By Sterling Knoche
Lead, Wisconsin and the Anthropocene
Growing up in Wisconsin it is impossible to get away from the nickname Badger, the name is synonymous with the state itself. The nickname is derived from early settlers who were so keen on making their fortune mining lead; they didn’t even bother to make permanent dwellings. These miners simply burrowed into hillsides, like badgers. Today these early miners are memorialized all over the State. However, white miners arrival to southern Wisconsin extirpated Native Americans, and brought a very different cultural understanding of resource use. The Anglo perception that resources exist to exploit for a profit intensified lead mining practices in Wisconsin, creating irreparable harm to the environment, and in turn thrust Wisconsin into the Anthropocene.
Native American women had mined lead in southern Wisconsin for thousands of years. Natives used the lead to make buttons, beads and other ornamental objects. For Native American tribes, lead was a peripheral resource, which was surfaced mined seasonally. Tribes would cease mining during the hunting and harvesting seasons, as lead was one of many subsistence endeavors they engaged in. In contrast, Anglo settlers with dreams of making a quick fortune and returning back east inundated southern Wisconsin. Mining continually, Anglos saw lead as a resource to be exploited. As miner Edward Langworthy explained, “no one thought of farming or manufacturing or even building towns or permanent dwellings. All alike came to make their fortunes, and leave for their old homes in the civilized world”. This outlook on lead, and land property rights in general, clashed violently with the perspectives of those who actual owned the land, the Native American tribes. Native Americans viewed lead, and the land it was found on as a communal resource. This difference in perspective can be observed with the death of Julien Dubuque in 1811. Dubuque had been a long time resident of the lead region and had married a Mesquakie woman as a way to gain the trust of the local tribe. Over time, the tribe gave him a land grant of 125,000 acres. However, upon his death, the Mesquakie were appalled when his estate was sold off in parcels. It was their understanding that this land was still communal and should be returned to the tribe. This difference in property right understanding illustrates a fundamental distinction between Anglo and Native American perceptions of resource use. The Anglo belief in private property rights, a central theme to the Anthropocene’s over exploitation, would lead to intensified lead extraction and environmental degradation in southern Wisconsin.
While Native American tribes had mined lead for the production of decorative commodities that were marginally traded between tribes, Anglo settlers mined and produced lead on an industrial scale. As the Milwaukee Sentinel noted, “Another fleet of ‘Prairie Schooners eight in number, arrived here yesterday morning, bringing some sixteen or seventeen tons of shot from the Wisconsin Shot Tower at Helena, 24 miles from Mineral Point…This tower can now produce 5,000-10,000 pounds of shot a day…there is no doubt that ere long Wisconsin shot will be a leading article of export from Milwaukee to all cities and towns along the lake”. The Sentinel not only describes the intensification of white settlers mining practices in terms of tonnage. It also displays the Anglo view that resource extraction should be exploited to ensure great profit. Stating with pride, that before long Wisconsin shot and lead would be the leading export from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Herald expressed similar Anglo sentiment when it advocated for the expansion of the railroad to southwestern Wisconsin in order to increase lead production. “If there was a good railroad from Milwaukee to the Mississippi, over 25,000,000 lbs. of lead and shot would find its way to New York, via the Great Lakes. It is a matter that must be looked into by the next legislature”. The Herald believed the exploitation of lead was so vital to the existence of the new habitants in Wisconsin, that it advocated for governmental assistance to increase extraction. These newspaper clippings demonstrate how two groups of people can perceive a resource much differently. Native Americans had mined the exact same lead for thousands of years without thought of exploiting it to a point of environmental degradation. It took a different group of humankind, Anglos, to exploit the lead district. This exploitation not only lead to environmental degradation, but also more white settlers. As huge quantities of lead were shipped back east, thousands of whites came west to settle. As more Anglos settled Wisconsin, Native Americans were increasingly pressured off of their land.
