Ethnic Groups in Wisconsin: Historical Background

Ethnicity in Wisconsin: Historical Background

Ethnicity in Wisconsin

In the nineteenth century, ethnicity was a critical element in Wisconsin’s social fabric; more likely than not, ethnicity determined one’s religion, politics, and even such mundane aspects of life as dress or diet. Wisconsin became a favored location for hundreds of thousands of immigrants because it offered abundant, inexpensive land (first in the south and later in the cutover), industrial jobs, and a free political climate. For these immigrants, ethnicity was a key factor in choosing a place to live, as settlers of different ethnicities tended to cluster together, often in communities named for locations in the old country–New Glarus, Scandinavia, and Pulaski are some of the more obvious examples. These ethnic enclaves offered the comfort of familiar languages and customs as well as insulation from the dominant–and often hostile– Yankee culture. Milwaukee itself by 1920 had become a virtual checkerboard of ethnically homogenous urban villages populated by different ethnic and racial groups. Such ethnic cohesiveness, reinforced by religious and social institutions, preserved language and folk customs (such as ethnic foods, music, and dress) well into the twentieth century.

Ethnicity, however, is not static. Advances in communication and transportation have broken down these ethnic strongholds as the children and grandchildren of immigrants have moved on to new locations and new occupations. The romantic image of Norwegian bachelor farmers in Vernon County and quaint Swiss cheesemakers in Green County do, of course, hold some truth, but such views are too simplistic as ethnicity takes on increasingly complicated meaning. Most people in Wisconsin now have a mixed ethnic heritage, and some customs, once the sole prerogative of a single ethnic group, have become widely diffused throughout the state: one need not be of any particular ethnicity to enjoy a Polish-style polka, wild rice, a lutefisk dinner, or a Cinco-de- Mayo celebration. Ethnic revivals in the 1960s and 70s have spurred new interest in ethnic roots, and festivals such as Milwaukee’s Germanfest, Madison’s Greekfest, or Ojibwa powwows, attract visitors of all backgrounds.

In short, the culture and folklore of any of Wisconsin’s ethnic groups does not belong solely to the descendants of that group but rather to all people of Wisconsin who can appreciate and learn from the diverse cultures of the state. The Directory of Wisconsin Ethnic Organizations seeks to facilitate such communication and education by demonstrating that ethnicity remains a living part of Wisconsin’s heritage and more than just a splotch on the state map. Ethnicity once served to separate different peoples, but now ethnicity can provide opportunities of understanding those different from ourselves.

Historic Ethnic Settlements

Below is a series of brief descriptions of some of the different ethnic settlements in Wisconsin, many of which retain their distinctive culture.

Native Americans in Wisconsin

When Jean Nicolet, searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, first set foot on the land that would become Wisconsin in 1634, he encountered two large tribes living in the area: the Menominee and the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). Further to the south along the Wisconsin River lived the Mdewakanton band of the Lakota people (the Santee Sioux). In subsequent years Wisconsin became home to a much larger number of tribes as a chain of events begun by the French fur trade pushed thousands of refugee peoples into the Western Great Lakes Area.

In the 1640s, the powerful Iroquois League (Haudesaunee) went to war against the Odawa (Ottawa), who had worked as the primary intermediaries between the French and Great Lakes Tribes. This sixty-year conflict drove the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sauk, and Meskwaki (Fox) tribes from their territories in Michigan and Ohio into Wisconsin, where they came into conflict with the Ho-Chunks and Lakotas. About the same time, the Ojibwe expanded from their original lands north of the St. Lawrence River along the Northern and Southern shores of Lake Superior, where they also came into conflict with the Menominees and Lakotas. Even when the Iroquois threat receded in the early 1700s, Wisconsin remained unstable: smaller tribes found themselves caught in periodic warfare of the larger tribes, and the Meskwaki faught the French almost continually until the 1760s.

Decades of warfare and European diseases weakened Wisconsin tribes enough by the time of American settlement that most were forcibly moved beyond the Mississippi. By 1830, most of the lead mining region had been ceded by treaty to the U.S. government by the Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe. American officials often misrepresented the terms of these treaties, and it was common for only a small faction to sign a particular treaty only to have the entire tribe bound by its implementation. Red Bird’s uprising and Black Hawk’s celebrated resistance were the last efforts of tribal people to prevent the influx of American settlers. <

By 1848, all Wisconsin had been ceded by treaty, and the American government had forced many tribes, including the Lakota, Meskwauki, and Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk to move further west. Ironically, it was about the same time that Wisconsin received another group of eastern refugee tribes. The Oneida, part of the Iroquis League, was moved to a small reservation near Green Bay, and the Stockbridge and Munsee tribes settled near the Menominees, who had kept a small portion of their territory as a reservation. By 1854, four bands of Ojibwe–Red Cliff, Lac du Flambeau, Lac Courte Oreilles, and Bad River–made treaties establishing their current reservations. Later, the Mole Lake and St. Croix were finally assigned small parcels of land as their long-promised reservation. Resistance to removal continued, however, and many Ho-Chunk refused to leave their lands in southern Wisconsin. Eventually, after several unsuccessful attempts to remove them to Nebraska, the government acquiesced and allowed many Ho-Chunk to take up individual homesteads. Similarly, a small number of Potawatomis lived along the Michigan/Wisconsin border and refused to move to the reservation established in Kansas. In 1913, however, the tribe was given discontinuous parcels of land in Forest County.

