An Introduction to European Immigration to Wisconsin 1820-1925, and a bit beyond Preface

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An Introduction


European Immigration to Wisconsin

1820-1925, and a bit beyond

This is intended as a general introduction for teachers wishing to connect the national and Wisconsin histories of European immigration, in the period from roughly 1820-1925. It begins with the extension of the United States’ control over Wisconsin and the arrival of earl settlers. It then shifts to European ethnic groups, particularly the Germans, the single most important European ethnic group to come to Wisconsin. It examines some aspects of immigrant lives and interactions with native-born American citizens. It culminates when Congress ended large scale European immigration in the 1920s.

I hope that you find this useful.
Oscar Chamberlain

History Department

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
PS: There are a scattering of links through the essay that provide additional information on some of the topics. I also provide footnotes identifying the most important sources that I have used or that I consider of particular use for teachers. The single most important source I used was Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (second edition, 2002). Any teacher at any level who addresses immigration frequently should have it in his or her library.
Beginnings: Native Americans1
When discussing the European and American migration to Wisconsin, we should remember that there were a number of people who got here first.2
According to our best scientific understanding, people began arriving in the Americas anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. The earliest evidence for Homo sapiens in Wisconsin is about 11,000 years old. They were hunter-gatherers who followed herds of game as they migrated.
Our understanding of the groups that inhabited Wisconsin is extremely sketchy until we come close to the period of European contact. However, from mounds, other artifacts, and the traditions of the nations themselves, we do know that many peoples called this place home. We also know that many of those nations—including the Menominee, the Ojibwe, and the Ho-Chunk--are still here.3
Contact and the “Middle Ground4
European influence began in Wisconsin in the 1600s with the development of trade relations between the French and many of the tribes or nations in the area. In the 1700s the British competed with the French in the development of relations. From both the French and British perspectives, the native population was a source of wealth for the fur trade, and it offered a range of potential allies or enemies. The native leaders saw the Europeans as a source of unique trade goods and as possible power brokers, who could help them either to defeat their indigenous enemies or to help settle their disputes. Historians have called this period the “Middle Ground,” a place and a time when powers and cultures met, sometimes fought, but also compromised. Indeed intermarriage between French traders and natives created a Métis (or mixed blood) society that contained elements of both worlds. The Métis would remain an important component of Wisconsin society until numerically overwhelmed by immigrants in the 1830s and 40s.
This period of relatively equal relationships lasted roughly 150 years. It ended well after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, in which the United States received the region of Wisconsin along with the rest of the Northwest.5 However, the Wisconsin region belonged to the United States in name only as the people there did not identify with the United States.
From Middle Ground to American Conquest
American expansion into the Old Northwest proceeded in fits and starts. The new nation was too weak to control the region militarily. In fact, it was so weak that the British kept forts in part of the region until 1795. However, the United States had many potential settlers who desired land: land to speculate with, land to settle on, land to fulfill their dreams. One purpose of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established the process by which territories would become states, was to encourage settlement even without strong military support. Without the clear path to political equality that the Ordinance provided, far fewer settlers would have moved west, and any that did move would have had less reason to remain loyal to the United States.
One predictable outcome was that many such settlers “squatted” illegally on Native American lands. This provoked conflict repeatedly. Because of a mismatch in numbers and resources, many tribal leaders eventually negotiated land cessions in return for money, supplies, and sometimes new land farther west. This process was exacerbated by American leaders negotiating treaties with one faction of a tribe and then claiming that this group spoke for all. The result was, from the United States’ perspective, an expanding western frontier. From the Native perspective, it was a long, grinding nightmare in which their environment was taken and transformed in a way that at its worst made them feel like aliens in their own country.
Before the Erie Canal (completed 1825), most Americans emigrating to the Old Northwest pushed in from the Ohio River and up its tributaries or northward up the Mississippi River. Thus the region was settled from south to north as well as from east to west. Ohio was the first state (1802); however, Indiana did not enter the Union as a state until 1816, and Illinois not until 1818. In all three cases, the majority of the American population was in the southern half of the states.
Given this pattern and the resistance of many Native Americans to American expansion, there was not a firm American presence in Wisconsin until after the War of 1812. American fur traders had moved into the area, but they competed with strong and much better established British traders. Also some British leaders hoped to encourage the development of some sort of Native American buffer to American expansion. Some Native leaders, most notably the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, allied with the British to resist the continued expansion of American settlement. Fear of Tecumseh and of British efforts was one factor in the United States declaring War against Great Britain in 1812.
If a vote could have been held in Wisconsin in 1814, as to whether the region should be American or British Canadian, the majority would have voted for Canada. During the War, the United States attempted to project military power into the region by establishing a fort at Prairie du Chien, but the British captured the fort in 1814, using a mixture of army, Métis, and Native American forces. There was considerable surprise when the British leaders there learned the terms of the treaty ending the war were announced. They then had to leave the fort that they had captured.
Early American Settlement: The Lead Mining District6
The War of 1812 broke the ability of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to resist the United States militarily. However that does not mean there was an absence of fighting.7 In present-day southwestern Wisconsin—at this time part of Michigan Territory—a mining frontier emerged due to the presence of shallow deposits of lead. .

