Following the Indian cessions of 1832–1833, U.S. government surveyors entered what would what become Wisconsin. In 1832 they established a baseline at the intersection of the Fourth Meridian and the Illinois border, about 10 miles east of the Mississippi River.

From that location, called “The Point of Beginning,” the Fourth Meridian runs straight north to Lake Superior. East-west lines cross the principal meridian every 6 miles to establish township lines. For legal land descriptions the township numbers reflect how far north a location is from the baseline – the Illinois border – and how far east or west it is from the Fourth Principal Meridian. A typical township is 6 miles square.

In 1834 the government established land offices in Green Bay and Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where surveyed land could be purchased. By the end of 1836 that part of Wisconsin lying south and east of the Wisconsin-Fox River waterway had been surveyed into neat squares. The surveyors mapped the land into sections of 640 acres each and quarter-sections of 160-acre plots. They also estimated and recorded its quality, ranking it as first-, second- or third-class and noting its physical characteristics – level, rolling, swampy, open prairie and so on. Thanks to surveyor careful notations, potential landowners could locate the land on a map as well as have a reasonable fix on its quality.

With the government survey completed in 1836 for eastern and southern Wisconsin, speculators, miners and immigrants began buying the newly surveyed lands. A wave of settlers arrived from New England and upstate New York, where there was little opportunity for agricultural expansion. People already in Wisconsin called those newcomers “Yankees.” According to the 1850 census for Wisconsin, the population was 305,390; of that number, 103,371 had come from the northeastern states. The number excluded Native Americans, whom the census takers did not attempt to include.

The new arrivals included professional people such as pastors, lawyers and doctors. But farmers were the largest group. The 1850 census included 40,865 farmers, more than all other occupations combined. Many of them had been dairy producers in their home state of New York, a major producer of dairy products at the time. But they saw the wheat growing in the Midwest as a more-lucrative endeavor.

Those early settlers constructed homes, barns, schools and churches that reminded them of what they had left behind in the east. They also brought with them their farming skills and, for many of them, a good business sense.

When Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 its population stood at 11,683. By 1847, a year before statehood, the number had climbed to 210,546. By 1850 it reached 305,390. Even with that surge in population settlers were scattered mainly across the southeastern-third of the state, about south and east of a line drawn from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

German immigrants soon joined the Yankees in Wisconsin; they quickly outnumbered all other ethnic groups arriving in the state. The large influx of German immigrants began about 1839, with the counties in and around Milwaukee seeing the greatest numbers. By 1885 about one-third of Wisconsin’s population would be of German heritage.

Norwegians were the second-largest ethnic group to settle in Wisconsin; by 1850 two-thirds of all Norwegians in America lived in Wisconsin. The majority settled in the southern and western regions of the state, with Dane County boasting the largest number. According to the 1850 census, Irish comprised the largest number of English-speaking immigrants in Wisconsin, numbering 21,043. Other ethnic groups settling in Wisconsin before 1900 included Danes, Swiss, Swedes, English, Scotch, Welsh, Icelanders, Finns, French mainly from Canada, Dutch, Belgians, Italians, Russians, Czechs and several others.

Excerpted from “Wisconsin Agriculture: A History,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015. Visit for more information.

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Jerry Apps, born and raised on a central-Wisconsin farm, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 40 books – most on rural history and country life. Visit for more information.