Today, Wisconsin has six federally-recognized tribes: the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk. Despite years of alternating persecution and neglect by the government, they have retained many elements of their culture.

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British Immigrants to Wisconsin

Great Britain actually controlled the territory of Wisconsin from 1763 until 1815, but this period saw no large-scale immigration since the British were interested primarily in the fur trade with the Ojibwa and Ho-Chunk peoples. After American settlement began in the 1820s, however, there were a number of English immigrants, although they did not usually settle in ethnic enclaves and easily assimilated into Yankee society. The English did leave their mark on the place names of south-central Wisconsin: Exeter, Leeds, Albion, Manchester, and Sussex, among others. Scottish immigrants arrived in smaller numbers than the English, but also left behind several place names, including Caledonia, Argyle, and Scots Junction. Many of these “English” and “Scottish” settlers actually came from Canada, as did a number of French Canadians who often found work in the fur trade and later in the lumber industry in Northern Wisconsin.

Unlike the English and Scottish, immigrants from Cornwall, the southwestern tip of England, did form an ethnic island in the southwestern Lead Region. Arriving in the 1830s and 40s, the Cornish became a large part of the mining industry and settled in rural communities and in the towns of Mineral Point and Dodgeville. When lead mining went into decline, however, many of the Cornish moved on to the copper mines of Michigan and the gold mines of California. In 1850, about 7,000 of the 27,000 British immigrants in Wisconsin were Cornish.

In many ways, the Irish were the most distinctive immigrant group from the British Isles: they arrived in greater numbers and were generally poor and Catholic, fleeing the devastating “potato famine” in the 1840s. More likely than not, they came as individuals or families and not as part of colonization groups, and often they had lived for a few years in New York or New England and so were familiar with American customs. There were two major streams of Irish immigration into Wisconsin: through the southwest and through Milwaukee. The majority settled in rural areas (there are three “Irish Valleys,” three “Irish Ridges,” and an “Irish Hollow” in the southwestern corner of the state), but large numbers also stayed in Milwaukee. Settling primarily along the lakeshore neighborhoods south of Wisconsin Avenue, the Irish made up fourteen percent of the city’s population in 1850. Many Irish also found work in northern lumber camps and on railroad lines. In 1850, there were 21,000 Irish in Wisconsin, and 50,000 in 1860. Today, the Irish are the state’s third largest ethnic group, behind the Germans and the Poles.

Immigrants from Wales first settled in Racine in the 1840s, but Welsh settlers quickly established farming communities around the aptly named Wales township in Waukesha County. Like the Irish, most Welsh immigrants were landless agricultural workers, compelled to leave Wales to escape religious and ethnic discrimination in Great Britain and to search out available land. Most were Calvinist dissenters from the Church of England, and their churches in Wisconsin became the centers for social as well as community life. Welsh immigration occurred almost entirely in the 1840s and 50s, but their ethnic identity persisted long afterward, due largely to their pattern of settlement. Among the most clannish of immigrant groups, the Welsh established close-knit communities across southern Wisconsin, most prominently in Dodge, Columbia, Iowa, and La Crosse Counties. In 1900, these Welsh communities numbered just over 11,000, and almost every farm bore a distinctive Welsh name such as Pen y Daith (“end of the journey”) or Ty Hen (“old house”). Such ethnic cohesiveness allowed their language and customs to remain in use long into the twentieth century. Churches celebrated St. David’s Day (named after the patron saint of Wales) every March 1st, and regularly hosted Gymfana Ganu, or community song festivals.

For further reading:

Phillips G. Davies, The Welsh in Wisconsin, 1982.
Fred L. Holmes, Old World Wisconsin, 2nd ed., 1990.
Sylvia Hall Holubetz, Farewell to the Homeland: European Immigration to N.E. Wisconsin, 1840-1900, 1984.
Howard Kanetzke, Irish in Wisconsin, 1978.
James P. Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 1998.
Grace McDonald, A History of the Irish in Wisconsin in the Nineteenth Century, 1976.

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Germans in Wisconsin

Although Germans were the most numerous ethnic group to settle in Wisconsin and have had the greatest impact on the cultural life of the state, they were also the most diverse in their regional, occupational, and religious backgrounds. Some were farmers, while others were skilled craftsmen. Some were Catholic, others Protestant, and still others Jews or “free thinkers.” Nor did they come from a single, unified “Germany” for most of the nineteenth century–rather there was a collection of many German-speaking kingdoms in northern and central Europe.

