This 1810 map shows what Wisconsin's boundaries once were, extending to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, west to the headwaters of the Mississippi River in central Minnesota and encompassing Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Photo By American Geographical Society Library, UW-Milwaukee

How Wisconsin got its borders

The surveys, slip-ups and thievery that shaped the Badger state


Wisconsin’s familiar, compact shape, with some 80 percent of its 1,378-mile boundary clearly defined by rivers and lakes, seems to have a kind of logical inevitability. This is far from true. The Badger State’s outline could have been considerably different, and today’s state lines came only after years of controversies, errors and court battles.

What might have been

In 1784 the fledgling Confederation Congress of the United States was trying to decide what to do with its western wilderness. A committee headed by Thomas Jefferson proposed to divide the little-known lands northwest of the Ohio River into 10 new states. Jefferson even suggested names for them, a mash-up of Latin and Native American words – Sylvania, Michigania and Assenisipia for parts of the land that is now Wisconsin. Congress decided to take a different approach. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 specified that “there shall be formed in the said territory, no less than three nor more than five states” and laid out some lines of division.

Territories and states expanded westward, growing, shrinking and shape-shifting as populations and politics required. After having been successively part of the territories of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, Wisconsin – the name chosen over the proposed “Chippewau” – Territory came into existence in 1836. The first Wisconsin was huge; it included today’s state plus part of the Louisiana Purchase spliced on as a temporary convenience – Minnesota, Iowa and the eastern half of the Dakotas, all the way to the Missouri River. Congress split off the western part as Iowa Territory two years later, but Wisconsin still extended to the British dominions in the north, all the way up to Lake of the Woods on the present-day Minnesota/ Canada border.

As the last of the five states formed out of the “Old Northwest,” Wisconsin became the victim of land grabs by her older siblings, unhappily yielding large slices of real estate to neighbors.

The UP and the nonexistent water boundary

The Upper Peninsula is the most prominent piece of Wisconsin that ended up in a different state. Congress gave the UP to Michigan as a bribe to settle problems to the south. Ohio and Indiana had usurped wide strips of Michigan’s land, bringing the parties close to a shooting war. Congress was eager to make Michigan a free state to balance slaveholding Arkansas. Yielding to the pressure for a compromise, Michigan unhappily surrendered its claims in Ohio and Indiana in exchange for the remote and little-known Upper Peninsula and a cash payoff of $382,335, thereby becoming a state in 1837. Wisconsin Territory protested vigorously but lost.

To chop off the UP, Congress passed an “act to ascertain and designate the boundary line between the State of Michigan and the Territory of Wiskonsin.” The act, based on a severely inaccurate map, defined the line as a continuous water boundary along the Menominee and Montreal rivers, connecting through Lac Vieux Desert. After some years of interagency squabbling over who was in charge and who should pay for a survey, President Van Buren turned the job over to the War Department. Capt. Thomas J. Cram, a topographical engineer, got the assignment, along with a pile of problems.

After two summers of exploration, Capt. Cram found that the all-water boundary was fictitious. He recommended that the northern border run northwest from the head of the Brule River to the passage between two main islands in Lac Vieux Desert, then continue angling northwest to the head of the Montreal River in present-day Iron County. Cram decided, rather arbitrarily, that the Montreal River began at the junction of two streams then called Pine River and Balsam Creek. Congress and the Wisconsin legislature accepted this plan, although many details remained vague. Travelers can find a marker commemorating Capt. Cram’s visit on the west shore of Lac Vieux Desert, half a mile north of County Highway E.

In 1908, motivated by newfound mineral wealth in the Gogebic Range, Michigan seized on ambiguities in Capt. Cram’s reports and sought unilaterally to move the state line south. One issue was the Montreal River, which inconveniently has two forks of roughly equal size. Michigan claimed the true headwater was the western branch instead of the eastern one used to delineate the border and demanded some 400 square miles, including the town of Hurley, which had been Wisconsin’s for 60 years.

Wisconsin objected. The matter dragged on for years, finally finding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1926, Wisconsin had a rare win when the justices maintained the land belonged to Wisconsin because the state had long exercised control over it. The court ordered the boundary resurveyed and marked. Adventurous explorers can find the concrete monuments put in place at that time, located along the line at half-mile intervals. A special commemorative monument is near U.S. Highway 45, east of Land O’ Lakes.

The slanted 61-mile Illinois strip

Another land grab that cost Wisconsin dearly took place on the southern boundary line. That line, according to the Northwest Ordinance, was to be “drawn through the southerly bend of Lake Michigan,” just touching the lower end of the lake. When Illinois petitioned for statehood in 1818, the Territorial Representative in Congress, Nathaniel Pope, proposed moving the boundary north to latitude 42°30', a distance of 61 miles. Illinois needed better access to ports on Lake Michigan, Pope argued, to open up shipping through the Great Lakes and Erie Canal. This would shift trade away from the Mississippi River, thereby increasing likelihood that Illinois would maintain allegiance to the free states. Persuaded by Pope’s argument, Congress placed the line at 42°30', promoted Illinois to statehood and hitched the remnants of Illinois Territory onto Michigan Territory. Thus Wisconsin lost 8,500 square miles of land, including the future site of Chicago.