[An 1829 map of the lead-mining district. Wisconsin was then part of Michigan territory.]

From State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Negative No. WHi (x3) 40369. At Click link for larger version.

Lead was a military resource of considerable importance, and lead mining could be a source of great wealth. In present-day southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois, there was a great deal of lead that was fairly easily accessible. Native Americans had exploited the lead in the area for a long time, and it is not surprising that the first small surge of Americans into Wisconsin focused on this area in the 1820s. Nor is it surprising that their arrival precipitated periodic fighting in the 1820s that ended only after new treaties ceded that region to the United States.8

Many of the new miners were southerners or from the Ohio Valley. They were joined by Americans from the east and by Europeans, in particular by miners from Cornwall, in far southwestern England. Much of the lead was near the surface and, as is well known, the miners burrowing in their holes reminded visitors of badgers. Hence Wisconsin’s nickname as the Badger state. Mining would remain an important industry in the area well into the 20th century, though zinc would eventually replace lead as the most important mineral.
The Arrival of Farmers

In the absence of the get-rich-quick opportunities of mining, the “pull factor” that drew Americans west was farm land. The economy they knew hinged on farming, and the necessities of farming were key factors in shaping early settlement of Wisconsin.

Ideally people would locate farms on fertile land. Europeans considered forests a sign of fertility, and clearing forests—though arduous—provided wood for buildings, fences, tools, and other necessities. Wisconsin had plenty of woods. They also preferred to locate within easy reach of markets for their goods. The image of the lonely farmer in the woods or on the prairies is a powerful one, and that loneliness was often all too real. But to the extent possible, farmers in Wisconsin and most other places lived close to other farmers, to towns, and to transportation routes that allowed them to market their goods.

From Wisconsin Historical Society: Image ID

The above 1854 map illustrates the early pattern of settlement. (Here is a present-day county map for comparison.) Early county size reflected roughly the relative population of each county. Larger counties were less densely populated than smaller ones. As areas in the larger counties were settled, the state government would divide the county, separating the more settled area from the less.
The grid lines on the map are the survey lines. Surveys still followed the basic pattern set by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Regions without a grid had not been surveyed in detail. As a good survey was supposed to precede land sales, the lack of a grid also indicates a relatively small population of Americans (Native Americans were not counted in the census in this period).
So just from the size of the counties and the cross hatching, one can tell that the heaviest settlement has been focused east and south of a diagonal formed by the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Proximity to the older state of Illinois (which entered the Union in 1818, 30 years before Wisconsin became a state), Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi river shaped early American settlement. Douglass and LaPointe Counties, in the far northwest, reflect the impact of Lake Superior, but the Lake Superior coastal region remained sparsely populated until mining and the availability of cutover land for farming encouraged more migration to the region.
From Territory, to Territory, to Territory, to Statehood:

A Bit of Governmental History
Generally speaking, on the American frontier regions were claimed before they were controlled. That is, the United States made no attempt to govern the people within them. Over time Congress would organize such regions into large territories and establish a simple governmental structure run by political appointees and the military. As portions of those larger territories were settled, the populous regions were split away to form smaller territories. As the population increased in a territory, the Congress granted it an ever greater measure of self government until, finally, a territory would become a state. Here is a quick timeline for Wisconsin.

  • 1787-1800 Wisconsin is part of the Northwest Territory.9

  • 1800-1809 Wisconsin is part of Indiana Territory.

  • 1809 Indiana becomes a separate territory.

  • 1809-1818 Wisconsin is part of Illinois Territory.

  • 1818 Illinois becomes a separate territory.

  • 1818-1837 Wisconsin is part of Michigan Territory.

