on miserable farms, from ten to one hundred acres in size, when such inducements are offered in Wisconsin, as buying improved farms at low prices, or selecting to suit themselves from Government lands at $1.25 per acre. The prairies and openings of this State offer farms, wild or improved, of a quality which the same means could not purchase in the other States, while the rapidity with which internal improvements advance, approximates with each year the value of produce near the market-prices of the East, and consequently gives an enhanced value to their farms.

The soil in most parts of the State is composed of the black deposit of decayed vegetation, which for ages has flourished in wild luxuriance, and rotted upon the surface; of loam, and, in a few localities, of clay mixed with sand. The deposit of vegetable mould is uniformly several inches thick on the tops and sides of hills--in the valleys it is frequently a number of feet. A soil thus created of impalpable powder, formed of the elements of organic matter--the dust of death--we need scarcely remark, is adapted to the highest and most profitable purposes of agriculture--yielding crop after crop in rank abundance, without an artificial manuring. Instances could be mentioned of land cropped for twenty to thirty successive years, without the addition of a pound of manure, on which the growth, last season, was just as vigorous, and the yield as profuse, as on any of the series.

We are told by those wiseacres who are always croaking, that "the bubble of Western speculation in lands, &c., will soon blow up"--this has been their cry for years. Whether it comes or not--and there is no doubt that it ought to come soon in several of the States whose lands are partly held by Eastern speculators--it can do no material damage to Wisconsin, and we will give our reasons:

First. Its unrivalled agricultural country to fall back upon.

Second. Its vast mineral resources of lead, copper, iron, &c.2

Third. Its immense lumber regions.

Fourth. Its commercial position and advantages. Lake Superior on the north, Lake Michigan on the east, the Mississippi River on the west, and the inland navigation improvements connecting that river and Lake Michigan, besides its railroads which traverse it in every direction.

Fifth. In the energy and industry of its inhabitants.

Sixth, and lastly. In the large and increasing European immigration.

In May, 1857, over one thousand Norwegian settlers arrived, and at least twenty thousand more are expected to follow, from that country alone, this year. We have no means of knowing the numbers of German and Irish immigrants but they are in excess of former years. Wisconsin if she never receives one dollar more, or another settler from the old States, would still increase at an unexampled rate from foreign immigration alone!

In addition to all these resources, Wisconsin is not crippled with a heavy debt, like most of the other States. In 1857 it only amounted to about $70,000. Nor has she to expend millions upon internal improvements, for the General Government granted over 2,000,000 acres to conduct her railroads; the lands appropriated for school purposes are worth at least $3,000,000, besides the University, and other trust funds.

One would infer from the remarks of several of the leading journals, that the only cities in the Union were in the Eastern States, and that the products of the West must be brought there for market. The statements of these journals show a narrow-mindedness and intentional ignorance of the true state of affairs. Wisconsin has, within her own limits, a ready market for all her agricultural productions, and is able to ship the products of her lead, copper, and iron mines to Canada, to Europe, or the Gulf of Mexico. Great numbers of emigrants have arrived this year at its Lake ports from Europe via Canada.

That there are many towns which have no existence but on paper, and in the brains of speculators; and that great numbers of young men, who are fit for nothing but idling away their time in cities, or attending upon fancy mercantile duties, come here, and can find no employment suited to their capacity, we do not deny. But we do assert that a good farmer or mechanic failing to succeed in Wisconsin; is almost an impossibility--in fact, we would like to hear of one. We will go further, and maintain that not only can they succeed better in Wisconsin but in less time, and with less labor, than is needed in other States. Even supposing a general revulsion should occur in commercial affairs throughout the East, we confess that we are unable to see how it can affect the settlers in Wisconsin who have purchased lands at $1.25 to $2.50 per acre. For it is proved that the first crop raised generally pays both for the farm and improvements! Again, in proportion as the population increases, there must be towns; and these towns must give employment to mechanics to build them, and to all kinds of tradesmen to support them, and the renumeration that will be paid in every case will be very great.

We make these statements to prove that the course of Wisconsin must ever be onward. If its increase in former years exceeded that of any other State in the Union, what must it soon be when the resources we have mentioned shall have been fully developed.

1 See Pages 40 and 42.

2 A piece of gold-bearing quartz was found lately near Waupaca, in Waupaca River near the centre of the State, also, a specimen of pure gold was dug from a cellar in the same vicinity. The quartz specimen is quite rich in the precious metal. The particles are plainly visible to the eye, scattered in profusion over the surface of the rock. Particles of gold, as large as a pea, have been frequently dug out of the ground at the same place.