Growing up in Wisconsin, a lot of us learned some facts about the state’s history and took an historical field trip or two. But there are some things many people just don’t know about the state despite living here for a long time. Here are ten little-known facts about Wisconsin’s history.
1. Everything that Wisconsin is is thanks to glaciers.
Why is it that Wisconsin has enjoyed excellent crops, a dairy industry, beautiful forests, and almost a lake per person? You can thank Wisconsin glaciation. Wisconsin glaciation extended from approximately 85,000 to 10,000 years ago. Prehistoric human migration was greatly influenced through this last glacial period. Beyond that, it left us admiring some awesome geography, such as Devil's Lake State Park (pictured here).
2. There are tons of effigy mounds hiding across Wisconsin.
I've come across some of these mounds and had no idea that what I was looking at was not due to geology. Effigy mounds are raised piles of earth that were built in the shape of an animal, symbol or other figure. They were built by Native American communities throughout the country, but the most in the country are right here in Wisconsin. They built between 15,000 and 20,000 of these mounds. Today, still 4,000 exist.
3. The United States acquired Wisconsin from France.
Ha ha ha (cue French accent). Yeah, we are all little Frenchies. The French came up here and basically dominated the fur trade, bringing beaver furs back to Europe, where they were all the rage. They maintained control over us until the Treaty of Paris (1783). We were originally claimed by Massachusetts and Virginia. Eventually, we became our own state.
4. Many of the first settlers were lead miners.
You might think that Wisconsin is the "Badger State" because these cute little guys are found in Wisconsin. Actually, the reference has to do with the rush of lead miners in our state during the early 19th century. Men came to Wisconsin to mine, and rather than build structures, they would actually burrow into the hillsides. That's kind of what badgers do, so the name stuck.
5. The Republican Party was born in Ripon, Wisconsin.
A lot of people do not know that the Republican party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin. It was founded at a meeting at the Little White Schoolhouse, which you can visit and is included on the Registered Historic Places list. The reason this party came into existence was for the express purpose to combat slavery.
6. The most disastrous fire in United States history happened in Wisconsin.
A lot of people learn about the Great Chicago Fire, even if they aren't from Illinois. But most people never learn about the Great Peshtigo Fire. Coincidentally, it occurred on the same exact day as the Chicago fire. But it was much more devastating. In fact, it caused the most deaths in one fire in United States history. As many as 2,500 people perished as a result of this fire (by contrast, the Great Chicago fire only killed around 300). Small fires were often set to clear land in Wisconsin, but on that fateful day, incredibly strong winds fanned the flames and it quickly became out of control.
7. Madison has not always been the capital of Wisconsin.
Actually, Madison was not the first. The first was Belmont, and there is a free admission historic museum located just outside of there. In these buildings, territorial legislators first met to establish the territorial government.
8. Wisconsin's oldest city is...Green Bay?
It seems like Milwaukee or Madison would have been the first city. But the oldest city is actually Green Bay. Nicolet founded a trading post in Green Bay back in 1634, originally naming Green Bay "La Baie des Puants" (which means 'the stinking bay'). The British renamed it Green Bay...you're welcome. Because The Stinking Bay Packers really doesn't have the same ring to it.
9. The first American kindergarten was started in Wisconsin.
The first American kindergarten was actually started in Watertown, Wisconsin. It was opened in 1856 by Margarethe Schurz, who started a home kindergarten for her daughter and four of the cousins. She soon let other children in. You can even visit the actual house, which was been converted into a museum.
10. Wisconsin has provided a hideaway for a LOT of gangsters.
You might think that all of the old-time gangsters operated in Chicago or on the East Coast. But there is a huge history of gangsters up in Wisconsin. They really enjoyed Waukesha County, particularly Oconomowoc. Some notorious vacationers included Baby Face Nelson, Bugs Moran, John Dillinger, and, of course, Al Capone.