  • 1837 Wisconsin Territory established. It will contain part of present-day Iowa until 1838 and part of present-day Minnesota until 1848.

  • 1848 Wisconsin becomes a state.

Wisconsin’s 1848 Constitution and Immigrants
Wisconsin’s original constitution reflected a strong sentiment that the state should reach out to newcomers. To help do so, the delegates writing the Constitution gave white immigrants from Europe who moved to Wisconsin the right to vote after they had declared their intent to become US citizens but before they became naturalized. While somewhat controversial, it passed with relative ease.10 The constitution also had a mechanism that allowed the legislature to propose extending the right to vote to other groups, with the final decision to be made by a popular referendum. Eventually, this would be the route by which African Americans gained the right to vote soon after the end of the Civil War.
Milwaukee, the “German Athens:”
In the lower left quadrant of the 1854 map above is an insert showing a Milwaukee street map. Milwaukee’s location, at the mouth of a river, near to Illinois and Lower Michigan, and adjacent to some fine farm land, made it the natural location for a city. By the 1840s it had become the preeminent city of Wisconsin (much to the displeasure of people in Green Bay and Prairie du Chien).
By the time Wisconsin became a state, it had also became a major destination for Germans moving to the United States. Eventually, as Daniels notes in Coming to America, Milwaukee Germans thought of their city “as the German Athens in America.”11
Wisconsin’s allure to Germans is a wonderful example of both push-and-pull factors: "pushes" being those things that motivate people to leave, "pulls" being the things that attract people to a new place.12
First, unlike the Irish, who often arrived utterly destitute (particularly in late 1840s and early 1850s, the era of the Potato Famine) and had to find work quickly to survive, many German immigrants came with a little money. They also often immigrated in groups. This allowed them some flexibility in their choice of destination as they could purchase land together or choose to locate near established friends or relatives. Wisconsin’s combination of available land and a growing German-American population seemed ideal. The more German Milwaukee became, the more Germans moved there. The more Germans who established farms and communities in Wisconsin, the more Germans who joined them. Thus, the opportunity to maintain their culture was one of the pull factors bring Germans to Wisconsin, just as it encouraged Norwegians to settle near Norwegians, Poles, near Poles, etc.
Second, one must remember that the word “German” before 1870 was a cultural term. There was no nation of Germany until that year. There were instead a range of principalities and empires. More important than the political divisions among German immigrants was the religious divide between Protestants (primarily Lutheran) and Catholics. However, their culture—in particular their language—was a powerful unifying force. That sense of unity stimulated the growth of German nationalism within Europe and helped Germans to overcome regional differences here.
A Major “Push” Factor: Germans and the Revolutions of 1848.

Street fighting in Berlin, March 1848.

From German Bundestag Copyright unknown. If a reader has information on this, please contact Oscar Chamberlain, History Department, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

In Europe, ethnic nationalists often championed the expansion of political and economic rights. In 1848, the same year that Wisconsin became a state, revolutions broke out all over Europe. They were responses to a rapidly changing economic world in which noble-based governmental systems came into ever greater conflict with a new industrial economy that was changing the distribution of economic power and creating an ever-larger class of workers with few rights. In the German lands, revolutions grew out of coalitions between these industrial workers and the growing middle class. They were united in seeking broader suffrage (though not so united on how best to deal with the problems created by rapid industrialization).

After initial successes, these revolutions were suppressed. Many German “48ers” moved to the United States, the nation whose political ideals had been one source of their inspiration. Their willingness to be active in government and to champion reform buttressed the tendency of Germans in general to become active politically. Thus, the freedom offered by the United States was an extraordinarily important pull fact, just as the failure of the revolution in Germany gave many a big push.
These large numbers allowed Wisconsin Germans a range of choices as to how much they would assimilate. Politically, they were very much American, and quickly embraced their citizenship and politics. However, many retained the German language, often read German (as well as English) newspapers, and resisted any attempts to Americanize them more quickly or more thoroughly than they chose. This did not make them disloyal. Far from it; they identified as Americans in part because they could retain their culture.
This mingling of ethnic nationality and American loyalty was not unique to Germans. For ethnic groups, churches were extraordinarily important expressions of faith and of community. Services were often held in the language of the home country. Within the Catholic Church, different ethnic groups would lobby for their own priests and their own churches. As an example, in St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church, which was built in Independence Wisconsin in this period, the Stations of the Cross are in Polish and the symbols of the Polish Crown were in the church. Again, this did not mean that patriotism was not strong. In American, a Pole could be a Pole and not a German. A Czech could be a Czech and not an Austrian. From this perspective, to be American was to have the freedom to be their ethnic selves.
Wisconsin Gemütlichkeit
According to the American Heritage dictionary Gemütlichkeit means “warm friendliness.” A better translation might be “the Good Life,” so long as “good” is taken in a genial fashion. The German American concept of this combined the group celebrations, song, dance, and beer.