After the creation of Wisconsin Territory, Governor Henry Dodge launched a vigorous protest. Congress had violated the Ordinance of 1787, he thundered, “contrary to the manifest right and consent of the people of this territory.” This set off an uproar in the disputed strip of northern Illinois. Settlers there, hailing from New England and New York, felt little affinity with more populous southern Illinois, where people from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia dominated. A citizens’ convention in Rockford, Ill., formally declared in favor of moving 14 Illinois counties into Wisconsin, and elections in several counties overwhelmingly supported the move. The issue lost favor, however, in the territorial government, where legislators showed little enthusiasm for taking on public debt and competing politicians from Illinois counties. Amid continuing political maneuvering, Wisconsin accepted statehood minus the 61-mile strip.

The boundary was surveyed in 1831 and 1832 by Lucius Lyon, commissioner for the U.S. General Land Office. Technology of the day was primitive by today’s standards, and his accuracy on this line is not impressive. The westernmost starting point of the southern border, at the Mississippi River opposite the present site of Dubuque, is about half a mile north of the statutory 42°30' line. Lyon and his party erected a 5-ton stone monument on the riverbank, carved with “Illinois” on the south side and – because Wisconsin was still Michigan Territory at the time – “Michigan latitude 42°30' N” on the north side. The surveyors worked their way east, with some significant wobbles and a southward slant as they progressed. They crossed the actual 42°30' latitude near the current boundary between Green and Rock counties. The eastern end, at Lake Michigan south of Kenosha, is half a mile too far south. The point where the southern boundary crosses the Fourth Principal Meridian is the initial reference point for defining townships and ranges all across the state. Travelers can find a monument and historical marker at this “Point of Beginning” south of Hazel Green near Wisconsin Route 80.

St. Louis, St. Croix and battles over the Minnesota line

The Northwest Ordinance mandated that the “fifth state” – Wisconsin – have as its western boundary the Mississippi River and a line running north from the river’s source – Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota – to Lake of the Woods, giving Wisconsin what is now the northeast corner of Minnesota. As Wisconsin approached statehood in the mid-1840s, however, Congress decided to detach the northwestern part of the territory. The idea was to provide access to Lake Superior from the country north of Iowa, an area that had been left in limbo for three years between the time Iowa became a state and Congress got around to forming the Territory of Minnesota. In this intensely factional period before the Civil War, creating an additional free state with the chopped-off territory was certainly another attraction. Once again, Wisconsin was not pleased.

An enabling act providing for Wisconsin statehood passed Congress in August 1846. With reference to a map prepared 200 years earlier by French fur trader and explorer Jean Nicolet, the act specified a line essentially identical to the current boundary – from Lake Superior along the St. Louis River to the first rapids, then straight south to the St. Croix River, then following the St. Croix to the Mississippi, and following the Mississippi to the southwest corner of the state.

Intense controversy ensued. At Wisconsin’s tumultuous constitutional convention, interests in the St. Croix Valley sought to hack off an even larger segment of the territory, including essentially all of present northwestern Wisconsin, to create the new state of Superior. This was defeated after weeks of skirmishing. A compromise that would have removed both banks of the St. Croix from Wisconsin and cut off most of the four westernmost counties was finally approved and sent to Congress. Congress accepted this first constitution, but voters rejected it for reasons other than the boundaries. If it had passed, Wisconsin would be smaller by some 2,000 square miles. More arguments ensued in the second constitutional convention, held in the winter of 1847 and 1848. This time the St. Croix Valley delegates were soundly defeated. The revised constitution went back to Congress with an attachment requesting a boundary running southwest from the St. Louis rapids to the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Rum River. This is 25 miles upstream from St. Paul, at the present city of Anoka. The plan would have put both banks of the St. Croix, all or part of seven Minnesota counties, and the city of St. Paul in Wisconsin. Horrified Minnesota forces counterattacked with a petition to move the line east to the Chippewa River.

Congress accepted the second constitution without acting on any of the boundary amendments. On May 29, 1848, President Polk signed the bill making Wisconsin the 30th state. The Minnesota boundary issues were left hanging without any complete, legal resolution. The boundaries originally proposed stayed in place by default.

The 42-mile meridian boundary between the St. Louis and St. Croix rivers in the northwest corner of the state was surveyed in 1852. The surveyor, George R. Stuntz, had trouble locating the rapids in the St. Louis because of high water. The starting point he selected is probably half a mile above the intended point. Further, the line angles slightly, making the south end 708 feet farther west than the north end. As a result of these errors, Wisconsin kept about 26 square miles more than Congress intended.

The border dispute settled down for more than 60 years until, in 1917, Wisconsin and Minnesota amicably agreed to swap two islands in the Mississippi River. Wisconsin got Baron Island opposite the city of La Crosse; Minnesota got Island No. 72 opposite Winona. Congress approved the trade, and perhaps that finally settled things on this troublesome border.

Robert D. Temple spent 10 years exploring and researching North America for his award-winning book "Edge Effects," which reveals more than 80 unique and quirky border towns across the continent. This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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