Monday: Map Day!

The First County Roads, 1841

Infrastructure Week! — part 1

Last week’s Monday: Map Day! discussed the Milwaukee and Superior railroad, and the right-of-way through the middle of the Clark farm property that it purchased from Jonathan and Mary Clark in 1857. Even if you already read it, take another look. I’ve recently updated that post to include corrections and new information from reader Sam Cutler (thanks, Sam!).

Today’s post begins Infrastructure Week! a short series focused on the first infrastructure projects in old Washington/Ozaukee county, beginning with the 1841 appointment of the first county road supervisors and their districts.

Old Washington/Ozaukee County, 1837

In order to proceed with county business, the original county commissioners must have had an authoritative map that showed the official county and township boundaries. I would not be surprised if they owned a copy of the 1837 Topographical map of Wisconsin Territory, showing the lands that had been surveyed by, and were available for purchase from, the federal government. As we discussed earlier, this was the first large-scale map of the Wisconsin Territory based on actual surveys. Here’s a detail from that map, showing old Washington county as the 1841 county commissioners would have understood it:

Detail, showing Washington County, from Topographical map of Wisconsin Territory / compiled from the Public Surveys on file in the Surveyor General’s office … by Samuel Morrison, Elisha Dwelle [and] Joshua Hathaway, engraved by Doolittle & Munson, 1837.  American Geographical Society Library Digital Map Collection, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Click here for a link to the full map at UW-M and its complete bibliographic information. Click map to open larger image in new window.

Old Washington county

As a reminder, the Roman numerals on the map—under the word “Washington”—indicate the surveyed ranges, calculated as they progress eastward from the 4th principal meridian (a line running north and south near the middle of the future state of Wisconsin). Old Washington county—which included all of the future Ozaukee county—comprised ranges 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 East.

Not shown in this detail, but marked elsewhere on the full map, are the town numbers, calculated as they progress northward from the Wisconsin baseline (which also marks the boundary dividing northern Illinois from southern Wisconsin). The southernmost towns in the county were Towns 9-North, Ranges 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22. Old Washington county comprised four rows of towns, numbered 9-. 10-, 11-, and 12-North of the baseline. The future Town of Mequon is in the far southeast corner of the county, comprising the full T9-N, R21-E and the partial T9-N, R22-E.

The first roads were federal roads

The roads that would soon be created by the 1841 county supervisors would be the first county roads in old Washington county, but not the first roads. Prior to the opening of southern Wisconsin for white settlement circa 1836, the federal government had created two important roads:

The first roads were surveyed by the Government soon after the Menomonee treaty [Feb., 1831]. The military road running east from Dekorra, thence across the State to what is now Port Washing­ton, was known as the ”Dekorra road.” It was opened by Gen. Dodge in 1832 or 1833. It entered the limit of the county in what is now the town of Addison, the road running on the section line between Nos. 7 and 18, and passed through West Bend, Trenton and Saukville to Port Washington.

The ”Green Bay road” was surveyed in 1832 and 1833, from Chicago to Green Bay, through what is now the lake shore tier of towns, and ran through what are now the towns of Mequon, Grafton, Port Washington and Belgium.

These were the earliest and only roads surveyed in the county before 1835, and were merely blazed through by the engineers prior to that time. The Green Bay road was not cut out north of Milwaukee till 1830-37; during those years, it was grubbed out, two rods
1 in width for a few miles, and cut through to Port Washington in 1839. No bridges were built except of the most primitive kind, of the trees felled on the route. A well-trodden Indian trail between Milwaukee and Green Bay was the only passable road through the country along the lake shore prior to 1840, and up to 1844, after roads were quite common in that region the western and central settlers came in to their claims on the well-defined trails left by the Indians.

The History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin […] Illustrated, Western Historical Co., Chicago, 1881, p. 313-314.

If you click on this detail from the 1837 map and zoom in close, you can see the path of the Green Bay road. It is indicated by two parallel light grey lines that generally follow the west bank of the Milwaukee River. At the settlement of “Sauk Ville”2 the Green Bay road crosses the river and heads northward along the west side of the Sac River. At the same place, the beginning of the future “Dekorra Road” leads northwest from “Sauk Village” to its eventual destination, Dekorra, Wisconsin Territory.

Defining county road districts and appointing supervisors

We have an excellent first-hand source for the history of old Washington/Ozaukee county’s first infrastructure projects: the minutes of the second meeting of the Washington county commissioners, February 24, 1841. The meeting was held at the home of Jonathan and Mary Clark’s neighbor William T. Bonniwell. Commissioners Levi Ostrander, Reuben Wells and Barton Salisbury were all present; I believe county clerk William T. Bonniwell recorded the proceedings. Here’s a transcription3, 4:

At a special meeting of the board of county commissioners of Washington county, held at the house of Wm. T. Bonniwell in the county of Washington the 24 day of February AD. 1841 the following proceedings were had — present Levi Ostrander Reuben Wells and Barton Salisbury, county commissioners.

John Western [sic, should read Weston?5] was appointed road supervisor for road district No. 1 Commencing at the SE. corner of Town 9 Range 22 running west on the said town line to the centre of section 34 town 9 Range 21 east — thence North through the centre of sections 34–27–22 and 15 — thence East to the lake, thence along the lake shore south to the place of beginning.

Jonathan M. Clark was appointed road supervisor for road district No. 2 commencing on the lake shore on the section line between sections 7 and 18 in town 9 Range 22 thence running west on said line to the quarter stake of section ten town 9 Range 21 thence North to the town line, and thence East to the lake shore, thence along the lake shore, to the place of beginning.

