Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN. [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.
A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects.
Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.
Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land.
Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.
Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.
Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds. This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age).
With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.
From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.
Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein. A very concise history is at the bottom.
Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.
From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.
By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape. Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined. But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary. Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.
Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.
Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory
The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi.
From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.
Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution. This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories.
Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:
- a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
- b) north of the Ohio River;
- c) east of the Mississippi River; and
- d) south of British Canada.
(Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).
Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’). This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan. Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.
The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.
A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already. Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.
Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory
In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).
Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans. Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.
In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress. Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins. Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.
Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all. Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]
This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain). Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words: Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.
The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.
[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].
Chapter 3. Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed
— Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land
Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here. Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois. [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]
With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin. The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.
The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.
Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.
So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.
And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.
Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time
Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812. It didn’t matter.
Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution. Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”
Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement
One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life: What were they thinking? How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans?
In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains. And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.
First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed. And second: no, they weren’t stupid.
These were all well-read, erudite men. They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections. The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains. Surely that provided no water path.
But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674. They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.
The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.
The second passage is even more important. For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River. There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.
—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat. Chicago is flat. Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.
There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch. There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake. There is no noticeable elevation change going west. This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.
And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.
That is flat. 15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.
During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan. Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.
This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.
With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble
Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide. “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” 
As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency. Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.
We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848). Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.
Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.
This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.
It also contained a substantial deposit of galena (lead sulfide) near Illinois’ northwest corner. Its discovery, near what would become Galena, Illinois, led to the first major mineral rush in the United States. And the first of Chicago’s major westward railroads.
But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.
The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.
Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty
In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state. But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.
Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!
The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.
Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time. Little did they know. The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.
When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status. Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today. The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.
Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.
With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.
Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.
Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods. In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent. And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.
Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota.
There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.
In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”
Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough. If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats. On, Wisconsin!
[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]
Joe Girard © 2020
Bibliography and notes below ….
Time line of the nibbles, with maps:
 Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –
Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848. By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.
 Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015, http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights/learning-resources/chapter-6-land-changes-hands/minnesota-territory-1849%E2%80%931858
 Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS
 Near the east bank of the Des Plaines River, at about 4700 South Harlem Avenue in Chicago, is the Chicago Portage National Historical Site. Not recommended for late evening or nighttime visits.
 Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556
Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi: 16,452
Minnesota, east of Mississippi: 27,191
(from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590
Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi
Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood. Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago). 1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.