Monday: Map Day!

A Look at Wisconsin, 1851

Recent Monday: Map Day! (here, here) posts have focused on Mary Clark’s family—and her father Peter Turck and brother James B. Turck— as Mary and her children made the transition from rural life in Mequon to a home in the city of Milwaukee in the early 1860s. Today we backtrack a bit and look at some developments in the state of Wisconsin in the early 1850s.

The 1850s was a crucial time for many early Washington/Ozaukee county settler families. A few of the younger settlers were drawn West by the 1849 Gold Rush. A handful stayed in California, most returned home. Some—such as Mary Clark and her brother James B. Turck—decided that the city would be a better place to live and to raise and educate their children. Others, including more than a few of the early “Yankees” that had arrived from New England and New York state in the late 1830s and early 1840s, got the itch to sell out, take a profit and move on. Many of these went “West.”

Going West

In the 1850s, “Going West” meant different things to different people. For some, it meant the opportunity to buy large parcels of fine prairie farmland in nearby counties such as Fond du Lac, Waukesha and Walworth. For others, going west meant adventures in the lead mines and Mississippi River ports of southwest Wisconsin. And some would not stop at the Mississippi, eventually moving on to newly opened lands in Minnesota, the Dakotas and beyond, With that in mind, take a look at today’s map:

Colton, J. H. , Cartographer, and Millard Fillmore. Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin. New York: published by J.H. Colton, 1851.
Click image to open larger map in new window1.

More people—more towns and counties

This map, published by J. H. Colton in 1851, captures the state at an interesting moment. Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848, and as it grew more populous, the original handful of very large and sparsely populated counties were divided into smaller, more densely inhabited counties. Within the counties, the various towns2 were organized. This map labels both towns and counties.

Looking at the sizes of the counties on the map, we easily note that settlement is advancing most rapidly in the south and east of the state. This area is roughly triangular in shape, with the Wisconsin–Illinois border on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, and a northeast-to-southwest diagonal defined by the waters of Green Bay, Fox River–Lake Winnebago, and the Wisconsin River.

What’s on the map?

There are a few special features that make this map particularly useful. Let’s start with a look at the map key, in the lower right corner

Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin 1851 (detail, map key).
Click to open larger image in new window.

From bottom to top of the key, the county towns, names of townships and less-populated villages and post office (P. O.) locations are differentiated by type size, all-caps or not, and italics. Post roads—which presumably are cut roads good enough for a rider horseback or a coach—are indicated by simple lines; double lines indicated a more substantial road.

Plank roads, “turnpiked” with wooden planks and funded by tolls, are indicated by parallel lines with black dots between the lines. Railroads (or, possibly, railroads and canals?) are marked with the traditional thick black line with cross-hatches. The symbol for canals seems to be omitted, or it may be that there were no canals to note.

Railroads? Canals?

The 1840s and ’50s were the era of grand “internal improvements,” primarily transportation projects, including canals, plank roads and railroads. These projects were often the key to the economic development of an area. This 1851 map has symbols for railroads and plank roads, but how many were there in Wisconsin in 1851?

Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin 1851 (detail, railroad, plank road).
Click to open larger image in new window.

I couldn’t find any canals, not even a speculative trace of the long sought for but never built Milwaukee and Rock River canal. There appears to be one railroad, connecting Milwaukee with the county town of Waukesha in Waukesha county., and plank roads connecting Milwaukee to the town of Greenfield in Milwaukee county and the county town of Racine with the village of Burlington in Racine county. But the railroads are coming, and they will drive canals and plank roads out of business in less than a decade.

Find any town by township-range coordinates

Another feature of the map is that it labels Town and Range coordinates in relation to the 4th Principal Meridian of the U.S. rectangular survey system. Starting in the southwest corner of the state, you will find the key to town and range numbers:

Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin 1851 (detail, T and R numbers).
Click to open larger image in new window.

The black vertical line just to the right of the orange arrow is the 4th Principal Meridian. The yellow arrow is just above the horizontal Baseline for Wisconsin town and range numbers. Town numbers (blue circles) run north of the baseline. Range numbers run east (red circles) and west (magenta circles) of the 4th Principal Meridian.