William T. Bonnewill [sic] was appointed road supervisor for Road district No. 3, commencing at the NW corner of town 9 Range 21 east, thence running east to the quarter post of section 3, thence south through sections 3, 10 and 15 thence West on said section line to the town line, thence North to the place of beginning.

George Manly was appointed Road Supervisor for road district No. 4, commencing at the NW [sic, should be SW] corner of town 9 Range 21 east, thence running north to the NW corner of Section 19 thence east on the said section line to the quarter post of section twenty two, thence south through sections 22, 27 and 34 to the town line, thence West to the place of beginning. [paragraph break added – RP]

Anthony D. Wisner was appointed road supervisor for road district No. 5 commencing at the SE corner of town 9 Range 20 – thence west to the S.W. corner of the town, thence North to the N.W. corner of the town, thence east to the N.E. of the said town thence South to the place of beginning.

Samuel Drake was appointed road supervisor for road district No. 6 commencing at the NW. corner of town 10 range 21 east, thence running east to the lake shore thence along the lake south to the south line of town 10 range 22 thence west to the S.W. corner of town 10 range 21 east, thence north to the place of beginning.

Aurora Adams was appointed road supervisor for road district No. 7 all the remainder part of Washington county, except the following districts No. 1 [–] 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 and 6.

The first road districts, mapped

Here are the original Washington county road districts, superimposed on the Washington county portion of the 1837 map of the Wisconsin Territory. It seems likely that the county commissioners may have referred to an identical map while making county decisions in 1841:

Detail, showing 1841 road districts in Washington County, from Topographical map of Wisconsin Territory […] 1837. See caption above for full citation. Click to open larger image in new window.

Since 1836, various records and census reports record that the majority of Washington county’s early white population was concentrated in the southeast, especially in the two townships that later would become the town of Mequon, T9-N, R21- and 22-E. Having the largest concentration of settlers, this area had the greatest use for new roads, and the districts and supervisors needed to create them. Mequon’s first road districts and supervisors were:

  • Dist. No. 1 — John Western5, southeast quadrant
  • Dist. No. 2 — Jonathan M. Clark, northeast quadrant
  • Dist. No. 3 — William T. Bonniwell, northwest quadrant
  • Dist. No. 4 — George Manly, southwest quadrant

Two supervisors were appointed to serve nearby townships that were also swiftly settling with new immigrants:

  • Dist. No. 5 — Anthony D. Wisner, supervising T9-N, R20-E, the future Germantown
  • Dist. No. 6 — Samuel Drake, supervising T10-N, R21- and 22-E, the future towns of Grafton and Cedarburg

And all the remaining part of the county comprised county road district No. 7, supervised by Aurora Adams. This meant that Mr. Adams was responsible for the development of roads over a very large area, 14 townships altogether. In early 1841, this would not have been too difficult, as very few settlers had ventured into the western part of the county. But immigration increased rapidly throughout the 1840s, and there would soon be a need for more roads, road districts and supervisors.

Next steps

Come back next time for Infrastructure Week! – part 2, in which we’ll examine early settlement patterns in old Washington/Ozaukee county by mapping a few of the county’s very first roads. See you soon.



  1. As Wikipedia helpfully explains, “the rod or perch or pole (sometimes also lug) is a surveyor’s tool and unit of length of various historical definitions, often between 3 and 8 meters. In modern US customary units it is defined as ​16 12 US survey feet, equal to exactly ​1320 of a surveyor’s mile, or a quarter of a surveyor’s chain, and is approximately 5.0292 meters. The rod is useful as a unit of length because whole number multiples of it can form one acre of square measure. The ‘perfect acre’ is a rectangular area of 43,560 square feet, bounded by sides 660 feet (a furlong) long and 66 feet wide (220 yards and 22 yards) or, equivalently, 40 rods and 4 rods. An acre is therefore 160 square rods or 10 square chains.”

    So the initial portion of the Green Bay road, at least the first few miles north from Milwaukee, was grubbed out to a width of about 33 feet.

  2. According to the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties […], 1881, p. 323, the first land sale entries for Saukville, T11-N, R21-E, were made by speculators in 1836, but the town was “not generally settled” until 1844-45. Yet there appears to have been enough of a settlement by 1836 for the government mapmakers to make note of it on this first officially surveyed map of Wisconsin Territory.

  3. Click here to open a pdf of the original handwritten Washington county minutes. See our recent post, County Government – Early Records, for more details and full bibliographic information. The February 24, 1841, meeting is recorded on the first two surviving pages of the minutes, pages originally numbered 3 and 4 (original pages 1 and 2 are missing).

  4. For the record, the clerk’s handwriting is almost always very clear and easy to read and transcribe. But you’ll notice that I made a correction in the description of the boundaries of road district no. 4, where the clerk wrote NW instead of the correct SW. In the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal, but it is worth noting as yet another example of how the most “official” and meticulous records can be simply incorrect. As always, caveat lector.

  5. Speaking of (possible) errors, the surname of the supervisor of road district No. 1 is clearly spelled Western in the original minutes. I thought this was an error, as John Weston was a key figure in some early census records (and other documents?) of the early Mequon settlers. But the name John Western is used in these 1841 minutes, and appears in several places in the 1881 History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties. This is—probably?—one and the same man, but at this time I’m not quite sure.

UPDATED, April 27, 2021, to add note number 5, discussing the surname for John Western/Weston.