Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Wisconsin from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

State in north-central USA, one of the Great Lakes states, bordered to the south by Illinois, to the west by Iowa and Minnesota, to the north by Lake Superior and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and to the east by Lake Michigan; area 140,662 sq km/54,310 sq mi; population (2010) 5,686,986; capital Madison. Wisconsin's nickname is derived from the underground living habits of early miners, who dug their homes out of hillsides or lived inside the mines. The state contains many lakes. Features include the Apostle Islands, Door Peninsula, and the Wisconsin Dells, a scenic gorge. Wisconsin's most important industries are manufacturing and food processing, and the state is a leading producer of paper and dairy products. The brewing of beer is one of its oldest industries. Other cities include Milwaukee, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine. The earliest inhabitants of Wisconsin were the Sioux and Chippewa American Indians. Prior to the influx of pioneers, the Chippewa had pushed the Sioux westward towards the plains. Originally settled by the French, and then the British, Wisconsin became part of the USA in 1783, as part of the Northwest Territory, but Britain did not fully remove control until after the War of 1812. Wisconsin's state motto is ‘Forward’, and it is one of the most progressive states in the USA. Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1858 as the 32nd US state.

Physical Wisconsin is the 12th-largest state in the USA, about 500 km/310 mi long and 420 km/260 mi wide. Retreating glaciers from the last ice age left more than 15,000 lakes and rich earth deposits across most of Wisconsin. Timms Hill near Lake Superior is the highest point in Wisconsin at 595 m/1,952 ft above sea level; the lowest point is at Lake Michigan, 176 m/577 ft above sea level.

The state can be divided into five geographical land areas: the Lake Superior Lowland; the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands (Great Lakes Plains); the Northern Highland, or Superior Upland; the Central Plain; and the Western Upland.

Wisconsin's northernmost landscape, the Bayfield Peninsula, juts out into Lake Superior and is crowned by the Apostle Islands. The narrow Lake Superior Lowland Plain to the south rises up to meet the Northern Highland. Covering a third of northern Wisconsin, this region is marked by hundreds of lakes and forests of hardwoods mixed with conifers. The Northern Highland slopes gently down to the sandy crescent-shaped Central Plain. The hills of the Central Plain have the shape and features (buttes and mesas – steep-sided, flat-topped hills) of more arid country. Here, the Wisconsin River flows through the Wisconsin Dells, where the waters of the ancient glacial Lake Wisconsin carved their way through the landscape, leaving behind spectacular caverns, passageways, and towering cliffs that reach 30 m/100 ft.

To the east, between the Central Plain and Lake Michigan, is the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands, Wisconsin's prime agricultural region, where limestone cliffs were bulldozed by ice-age glaciers. Wisconsin is known for the many landforms created by continental glaciation. The most recent period of the ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, is known as the Wisconsin Glaciation. To the northeast is Door Peninsula, which juts out into Lake Michigan.

The Western Upland includes the Driftless Area, in the southwest portion of the state. The term ‘driftless’ means never glaciated or sculpted by receding glaciers. As a result, the landscape retains its ancient ridges, majestic bluffs, lush valleys, and rolling hills.

The Mississippi River, and its tributary the St Croix River, form the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota, with the Mississippi continuing onward to separate southwestern Wisconsin from Iowa. The Mississippi is the only commercially navigable river in the state. The Chippewa, Black, Rock, and Wisconsin rivers are all major tributaries. The Menominee River forms part of the Michigan state line and drains into Lake Michigan, along with the Fox and Wolf rivers. The largest inland lake is Lake Winnebago.

Wisconsin has a continental climate with high relative humidity. Winters are long and cold, summers short and hot. The climate of the coastal areas tends to be milder than the interior of the state.

Animals indigenous to the area include the black bear and timber wolf, both of which are on the state's endangered species lists. The Canada lynx is also an endangered animal. Elk, fisher, and pine marten are found in northern areas. Wisconsin is also home to the white-tailed deer, muskrat, woodchuck, red fox, coyote, mink, otter, beaver, cottontail, flying squirrel, badger, and snowshoe hare. Hawks, owls, and wild turkeys are found here, along with a notable population of bald eagles. Popular game fish include the northern pike, walleye, lake trout, and largemouth and smallmouth bass. The paddlefish, as well as the lake and shovelnose sturgeons, are rare and protected.