German immigrants 1897, from Sparticusnet

This paralleled the preferences of many other immigrants coming to American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They balanced hard work with a desire for usually moderate pleasure on their day off. The Schlitz Palm Garden, an upscale establishment based on the biergartens of Germany, attracted a middle class clientele, both German and non-German. Working class people went to the new amusement parks, and the middle class soon followed. The expansion of public sports such as baseball also opened up new forms of entertainment. This went against the grain of America’s Middle-Class Protestant’s, who celebrated a greater allegiance to sobriety and to what they considered more uplifting forms of entertainment. If you look around on any Sunday today, you know who won that Culture War.
However, German-American popular culture was more than cold Pabst and a Ferris wheel ride. Middle Class and Working Class Germans had embraced organized physical education, known there as the turnverein, and the immigrants brought this to America. In Milwaukee, the Turner Society encouraged both the arts and physical activity from the 1850s well into the 20th century by providing classes and facilities. This touched the lives of thousands of people.
Nativism and the Bennett Law in Wisconsin

Ellis Island, from National Park Service site

As Roger Daniel’s notes in the chapter, “The Triumph of Nativism” in Coming to America, a bureaucracy to handle immigration grew in the last half of the 19th century. Although most of the bureaucratic efforts were aimed at insuring that new immigrants were healthy and had a place to go, this change also reflected a growing ambivalence about new immigrants. That ambivalence in turn reflected three concerns:

  • the impact on wages of large numbers of immigrants, particularly those who entered the labor force, as opposed to becoming farmers;

  • a growing racism—based in part on a misreading of Charles Darwin--that began to stigmatize some southern and eastern European ethnic groups as being of a different and inferior biological race, and

  • an increased emphasis on defining what it was to be an American in ways that demanded a more rapid process of “Americanization” of immigrants, particularly those from southern and Eastern Europe. For the people who believed that, “clinging” to ethnicity was not being American.13

In Wisconsin, that last concern emerged in the late 1880s with the passage of what was called the Bennett Law.14 (This link is to a fine Wisconsin Historical Society site with a summary or events and a set of primary sources related to the controversy.) German language instruction had been a fixture in parochial schools (both Lutheran and Catholic) serving German congregations. The majority of German Americans in Wisconsin considered a continued connection with their heritage as an essential part of the freedoms they enjoyed in the United States. A growing number of native born Americans saw this not as an expression of American freedom but an expression of disloyalty. These different visions of Americanism liberty came into conflict as compulsory education of children expanded.

Wisconsin, like many states, had been moving toward compulsory public education since the 1870s. The Bennett Law clarified and expanded that requirement. However, as part of the expansion it required all schools, public or private, to conduct classes in English.
Many Germans, along with other immigrant groups like the Norwegians, saw this as an attack upon their cultures and their freedoms. Some supporters of the act saw it simply as insuring that ethnic Americans be able to function as Americans in the American economy. The statements of others tended to confirm ethnic fears.
The Republican Party had dominated Wisconsin Politics since its founding just before the Civil War. Nationally, the Republicans had been the party most concerned about America’s “Anglo-Saxon heritage.” This was true in Wisconsin, too. However, they had been able to attract a considerable portion of the German vote, in part because of shared values concerning slavery and (ironically) the importance of education.
The Democratic Party, which had been the minority party in Wisconsin since the Civil War, had long tended to support acceptance of different ethnic cultures, and took this fight as an opportunity to gain power in Wisconsin. The conflict was intense, and in the short run, it resulted in a clear victory for Wisconsin’s Democrats, its Germans, and the other groups that had opposed the law. Many German voters shifted political allegiance and by 1892, Wisconsin had a Democratic governor and legislature. The Bennett Law was repealed.
In many sources, the story of the Bennett Law ends here. However, that is misleading. Scared by the vehemence of the supporters, many parochial schools expanded their use of English. When a similar law was passed in 1898, it remained on the books. By then the Republicans had also regained their majority
Wisconsin Progressivism and German “Genius”
Ethnic politics and Americanization were far from the only concerns of the day. Industrialization transformed the American economy and raised new questions concerning the role of government.
One reason that the Republicans regained their majority was because many (though far from all) in the party believed that the new economy required the expansion of governmental authority to legislate and regulate the economy in order to improve public health and safety and to reduce a growing division between rich and poor. This group was a significant part of what we now call the Progressive Movement.
The story of that movement and its most visible champion in Wisconsin, Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, is for another introduction. What matters here is that many Progressives considered Wisconsin’s German heritage as an essential source of its Progressive vision. In this excerpt from chapter 2 from Charles McCarthy’s The Wisconsin Idea (1912), one can see how that heritage was perceived by many Progressives at the time. It also gives insight as to how educated people of the time perceived different “races” of people as having different skills and aptitudes. It was the benign flip-side to the belief that some ethnicities were biologically inferior to others.
Wisconsin is fundamentally a German state: the Germans were the first to arrive in significant numbers, although they were followed later by a large influx of Norwegians. Both of these peoples from the great Teutonic branches have been noted for their steadfast love of liberty and the systematic way in which they proceed with government. The "forty-eight" Germans, those of the Carl Schurz type, came fresh from a struggle for liberty in the old country, and brought with them as high ideals as any people who ever came to America. Under these influences, the farms of Wisconsin were settled and an orderly, careful government established. A New England stream arriving about the same time brought with it high educational ideals, which endowed the whole Northwest with colleges and institutions of learning. It was under these auspices that the University of Wisconsin was founded, having indelibly impressed upon it a certain distinction which it has never ceased to have, and certain ideals of service which can be found in no other universities to-day, except perhaps in Germany.15
Thus, even as suspicion of new immigrant groups grew, there were a considerable number of Wisconsinites who lauded at least some of the groups arriving in the first decade of the 20th Century.
The Great War and the Attack on Ethnicity
America’s entry into World War I, the “Great War” to the people of the time, marked a major change in American attitudes toward immigrants. Ethnic divisions concerning the war had existed from August 1914, with many German and Irish Americans distinctively unsympathetic with the British and French. President Woodrow Wilson kept the United States neutral. His avoidance of war despite the initial round of submarine warfare and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 had helped to win him re-election in 1916.
However, as the war went on, Wilson leaned more and more to the British and the French. Germany began to sink American ships heading to England bringing in early 1917. That and a clumsy attempt by Germany to gain aid from Mexico against the United States shifted American sentiment. Wilson requested and Congress provided a Declaration of War in April 1917.
The War and some very deliberate propaganda created tremendous anti-German sentiment. Pride in German culture was turn on its head, as can be seen quite vividly in this recruitment poster.

From Ysgol Gyfun Cwmtawe Comprehensive School16

Throughout the country ethnic Germans were placed on the defensive and required to prove their loyalty by flying the flag, by enlisting, and by buying Liberty Bonds. Acts of violence against Germans occurred in many places. German-language newspapers closed. In fear, many Germans anglicized their names and the names of their companies.
Comparatively speaking, Wisconsin was a haven for Germans, because they had sufficient political clout in some areas to fight back. A number of Wisconsin politicians, including then Senator LaFollette, opposed the war. Some Wisconsin farmers even voted socialist (socialist’s were opposed to the war) as a protest despite their deep love of their own private property. However, a majority of Wisconsinites supported the war—at least after it was declared. Germans were not safe from violence, and in the western part of the state particularly, where the percentage of Germans was lower, the harassment resembled that elsewhere in the nation.
The 1920s, Prohibition, and the End of Open Immigration
The widespread fear of southern and eastern European groups combined with anti-German animus during the Great War to increase fear of all immigration from Europe. The Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 and an attempted communist revolt in Germany in early 1919 added to this fear by making Europe seem a source of dangerous radicalism. In 1919, businesses successfully portrayed a series of strikes as evidence of that radicalism, and a large percentage of the public supported violent suppression of strikes. A number of terrorist attacks by anarchist groups—who did have strong European connections—added credence to the anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Immigration restrictions
During World War I, the sea war reduced the number of immigrants coming into the nation. Many businesses discovered that increased efficiency in factory organization and new sources of labor, in particular African Americans from the South, had decreased their reliance on a large flow of labor from Europe. Without business support for open immigration, the fear of immigrants and of the impact of immigration led to the passage of several laws that greatly restricted immigration. No longer would ethnic communities be receiving large numbers of new immigrants. Over the following two generations, the number of those who spoke a “foreign” language fluently declined.
The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, banning alcoholic beverages had roots in a long-standing concern with drunkenness. The visibility of the Saloon as a cultural institution in immigrant neighborhood, and the visibility of drunkenness in the cities helped to connect the evils of alcohol with immigrants in the minds of many Americans.
That Germans did nothing to hide their love of a good brew helped to seal that connection between drunkenness and themselves, and other immigrant groups, and even Wisconsin as a whole. This post card, which dates roughly from between 1907 and 1920, and was published in New York, suggests the ambiguity of that relationship.
From “Greetings from Milwaukee Collection” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
Was the person who sent such a postcard—printed in New York-- laughing at Milwaukeeans for being drunk, or was he laughing at himself for having followed suit?17 Whatever, though most Wisconsinites opposed Prohibition, most of the rest of the country thought it a good idea, and the opposition of those foreign beer drinkers simply helped to confirm that it was a good idea.
Prohibition was enforced only fitfully. The local breweries themselves had to close or shifted to other products such as root beer or “near-beer” (which had less that ½% alcohol and so was not banned), but between the smuggling from Canada and the local talent, their absence did not mean the absence of beer. Still, there was general happiness—at least as much happiness that could be had at the height of the Depression, that the Prohibition Amendment was repealed.18
Prohibition, however, did have a lasting effect on Wisconsin and ethnic communities throughout the nation. It ended the saloon-based culture of many urban ethnic areas. When alcohol returned in 1933, new state laws established age limits I don’t have the numbers for the state, but nationally alcohol consumption remained much lower than in the decade before Prohibition until World War II.

The Klan and the 1920s
One indicator than ethnic and racial animosity was high in the 1920s, even in Wisconsin, was the formation of Wisconsin chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. In part, it may have been the times. Most farmers had expanded production and invested in much new equipment during World War I. In the 1920s, Europeans put high tariffs on American farm goods to help their own farmers recover from the War. Also the new investments made American farming more efficient, which kept crop prices low. Urban areas fared better, as factory wages rose some and the expansion of electricity in urban homes opened up a whole new world of products for the Middle Class household.
This division in economic fortunes may have exacerbated tensions between “mainstream” and ethnic Americans. At any event, the Ku Klux Klan, which had reemerged in 1915, entered Wisconsin in the early 1920s.

The Wisconsin Klan was either not as militant as some of the Klans in other states, or it was less successful. Still, it could and did inspire fear, and as the picture above suggests, they were strong enough not to feel a need to be strictly secret.
In many ways a scarier indicator of the power of racism in this period was the forming of a Ku Klux Klan honors fraternity at the University of Wisconsin. It was unrelated organizationally to the actual Klan; in fact its members clearly felt themselves of a superior class to the average “real” Klan member, but some of their activities revealed an equal if not greater degree of racism among the educated young elite of the state as one could find in the hooded Klansmen of Lake Hallie pictured above.19
Despite these challenges and the cut-off in immigration, ethnic life did not change overnight in the 1920s. Small communities and urban neighborhoods often maintained their ethnic identity. Churches still held services in the old languages, and many churches held language classes for the children in their congregations in an attempt to counter the loss of “foreign” language instruction in the schools. Organization like the Turner Society remained strong and maintained a German-born ethic toward art and exercise.
But change was coming. The education of children was in English, Despite the efforts of the churches, the congregations lost their native speakers over time and, particularly after World War II, services in German, or Polish, or Norwegian faded until they were, at best, special occasions to remember an older culture and time.
More generally, the spread of electricity, and with it movies, records, and radio, created a powerful and seductive national culture that accelerated Americanization even as it changed what America was for everyone. Indeed after the 1920s, many Wisconsinites developed a sense of themselves as a single group, a group identity encouraged by state-wide loyalties. Perhaps this 2005 picture captures the changes in both American and Wisconsin cultures (at least before Brett played for the Vikings).