Knowing this, any map reader can locate any town in Wisconsin using town and range coordinates. This is particularly useful if, say, you have a land patent for an early settler that describes the land location in detail, beginning with town and range information. For example, in this detail map (above), if I know a land owner had title to a piece of land in Town 2 North, Range 3 East (T2N-R3E) of the 4th Principal Meridian, I could look at this map and know that this land was, in 1851, in the Town of Centre, La Fayette County, Wisconsin. And, even if the town or county boundaries or names change over time, I can always find that parcel of land on any subsequent township map by using town and range coordinates.

Old Washington county, 1851

Old Washington county originally comprised all of current Washington and Ozaukee counties, until they divided in 1853. So this 1851 map of the county includes all the area of present-day Washington and Ozaukee counties. But some of the towns divided after 1851, and some of the town names have changed as well. See our post Census Records for the In-Between Years: 1847 for more on this.

Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin 1851 (detail, Washington County).
Click to open larger image in new window.

One curiosity here is the county town name of OZAUKEE. The symbol for this county town is in the correct place, on the east side of the town of Port Washington. This population center was originally laid out by Wooster Harrison and other land speculators in 1835 as Wisconsin City. That real estate development failed in the Panic of 1837. In the years following there was a lot of push and pull between various county factions regarding the location of the county town. For a while, county business was transacted at the home of William T. Bonniwell, just west of the Jonathan Clark farm. By 1842-43 Port Washington, the former Wisconsin City, began to welcome the arrival of actual settlers—and not just speculators— and soon after became the official county town. Why this 1851 map calls it Ozaukee is a mystery3.

And the road that stretches north from Milwaukee through the villages and post offices of Mequon, Hamilton, Cedarburg, Grafton, Saukville and “Ozaukee”—that’s the Green Bay Road, the military road from Chicago’s Fort Dearborn to Green Bay’s Fort Howard, now known as Wisconsin state highway 31.

The “other Clarks” are going West…

I’m working on a series of posts following Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark, one of Mequon and Grafton’s original families, as they wander away from Washington/Ozaukee county to the southwest Wisconsin farms, lead mines and river towns of Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, as well as north to Oshkosh in Winnebago county, and then on to the Dakota Territory and the Pacific Northwest.

Colton’s township map of the State of Wisconsin 1851 (detail, southwest counties).
Click to open larger image in new window.

We’ll visit Potosi, in Grant county; Waldwick/Waldwich and Moscow in Iowa county; Blanchardville in Iowa and Lafayette counties; and other nearby places. How many of these can you find on this detail map? (Spoiler alert: a few of these place names don’t exist yet in 1851.)


  1. By the way, most of the images here at Clark House Historian are captioned “click to open larger image in new window” or something similar. Please do click the pictures, illustrations and maps and, when they open in that new window, click the item again to really expand the image and all its details. Scroll around, zoom in and out and enjoy!
  2. What’s the difference between “town” and “township”? To be precise, town is a unit of government and township is a unit of land, typically square, six miles on a side, and divided into 36 equal square sections. “In Wisconsin, a town is an unincorporated jurisdiction within a county; Wisconsin towns are thus similar to civil townships in most other states. All residents of Wisconsin who do not live in a city or village live in a town” (source). In common usage, town is often synonymous with township, and their boundaries may be the same. Or not, as is the case for the Town of Mequon, where the jurisdiction of the town encompasses all the land in two townships, T9N-R21E and T9N-R22E.

    And, for the record, according to the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties (1881), page 314, in old Washington county “no towns were incorporated until 1846 and subsequent to that date.” Which implies that all pre-1846 references to town names (e.g., Mequon) are informal but not yet legal.
  3. Readers: I spent some time looking into this, but I admit my eyes start to glaze over whenever I run into the seemingly endless retellings of “the debate over the county seat” in the history books. Does anyone know why the village of Port Washington might be labeled “Ozaukee” on this 1851 map?