Features The Niagra Cuesta, a west-facing escarpment, is at its most conspicuous east of Lake Winnegabo, where it is known as the ‘Ledge’. Wisconsin's Door County has five state parks and 400 km/250 mi of rocky shoreline, sandy beaches, and summer cottages along Lake Michigan.

The Apostle Islands wrap around Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin. The 21-island archipelago features sandy shorelines and sea caves formed by centuries of pounding surf. The sea caves located along the north shore of Devil's Island and by Swallow Point on Sand Island are particularly stunning. It is also home to the largest collection of lighthouses within the national park system.

Some of the first recorded encounters between French explorers and the native Chippewa people were at Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands. Madeline Island Historical Museum includes prehistoric relics from the days of Chippewa habitation, fur-trade goods, missionaries' effects, and tools of the lumbering and maritime industries.

The Wisconsin Dells is famous for its rocky canyons and amusement parks. Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells is the largest water-themed park in the country. H H Bennett Studio and History Center, Kilburn City, is the former home and studio of the artist, whose photographs of the Wisconsin Dells drew tourists to the area during the 19th century. Roch-A-Cre State Park features petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs carved and painted into the rock by native inhabitants thousands of years ago.

Old World Wisconsin is one of the USA's largest outdoor museums of rural life, with over 245 ha/600 acres of rolling hills and restored buildings depicting 19th- and 20th-century Wisconsin. Farmsteads and settlements representing German, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Yankee, and African pioneers are found here.

Named after an estate in Cornwall, Pendarvis commemorates the 1840s and 1850s Cornish miners who built distinctive limestone houses along its crooked streets. Prairie du Chien (1673) is the second-oldest city in Wisconsin and features the Villa Louis Mansion (1870), which has a fine collection of Victorian decorative arts.

The Circus World Museum in Baraboo is located at the site of the original Ringling Bros. Circus Winter quarters, a National Historic Monument. The museum is dedicated to preserving US circus history.

Milwaukee has several places of interest, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, Kilbourntown House (1844), Iron Block Building (1860s), the Pabst Mansion (1893), Mitchell Park Conservatory, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (1961, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), and the Allen-Bradley Company clock (believed to be the largest four-faced clock in the Western hemisphere).

Spring Green is home to Frank Lloyd Wright's estate, Taliesin, which includes his personal residence of the same name as well as other buildings of his design. Nearby is the House on the Rock, designed by former Wright employee Alex Jordan. Sculpted on top of Deer Shelter Rock, which overlooks the Wyoming Valley, the 14-room house is the original structure in what is now a complex of themed rooms, streets, buildings, and gardens.

Culture Wisconsin is home to 11 federally recognized tribal nations. Milwaukee County has the largest population of American Indians in Wisconsin. Significant numbers also reside in Menominee, Sawyer, Brown, Outagamie, Shawano, Vilas, Dane, Ashland, and Bayfield counties. The Oneida Indians Powwow is held in Green Bay each year.

The settlers of Wisconsin ranged from New Englanders and Southerners to immigrants from several European nations. Many ethnic groups hold annual festivals, for example the William Tell Pageant by the Swiss in New Glarus and the Norwegians' Syttende Mai festival held at Blue Mounds and at Stoughton. Milwaukee hosts a German Fest, Polish Fest, and the Holiday Folk Fair, the oldest and largest multi-ethnic festival in the country. Numerous arts and crafts fairs are held in centres throughout the state.

Milwaukee's Summerfest is the nation's largest music festival. The Wisconsin State Fair is held in August in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. The American Birkebeiner is the largest cross-country ski race on the North American continent. The Lumberjack World Championships are held in Hayward.

Milwaukee is the state's cultural centre. The 19th-century Pabst Theater has been restored. The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Florentine Opera (the state's oldest performing arts organization), the Milwaukee Ballet, the Bel Canto Chorus, and the Magin Art Gallery. The Milwaukee Art Museum contains a mixture of European and US masters, together with contemporary art exhibitions. The museum's Quadracci Pavilion (2001), with its wing-like sunscreen, has become a Milwaukee icon. Milwaukee is also known for its production of beer and cheese.

The University of Wisconsin was the first university in the USA to sponsor an artist in residence. The Fine Arts Quartet in Milwaukee and the Pro Arte String Quartet in Madison are linked to the university. The University of Wisconsin Extension has sponsored artists, writers, and theatrical and dance groups over the years and operates a summer music clinic. In 1957, it gave rise to the Wisconsin Arts Council and continues to fund individual artists and groups across the state.

The University of Wisconsin has campuses at Madison (the main campus), Eau Claire, Green Bay, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Parkside, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout, Superior, and Whitewater. The Golda Meir Library on the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee campus contains a collection of American Geographical Society maps.

Professional athletic teams in the state include the Green Bay Packers (American football), the Milwaukee Brewers (baseball), and the Milwaukee Bucks (basketball).

GovernmentWisconsin's state constitution Wisconsin still operates under its original constitution, which was adopted in 1848. It has the oldest state constitution outside of New England. It has been amended more than a hundred times.

Structure of state government The Wisconsin legislature consists of a 33-member Senate and a 99-member Assembly. Senators are elected for four-year terms, and representatives are elected for two-year terms. Wisconsin sends eight representatives and two senators to the US Congress, and has ten electoral votes in presidential elections.

During recent decades, the state has favoured Democrat candidates in US presidential elections, but often by small margins, making it a ‘swing state’.

The chief executive of the state is the governor, supported by a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and state treasurer. All serve four-year terms. Republican Scott Walker took the governorship in January 2011.

A supreme court, made up of seven justices elected for ten-year terms, heads the judiciary branch of the government. The court system includes circuit, or trial, courts. Circuit court decisions can be appealed to the state court of appeals. Circuit court judges and court of appeals judges are elected for six-year terms. Municipal court justices are elected for four-year terms. All judges are elected on a nonpartisan basis.

There are 72 counties, each of which is governed by a board of supervisors elected for two-year terms. Boards are elected on the basis of population rather than area. Within counties, Wisconsin's towns are governed by a board consisting of a chairperson and two to four supervisors. The cities are governed under the mayor-city council or council-city manager form of municipal government.

Economy Wisconsin's main industries are manufacturing and processing, wholesale and retail trade, and services such as tourism, government, and construction.

The rapid growth of the manufacturing sector in the 20th century has made it a dominant segment of the state's economy. Wisconsin is a leader in the manufacture of machinery, including engines and turbines, construction machinery, farm equipment, machinery for the paper industry, plumbing, refrigeration and heating equipment, precision instruments, and computers.

Wisconsin's lakes, forests, and farms combine to give the state a stable and diverse economy, as well as the natural beauty that has made the state a popular tourist destination. The state's forests support a prosperous lumber and paper industry. Wisconsin is a leading paper producer. Extensive water resources have been important for fishing and transport.

Food processing is one of the state's mainstays. Wisconsin's dairy farms lead the USA in the production of milk, cheese, and butter. The state also ranks high in vegetable and fruit canning. Milwaukee is known as the beer capital of the nation, but is also a major meat-packing centre.

HistoryIndigenous inhabitants The Paleo-Indian people appeared in the Great Lakes region about 11000 BC as the last ice-age glaciers retreated from the area. Archaeological evidence indicates that the nomadic tribes hunted caribou and other large animals. Subsequent cultures included an Archaic culture around 7000 BC and the Moundbuilders, so called because of the large earth mounds they built to bury their dead. The Moundbuilders are thought to be the ancestors of the American Indian tribes living in the area when the first European explorers entered what is present-day Wisconsin.

Native tribes included the Algonquian-speaking Menominee, Kickapoo, and Miami tribes, and the Winnebago and Dakota (Sioux) people. In the mid-1600s, other Algonquian tribes, including the Fox, Sac, Potawatomi, and Chippewa moved into the region, having been evicted from their homes by white settlers further east.

Exploration and settlement In 1634, French explorer Jean Nicolet's search for the Northwest Passage brought him to Green Bay. The French explored the state and established trading posts. In 1661, Father René Menard became the first missionary to the Wisconsin Indians. In 1673, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette discovered the Mississippi River.

Between 1689 and 1763, the French and Indian wars were fought between France and Britain for sovereignty over North American land. Under the Treaty of Paris, passed in 1763, Wisconsin became part of British colonial territory. The region remained on the western edge of European penetration, important primarily for its fur trade. In 1774, the Québec Act made Wisconsin a part of the province of Québec, an event that infuriated American colonists, who were already angered by trade restrictions and rising taxes being imposed by the British government.