As Native Americans were pushed off of their land in the lead region, thousands of white settlers flooded southern Wisconsin. In 1825, there were only 200 white people in the region, by 1827 the white population had swelled to 4,000. By 1834 the environmental effects of the Anglo miners were becoming clear to observers; one observer noted that the hills by Hamilton’s Diggings were “nearly bare of trees having been cut down to feed the furnaces”. Adele Gratiot, of Gratiots Grove observed, “From the slope of the hill, you could see as far as the eye could reach, miners’ shanties, and windlasses in activities”. While the Anglo miners did not plan to stay, their perception of lead as a cash resource had a lasting effect on the landscape. The cutting of trees, and scarring of hillsides with mines, would long outlive the residency of the miners. Furthermore, the Anglo extirpation of Native Americans from the lead mining district, forever removing the Native ideals of resource use, would be the early Anglo settlers longest lasting effect. With only the white opinion of resource use remaining, southern Wisconsin mines continued to be exploited.
In retroactive study of the region, we now know that the increased lead mining by Anglo settlers had immediate environmental effects on the region. These effects go beyond the aesthetic impacts described by observers of the time. The deforestation of trees for fuel and disturbance of soil by mining, led to high rates of erosion that, “accelerated rates of valley-floor sedimentation, leading in some instances to more local flooding. Evidence from the Galena and Big Platte rivers show shifts in sediment build up from a pre-settlement rate of .02 centimeters per year to .3-5.0 centimeters per year during the colonization to the 1930s”. In an ironic twist of fate, the lower Galena River accrued so much sediment due to the erosive effects of lead mining, that the lead mining boomtown town of Galena, with aspirations of becoming a major Mississippi river port, became unreachable by steamer by the mid-1840s, dashing its hopes of being a significant port city. The effects of these early white settlers are still being felt today, as lead from mine waste still shows up as a trace metal in stream sediments today. In just a couple of decades, white miners and their cultural perception of exploitive resource use, drastically altered southern Wisconsin’s landscape. Their intensive, profit driven mining increased soil erosion to the point that it made a river impassable, and left toxic lead waste in rivers to such an extent that lead still appears in samples over two centuries later.
In Wisconsin, lead had been mined and used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Their use of lead was not invisible on the landscape, but it also was not destructive. The arrival of Anglo settlers to the land illustrates how different groups of people view and use the same resource differently, sometimes with drastic implications. The discovery of lead by Anglos created a frenzied settlement of southern Wisconsin and even more furious extraction of lead from its land. The switch in the perceptions about resources from Native communal subsistence use, to Anglo private capitalist use, created conditions that allowed for the exploitation and degradation of the southern Wisconsin landscape.
While much literature on the Anthropocene has discussed large, almost global, aspects of the Anthropocene, sometimes we must avail ourselves of the birds-eye view. The Anthropocene is a story of people, individuals, and communities. The Anthropocene did not unfold uniformly; it arrived piecemeal, area by area, object by object. Driven by lead, a substance known and used by humans for thousands of years, southern Wisconsin changed profoundly in just two centuries. A region, whose geology and landscape went largely unchanged for thousands of years even by glaciers, was jettisoned into the Anthropocene, due to the Anglo discovery of lead in a time when it was increasingly valuable.
It is clear that lead itself did not change southern Wisconsin; it was the changed perception of lead by new inhabitants of southern Wisconsin that altered the landscape. The story of Anglo lead mining in southern Wisconsin demonstrates how the Anthropocene has arrived unevenly across the globe. Humans have used lead for thousands of years, creating environmental impacts all over the globe. However, not all of humans lead use impacts the environment equally. As demonstrated by the shift of lead mining in southern Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century, the white settlers with their cultural norms of capitalistic resource extraction pushed Wisconsin into the Anthropocene within a few decades using a resource that Natives in the area had respectfully extracted for thousands of years.
Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, “A Gathering of Rivers”, (Univeristy of Nebraska Press, 2000, Lincoln)
Milwaukee Sentinel, July 10th 1847, in Collections of the State Historical Society, Vol. 13, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Madison: Democrat Printing Company, 1895)
Milwaukee Herald, Novmember 30th, 1844, in Collections of the State Historical Society, Vol. 13, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Madison: Democrat Printing Company, 1895)
Theodore Rodolf, “Pioneering In the Wisconsin Lead Region” (1848), published in Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. XV (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1900) 348
Gratiot, Adele. “An Interesting Narrative. The Reminiscences of Adele B. Gratiot…” Galena Weekly Gazette, May 2, 1879. Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=691
Robert Clifford Ostergren and Thomas R. Vale, “Wisconsin Life and Land”, (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1997)