1854 Panoramic Map of Milwaukee
The first white settlers to old Washington County, Wisconsin—later divided into Washington and Ozaukee counties—arrived in the late-1830s and early-1840s. Many of these settlers were so-called “Yankees,” namely New England and New York state residents. Other early immigrants to old Washington county came from places such as Lower Canada (i.e., Quebec), Nova Scotia, and the many German-speaking lands.
Why did they come?
For many families, the chance to buy inexpensive land, clear the forest, build a house, and work their own farm was a dream come true. Many of the Yankee immigrants had realized that the farms of New England were too small to continue dividing generation after generation and still make a profit. (Sometimes—as the old joke goes—it seemed like the only guaranteed “crop” each year was the annual spring “harvest” of rocks in the field.) For European immigrants, land ownership was often unaffordable or simply not allowed for the average family back in “the old country.” Other European immigrants fled mid-century famine, as in Ireland, or mandatory military service or political unrest in various places, including the German lands. It’s no surprise that many Wisconsin immigrants of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s made their homes in Washington/Ozaukee county and then farmed there for decades, often passing the house and farm to the next generation and beyond.
For other early arrivals, the opening of government land in Wisconsin Territory represented a chance to make money. More than a few of the Yankee settlers came to the territory early, bought land at $1.25 per acre, farmed for a decade or so, and then sold out to the next wave of immigrants, often making a considerable profit. Some of these men—such as Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn, and William A. Prentiss—were land speculators that made (and sometimes lost) fortunes in the process, and became important figures in nineteenth-century Milwaukee and Wisconsin business and government. Other, smaller, investors were simply savvy farmer-capitalists that bought government land cheaply, held it for a while, and then sold at a profit. Some of these repeated the process several times throughout their lives, buying and selling, moving westward as the government opened new tracts of cheap—or even free—land in the new territories of the frontier.
Stay or go?
By the mid-1850s, a number of early Washington/Ozaukee county settlers decided that rural life was no longer for them. Mary Clark’s father, Peter Turck, was one of the first Mequon settlers to relocate. A self-made polymath, from his earliest days in the territory Turck had been—often simultaneously—a farmer, Baptist preacher, sawmill owner, justice of the peace, coroner, territorial and state legislator, and lawyer. In the 1840s he survived the death of his first wife Rachael Gay, remarried, and had another child. By the early 1850s—like a number of his early Mequon neighbors—he decided to leave his farm and relocate to nearby Milwaukee. There he could focus on his work as a lawyer and real estate dealer and, perhaps, seek better educational opportunities for his youngest children.
In 1836,—a year before the Turck family arrived there from New York—Milwaukee had been a small, random collection of roughly made homes and businesses along the east and west banks of the Milwaukee River where it flowed into Lake Michigan. By the time Peter Turck moved to Milwaukee from Mequon, the city looked like this: