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Wisconsin – The Badger State


Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the north-central United States, in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.

Wisconsin in the United States
Wisconsin in the United States

It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north.  The state capital is Madison, and its largest city is Milwaukee, which is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

State Capitol in Madison

Wisconsin’s geography is diverse, having been greatly impacted by glaciers during the Ice Age with the exception of the Driftless Area.  The Northern Highland and Western Upland along with a part of the Central Plain occupies the western part of the state, with lowlands stretching to the shore of Lake Michigan.  Wisconsin is second to Michigan in the length of its Great Lakes coastline.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of European settlers entered the state, many of whom emigrated from Germany and Scandinavia.  Like neighboring Minnesota, the state remains a center of German American and Scandinavian American culture.

Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland” because it is one of the nation’s leading dairy producers, particularly famous for its cheese.

Wisconsin Cheese
Wisconsin Cheese

Manufacturing, especially paper products, information technology (IT), cranberries, ginseng, and tourism are also major contributors to the state’s economy.

Origin of the State Name:

The word Wisconsin originates from the name given to the Wisconsin River by one of the Algonquian-speaking Native American groups living in the region at the time of European contact.  French explorer Jacques Marquette was the first European to reach the Wisconsin River, arriving in 1673 and calling the river Meskousing in his journal.  Subsequent French writers changed the spelling from Meskousing to Ouisconsin, and over time this became the name for both the Wisconsin River and the surrounding lands.  English speakers anglicized the spelling from Ouisconsin to Wisconsin when they began to arrive in large numbers during the early 19th century.  The legislature of Wisconsin Territory made the current spelling official in 1845.

Wisconsin River
Wisconsin River

The Algonquin word for Wisconsin and its original meaning have both grown obscure.  Interpretations vary, but most implicate the river and the red sandstone that lines its banks.  One leading theory holds that the name originated from the Miami word Meskonsing, meaning “it lies red”, a reference to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Wisconsin Dells.  Other theories include claims that the name originated from one of a variety of Ojibwa words meaning “red stone place”, “where the waters gather”, or “great rock”.


Early History:

Wisconsin has been home to a wide variety of cultures over the past 14,000 years.  The first people arrived around 10,000 BCE during the Wisconsin Glaciation.  These early inhabitants, called Paleo-Indians, hunted now-extinct ice age animals such as the Boaz mastodon, a prehistoric mastodon skeleton unearthed along with spear points in southwest Wisconsin.

Boaz Mastodon
Boaz Mastodon

After the ice age ended around 8000 BCE, people in the subsequent Archaic period lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering food from wild plants.  Agricultural societies emerged gradually over the Woodland period between 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.  Toward the end of this period, Wisconsin was the heartland of the “Effigy Mound culture“, which built thousands of animal-shaped mounds across the landscape.  Later, between 1000 and 1500 CE, the Mississippian and Oneota cultures built substantial settlements including the fortified village at Aztalan in southeast Wisconsin.  The Oneota may be the ancestors of the modern Ioway and Ho-Chunk tribes who shared the Wisconsin region with the Menominee at the time of European contact.  Other Native American groups living in Wisconsin when Europeans first settled included the Ojibwa, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomie, who migrated to Wisconsin from the east between 1500 and 1700.

European Settlements:

The first European to visit what became Wisconsin was probably the French explorer Jean Nicolet.

Jean Nicolet
Jean Nicolet

He canoed west from Georgian Bay through the Great Lakes in 1634, and it is traditionally assumed that he came ashore near Green Bay at Red BanksPierre Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers visited Green Bay again in 1654–1666 and Chequamegon Bay in 1659–1660, where they traded for fur with local Native Americans.  In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet became the first to record a journey on the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway all the way to the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien.  Frenchmen like Nicholas Perrot continued to ply the fur trade across Wisconsin through the 17th and 18th centuries, but the French made no permanent settlements in Wisconsin before Great Britain won control of the region following the French and Indian War in 1763.  Even so, French traders continued to work in the region after the war, and some, beginning with Charles de Langlade in 1764, now settled in Wisconsin permanently, rather than returning to British-controlled Canada.

Wisconsin in 1718

The British gradually took over Wisconsin during the French and Indian War, taking control of Green Bay in 1761 and gaining control of all of Wisconsin in 1763.  Like the French, the British were interested in little but the fur trade.  The first permanent settlers, mostly French Canadians, some Anglo-New Englanders and a few African American freedmen, arrived in Wisconsin while it was under British control.  Charles Michel de Langlade is generally recognized as the first settler, establishing a trading post at Green Bay in 1745, and moving there permanently in 1764.  Settlement began at Prairie du Chien around 1781.  The French residents at the trading post in what is now Green Bay, referred to the town as “La Baye”, however British fur traders referred to it as “Green Bay”, because the water and the shore assumed green tints in early spring.

Green Bay

The old French title was gradually dropped, and the British name of “Green Bay” eventually stuck.  The region coming under British rule had virtually no adverse effect on the French residents as the British needed the cooperation of the French fur traders and the French fur traders needed the goodwill of the British.  During the French occupation of the region licenses for fur trading had been issued scarcely and only to select groups of traders, whereas the British, in an effort to make as much money as possible from the region, issued licenses for fur trading freely, both to British and French residents.  The fur trade in what is now Wisconsin reached its height under British rule, and the first self-sustaining farms in the state were established as well.  From 1763 to 1780, Green Bay was a prosperous community which produced its own foodstuff, built graceful cottages and held dances and festivities.

U.S. Territory:

Wisconsin became a territorial possession of the United States in 1783 after the American Revolutionary War.  However, the British remained in control until after the War of 1812, the outcome of which finally established an American presence in the area.  Under American control, the economy of the territory shifted from fur trading to lead mining.  The prospect of easy mineral wealth drew immigrants from throughout the U.S. and Europe to the lead deposits located at Mineral Point, Dodgeville, and nearby areas.  The sudden influx of white miners prompted tension with the local Native American population.  The Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War of 1832 culminated in the forced removal of Native Americans from most parts of the state.

Wisconsin Territory

Following these conflicts, Wisconsin Territory was created by an act of the United States Congress on April 20, 1836.


The Erie Canal facilitated the travel of both Yankee settlers and European immigrants to Wisconsin Territory.  Yankees from New England and upstate New York seized a dominant position in law and politics, enacting policies that marginalized the region’s earlier Native American and French-Canadian residents.  Yankees also speculated in real estate, platted towns such as Racine, Beloit, Burlington, and Janesville, and established schools, civic institutions, and Congregationalist churches.

Janesville, Wisconsin
Janesville, Wisconsin

At the same time, many Germans, Irish, Norwegians, and other immigrants also settled in towns and farms across the territory, establishing Catholic and Lutheran institutions.

The growing population allowed Wisconsin to gain statehood on May 29, 1848, as the 30th state.  Between 1840 and 1850, Wisconsin’s non-Indian population had swollen from 31,000 to 305,000.  Over a third of residents (110,500) were foreign born, including 38,000 Germans, 28,000 British immigrants from England, Scotland, and Wales, and 21,000 Irish.  Another third (103,000) were Yankees from New England and western New York state.  Only about 63,000 residents in 1850 had been born in Wisconsin.

Civil War:

Politics in early Wisconsin were defined by the greater national debate over slavery.  A free state from its foundation, Wisconsin became a center of northern abolitionism.  The debate became especially intense in 1854 after Joshua Glover, a runaway slave from Missouri, was captured in Racine.  Glover was taken into custody under the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, but a mob of abolitionists stormed the prison where Glover was held and helped him escape to Canada.  In a trial stemming from the incident, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.  The Republican Party, founded on March 20, 1854, by anti-slavery expansion activists in Ripon, Wisconsin, grew to dominate state politics in the aftermath of these events.

Little White Schoolhouse Ripon, Wisconsin

During the Civil War, around 91,000 troops from Wisconsin fought for the Union.

Economic Progress:

Wisconsin’s economy also diversified during the early years of statehood.  While lead mining diminished, agriculture became a principal occupation in the southern half of the state.  Railroads were built across the state to help transport grains to market.  Wisconsin briefly became one of the nation’s leading producers of wheat during the 1860s.  Meanwhile, the lumber industry dominated in the heavily forested northern sections of Wisconsin, and sawmills sprang up in cities like La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Wausau.  These economic activities had dire environmental consequences. By the close of the 19th century, intensive agriculture had devastated soil fertility, and lumbering had deforested most of the state.  These conditions forced both wheat agriculture and the lumber industry into a precipitous decline.

Beginning in the 1890s, farmers in Wisconsin shifted from wheat to dairy production in order to make more sustainable and profitable use of their land.  Many immigrants carried cheese-making traditions that, combined with the state’s suitable geography and dairy research led by Stephen Babcock at the University of Wisconsin, helped the state build a reputation as “America’s Dairyland”.

Daniel E Krause Stone Barn
Daniel E Krause Stone Barn

Meanwhile, conservationists including Aldo Leopold helped re-establish the state’s forests during the early 20th century, paving the way for a more renewable lumber and paper milling industry as well as promoting recreational tourism in the northern woodlands.  Manufacturing also boomed in Wisconsin during the early 20th century, driven by an immense immigrant workforce arriving from Europe.  Industries in cities like Milwaukee ranged from brewing and food processing to heavy machine production and tool-making, leading Wisconsin to rank 8th among U.S. states in total product value by 1910.

Milwaukee 1882

20th Century:

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, citizens of Wisconsin were divided over things such as the creation of the United Nations, support for the European recovery, and the growth of the Soviet Union‘s power.  However, when Europe divided into Communist and capitalist camps and the Communist revolution in China succeeded in 1949, public opinion began to move towards support for the protection of democracy and capitalism against Communist expansion.

The state became a leader in welfare reform under Republican Governor Tommy Thompson during the 1990s.  The state’s economy also underwent further transformations towards the close of the 20th century, as heavy industry and manufacturing declined in favor of a service economy based on medicine, education, agribusiness, and tourism.

21st Century:

In 2011, Wisconsin became the focus of some controversy when newly elected governor Scott Walker proposed, successfully passed, and enacted the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, which made large changes in the areas of collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave of public sector employees, among other changes.  A series of major protests by union supporters took place that year in response to the changes, and Walker survived a recall election held the next year, becoming the first governor in United States history to do so.  Walker enacted other bills promoting conservative governance, such as a right-to-work law, abortion restrictions, and legislation removing certain gun controls.


Wisconsin is bordered by the Montreal River; Lake Superior and Michigan to the north; by Lake Michigan to the east; by Illinois to the south; and by Iowa to the southwest and Minnesota to the northwest.  A border dispute with Michigan was settled by two cases, both Wisconsin v. Michigan, in 1934 and 1935. The state’s boundaries include the Mississippi River and St. Croix River in the west, and the Menominee River in the northeast.

With its location between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Wisconsin is home to a wide variety of geographical features.  The state is divided into five distinct regions.

Geographic Regions of Wisconsin
Geographic Regions of Wisconsin

In the north, the Lake Superior Lowland occupies a belt of land along Lake Superior.  Just to the south, the Northern Highland has massive mixed hardwood and coniferous forests including the 1,500,000 acres Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, as well as thousands of glacial lakes, and the state’s highest point, Timms Hill.

Timms Hill

In the middle of the state, the Central Plain has some unique sandstone formations like the Dells of the Wisconsin River in addition to rich farmland.  The Eastern Ridges and Lowlands region in the southeast is home to many of Wisconsin’s largest cities.  The ridges include the Niagara Escarpment that stretches from New York, the Black River Escarpment and the Magnesian Escarpment.

The bedrock of the Niagara Escarpment is dolomite, while the two shorter ridges have limestone bedrock.  In the southwest, the Western Upland is a rugged landscape with a mix of forest and farmland, including many bluffs on the Mississippi River.  This region is part of the Driftless Area, which also includes portions of Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota.  This area was not covered by glaciers during the most recent ice age, the Wisconsin Glaciation.

Driftless Area of SW Wisconsin
Driftless Area of SW Wisconsin

Overall, 46% of Wisconsin’s land area is covered by forest.


In 2010 Wisconsin’s gross state product was $248.3 billion, making it 21st among U.S. states.  The economy of Wisconsin is driven by manufacturing, agriculture, and health care.  Manufacturing accounts for about 20% of the state’s gross domestic product.

In quarter four of 2011, the largest employers in Wisconsin were:


Wisconsin produces about a quarter of America’s cheese, leading the nation in cheese production.  It is second in milk production, after California.  Wisconsin is second in butter production, producing about one-quarter of the nation’s butter.

Wisconsin Butter

The state ranks first nationally in the production of corn for silage, cranberries, ginseng, and snap beans for processing.  It grows over half the national crop of cranberries, and 97% of the nation’s ginseng.

Wisconsin Ginseng
Wisconsin Ginseng

Wisconsin is also a leading producer of oats, potatoes, carrots, tart cherries, maple syrup, and sweet corn for processing.


A large part of the state’s manufacturing sector includes commercial food processing, including well-known brands such as Oscar Mayer, Tombstone frozen pizza, Johnsonville brats, and Usinger’s sausage. Kraft Foods alone employs over 5,000 people in the state.  Milwaukee is a major producer of beer and was formerly headquarters for Miller Brewing Company.

Miller Brewing Milwaukee
Miller Brewing Milwaukee

Wisconsin is home to a very large and diversified manufacturing economy, with special focus on transportation and capital equipment.  Major Wisconsin companies in these categories include the Kohler Company; Mercury Marine; Rockwell Automation; Johnson Controls; John Deere; Briggs & Stratton; Milwaukee Electric Tool Company; Miller Electric; Caterpillar Inc.; Joy Global; Oshkosh Corporation; Harley-Davidson; Case IH; S. C. Johnson & Son; Ashley Furniture; Ariens; and Evinrude Outboard Motors.

Consumer Goods:

Wisconsin is a major producer of paper, packaging, and other consumer goods.  Major consumer products companies based in the state include SC Johnson & Co., and Diversey, Inc.  Wisconsin also ranks first nationwide in the production of paper products; the lower Fox River from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay has 24 paper mills along its 39 miles stretch.

US Bank Center in Milwaukee
US Bank Center in Milwaukee

The development and manufacture of health care devices and software is a growing sector of the state’s economy, with key players such as GE Healthcare, Epic Systems, and TomoTherapy.


Tourism is a major industry in Wisconsin; the state’s third largest.  Tourist destinations such as the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Circus World Museum in Baraboo, and The Dells of the Wisconsin River draw thousands of visitors annually, and festivals such as Summerfest and the EAA Oshkosh Airshow draw international attention, along with hundreds of thousands of visitors.

House on the Rock
House on the Rock

Given the large number of lakes and rivers in the state, water recreation is very popular.  In the North Country, what had been an industrial area focused on timber has largely been transformed into a vacation destination.  Popular interest in the environment and environmentalism, added to traditional interests in hunting and fishing, has attracted a large urban audience within driving range.

The distinctive Door Peninsula, which extends off the eastern coast of the state, contains one of the state’s tourist destinations, Door County.  Door County is a popular destination for boaters because of the large number of natural harbors, bays, and ports on the Green Bay and Lake Michigan side of the peninsula that forms the county. The area draws hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly to its quaint villages, seasonal cherry picking, and fish boils.


Air Travel:

Wisconsin is served by eight commercial service airports, in addition to a number of general aviation airports.

Milwaukee Airport
Milwaukee Airport

Major Highways:

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is responsible for planning, building and maintaining the state’s highways.  Five major Interstate Highways are located in the state.

I-39, I-41, I-43, I-90, I-94

Wisconsin Atlas Map
Wisconsin Atlas Map

Rail Service:

Amtrak provides daily passenger rail service between Chicago and Milwaukee.  It also provides cross-country service via the Empire Builder with station stops in several cities in Wisconsin.

Flag of Wisconsin:

The flag of the state of Wisconsin is a blue flag.

Flag of Wisconsin
Flag of Wisconsin

The flag is charged with the state coat of arms.

Seal of Wisconsin

Originally designed in 1866 when regiments from Wisconsin wanted a flag for battlefield use.

Wisconsin Flag from 1866 to 1913

In 1913, state statutes specified the design of the state flag.

Wisconsin Flag from 1913 to 1981

In order to distinguish it from the many other blue U.S. state flags, Wisconsin’s flag was modified in 1979 to add “Wisconsin” and “1848”, the year Wisconsin was admitted to the Union.  All Wisconsin state flags manufactured after May 1, 1981, were required to use this design.

State Nickname:

The nickname for Wisconsin is “The Badger State.” The badger is featured on Wisconsin’s coat of arms, state seal, and state flag, and is also the official state animal.


The nickname began in the 1800s; during their search for lead ore, galena, miners dug hillside tunnels and sometimes lived in them, which reminded people of the burrowing badger.

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