The American Revolution ensued, and Wisconsin was ceded to the USA by the terms of the Second Treaty of Paris in 1783. Originally part of the USA's Northwest Territory, Wisconsin became a territory in its own right in 1836. In spite of the Second Treaty of Paris, Wisconsin remained under British control until the War of 1812. Afterwards, the US military established posts in the region and began to push American Indian people westward past the Mississippi.

Political and economic development The discovery of lead mines brought the first rush of settlers in the 1820s. Cornish miners came from the UK and settled in Mineral Point, where their mining and blasting skills allowed them to plumb greater depths and extract rich deposits than earlier miners. Disputes over land rights precipitated a series of battles called the Black Hawk War of 1832, as American Indians fought to save their lands. By the end of the war, however, most native tribes had either fled or been banished west of the Mississippi. Without the threat of American Indian raids, thousands of settlers moved into Wisconsin as homesteading pioneers swept across the state, staking claims to affordable farmland.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed Wisconsin voters to decide the question of slavery in their state. Many opposed slavery and met in Ripon to discuss the issue, which led to the foundation of the Republican Party. Many Wisconsinites fought for the Union during the Civil War.

In 1871, the Peshtigo forest fire disaster in northeastern Wisconsin killed 1,200 people, completely destroying the town of Peshtigo and part of Michigan. Late in the 19th century, the lumber industry emerged as a major economic force while Milwaukee became an industrial centre. In 1882, the first hydroelectric plant in the USA was built at Fox River.

20th-century history By the early 1900s, the lumber industry was flourishing, drawing new companies that manufactured furniture, wagons, and paper products. Robert M La Follette was elected governor in 1900. He led a ‘Progressive’ faction within the Republican Party and in 1912 formed a new political party, the Progressive Party (see Progressivism). Under his 1901–06 administration, a minimum wage and state pensions for workers were established, along with the regulation of railway rates and services. La Follette subsequently made a number of unsuccessful campaigns to become US president between 1912 and 1924. In 1921, Wisconsin passed the first law in the USA eliminating all legal discrimination against women.

Robert M La Follett's son, Philip La Follette, took the governorship in 1931 during the Great Depression. He was instrumental in creating jobs by developing road projects in the state. Wisconsin became the first state to pay unemployment benefit during this time. Wisconsin also became the first state to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in hiring teachers, in 1933.

Industrialization continued after World War II. The opening of St Lawrence Seaway and Power Project allowed ocean-going vessels access to the state. During the 1960s, the first sales tax was introduced in Wisconsin to fund education and welfare programmes. Manufacturing continued to be strong in the state at the start of the 21st century. Farm research, dairy equipment, food preparation, and technology development are expanding areas. Education, welfare reform, and pollution control are key issues within the state.

Famous peoplesport Eric Heiden (1958– ), Olympic speed skater

the arts Vinnie Ream Hoxie (1847–1914), sculptor; Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959), architect; Harry Houdini (1874–1926), escapologist; Thornton Niven Wilder (1897–1975), novelist; Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), actor; Don Ameche (1908–1993), actor; Orson Welles (1915–1985), actor and director; Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919–1987), pianist; Gene Wilder (1933– ), actor

science Harold Delos Babcock (1882–1968), astronomer; William Parry Murphy (1892–1987), Nobel Prize-winning physicist; John Bardeen (1908–1991), Nobel Prize-winning physicist; Richard Bong (1920–1945), aviator

society and education Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), women's suffrage leader

economics King Camp Gillette (1855–1932), industrialist

politics and law Robert La Follette (1855–1925), political leader; Philip La Follette (1897–1965), politician; Joe McCarthy (1908–1957), politician; William H Rehnquist (1924–2005), chief justice.

images

Indian Lake

Wisconsin – flag

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved.

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article WISCONSIN
France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Now on the northern border of the United States with Canada, Wisconsin was the site of several forts in southwestern New France, from 1634 to...

Full text Article Wisconsin
Philip's Encyclopedia

State in N central USA, SW of the Great Lakes and E of the River Mississippi. Madison is the state capital and Milwaukee the largest city....

Full text Article Wisconsin
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A state in the N central USA, situated between the Mississippi River in the W, Lake Michigan in the E, and Lake Superior in the N. The...

See more from Credo