From at

But in fact, new immigration continued and even expanded after WWII. It was the sources that changed. The arrival of larger numbers of African Americans in and after World War II and the arrival of new immigrants from Latin American and Asia beginning in the late 1970s have changed Wisconsin and challenged the many native-born Wisconsinites who had forgotten the animosities that had once divided the “whites” of the state.
A final thought
Someone once said that “The Past is another country.” I think that in the modern world, with its extraordinary rate of change, that this is more true than ever.
And if that is true, then we are all immigrants. As children we are newcomers learning our home world, and then our school world, and then the wider world as well. Some of the greatest joys that people have are in the moments that they realize that they truly “know” the place where we live. Yet, as grow older, we become immigrants again. Technologies change, as does the slang, and sometimes the appearance of the people around us. Inevitably we journey into a world that is being remade by others into something that we do not quite know. That can be quite hard.
With that in mind, we should be sympathetic as we teach, not simply to the immigrants, past and present, who often endured discrimination, but also to those whose antagonism rose out of such changes. It rose out of their feeling like newcomers in a place they thought was home.

1 I use “American” to mean a citizen or resident of the United States. “Native American” (aka Indian) refers to the indigenous population. However, when doing searches for historical materials, be warned that a political organization in the 1840s and 1850s that opposed the rapid influx of Europeans called itself the Native American (or Know Nothing) Party. Its members were not worried about the indigenous population.

2 Robert Bieder’s Native Americans in Wisconsin, 1600-1960 (1995) provides a fine brief overview of the ways of the indigenous population just before contact. He also provides a strong narrative for the remainder of the period covered.

3 According to Menominee oral history, they were specially created within this region. Those who hold to that history literally reject the scientific explanation concerning the Asian origin of their people.

4 Richard White’s, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991) is the classic statement of this interpretation of the region’s history.

5 It was after the Louisiana Purchase (1803) extended the western boundary of the nation that the region became known as the “Old Northwest.”

6 Mark Wyman’s, The Wisconsin Frontier (1998), is the best single source for the United States’ settlement of Wisconsin.

7 An excellent recent book on the Blackhawk War of 1832, which is perhaps the most famous of the conflicts that did occur east of the Mississippi in this period, is Kerry Trask’s Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (2005). It also provides background on the other conflicts in the Wisconsin region in the 1820s

8 Nancy Lurie’s Wisconsin Indians (revised edition 2002) is a remarkably compact and informative overview of the changing relations between Wisconsin’s tribes and the United States in this period as well as in the 20th century.

9 Again, the territorial governments have no de facto , that is, no enforceable authority in Wisconsin until after the War of 1812. It is only after the region becomes part of Michigan territory and after the lead mining boom brings more settlers in that territorial government begins to play a significant role in the lives of the people there.

10 Until the 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the United States Constitution during Reconstruction, the national government had no say in who could, or could not vote in a state.

11 Daniels, Coming to America, p. 162.

12 The Wisconsin Historical Society has published a series of short histories concerning the history European ethnic groups in Wisconsin. Richard H. Zeitlin, Germans in Wisconsin (revised 2000) provides far more detail than is here.

13 The use of boarding schools to kill Native American culture by “civilizing” the children is a harsher example of the same world view.

14 Joseph A. Ranney wrote a series of articles on Wisconsin’s legal history for the Wisconsin Bar Association’s web site. This included an excellent discussion of the Bennett Law, which is a major source for this section. The site has been taken down, perhaps because Ranney has published a book on the same topic, Trusting Nothing to Providence: History of Wisconsin's Legal System (2000).

15 McCarthy’s love of things German extended to the Scandinavians. “The Scandinavian element came later, but was animated by the very same ideals. Indeed, they became stimulated in many cases before they came to Wisconsin. Every Norwegian, Swede or Dane who pays a visit to-day to the Scandinavian countries returns an easy convert to the ideals which seem to have dominated Wisconsin during the last decade or more,” Charles McCarthy, The Wisconsin Idea (originally published 1912), at, accessed 20 October 2007.

16 Here is a link to other World War I posters;

17 “Down where the Wurzburger flows in Milwaukee.” In Greetings from Milwaukee: Selections from the Thomas and Jean Ross Bliffert Postcard Collection. At

18 Paul Glad’s article "When John Barleycorn Went into Hiding in Wisconsin" Wisconsin Magazine Of History. Volume: 68 /Issue: 2 (1984-1985) is an excellent overview of Wisconsin and prohibition in this period. All Wisconsin Magazine of History articles are now available on their web site.

19 Timothy Messer-Kruse, “The Campus Klan of the University of Wisconsin: Tacit and Active Support for the Ku Klux Klan in a Culture of Intolerance,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 77 (Autumn, 1993). At,39106

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