German immigration to Wisconsin occurred in three waves. The first, from 1845 to 1860, was primarily made up of settlers from the southwestern German states, such as Bavaria and Wurtenburg, who were compelled to leave Europe by crop failures and agricultural consolidation. For these immigrants, southern Wisconsin provided both available, inexpensive farmland and the growing city of Milwaukee, soon to be dubbed “the German Athens.” Many of these Germans were also liberal intellectuals fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848; Carl and Margarethe Schurz are the best known of these “Forty-eighters.” The second wave of immigration (1865-1875) came from German states in northern Europe such as Hanover and Westphalia. These immigrants were also generally small farm holders caught in the midst of the agricultural depression as cheap American wheat flooded European markets. The final wave of immigration came from the northeastern German states, such as Prussia and Pomerania, from 1875 to 1890. This was the largest and poorest group of immigrants, again made up largely of displaced agricultural labor.

Germans established communities throughout Wisconsin, but the “core” German area– where the greatest numbers of Germans settled–is really a rectangle of land with Milwaukee, Dane, Brown, and Taylor Counties at the corners. By 1900, there were nearly 270,000 Germans in Wisconsin, and almost a third of all Wisconsin citizens had been born in Germany! Unlike other ethnic groups, however, German ethnic identity was not just transplanted from Europe but rather was a product of Wisconsin: immigrants at first thought of themselves as “Prussians,” “Bavarians,” or “Rhinelanders,” not as “Germans.” A common written language, social institutions, and necessary cultural compromises with American society gradually produced a unified German- American culture and society.

This German culture has been important in Wisconsin in many aspects. German athletic and social clubs (Turnverein) and singing clubs (Liederkranz) lasted well into the twentieth century and still exist in Milwaukee and other cities. German-style polka music is still popular throughout the state, and Oktoberfest is celebrated annually in many communities. Beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut are ubiquitous in the state, whether they be found in a Bavarian Beirgarten on a Friday night or in the parking lot of Lambeau Field on a Sunday afternoon.

For further reading:

Fred L. Homes, Old World Wisconsin, 2nd ed., 1990.
Sylvia Hall Holubetz, Farewell to the Homeland: European Immigration to N.E. Wisconsin, 1840-1900, 1984.
James P. Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 1998.
Richard Zeitlin, Germans in Wisconsin, 1977.

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Scandinavians in Wisconsin

Norwegians were the earliest and most numerous of the Scandinavian peoples to settle in Wisconsin. In 1840, there were already two sizable communities, Rock Prairie and Jefferson Prairie, in Rock County. About the same time, 40 Norwegian families from Upper Telemarken district settled near Lake Muskego in Waukesha County, and the following year, the largest of these early colonies was founded at Koshkonong in southeastern Dane County. By 1850, over half of the 5,000 Norwegians in Wisconsin lived in the Koshkoning settlement. These four communities served as launching points for later Norwegian settlement in the state, such as the Indilandet colony in Portage and Waupaca Counties. In 1860, there were 44,000 Norwegians in Wisconsin. After the Civil War, Norwegians settled primarily in western Wisconsin, from Prairie du Chien to Barron County. Most lived on small farms as they had in Norway, but they learned new techniques from their Yankee neighbors; tobacco farming in the state became an almost exclusively Norwegian enterprise.

Norwegians immigrants retained their culture to a greater extant that many other ethnic groups in Wisconsin, due in part to their cohesive settlements. While they gave up their colorful native dress in favor of more austere “Yankee” fashions, the Norwegian language was maintained through church services and a large Norwegian-language press. Food became an important way of expressing cultural identity, and lefse, lutefisk, and rommegrot quickly became recognized Norwegian staples. Norwegian culture underwent a rebirth in the mid-twentieth century–rosemaling (flower painting) became a popular folk art, and Syttende Mai (Norwegian Independence Day) is still celebrated every year in Stoughton.

Although there were some Swedish settlers in Wisconsin before the Civil War, notably at New Uppsala in Waukesha County, founded by Gustav Unonius in 1841, and Stockholm in Pepin County, the total number of Swedes in the state numbered only 673 in 1860. The greatest number of Swedes did not arrive until the 1870s to the 1890s. These Swedes settled on the newly opened lands in the northwest part of the state along the St. Croix River, particularly in Burnett and Polk Counties. Here Swedes left their mark on the place names of the area: Lund, West Sweden, and Karlsborg, among others. Like other Scandinavians, Swedes generally became farmers, though many also worked in the booming lumber camps in the Northwoods or as domestic servants. By 1890, sixty percent of the state’s Swedish population lived in the northwestern quarter of the state. Swedes did not come in as great a number as Norwegians– there were only about 26,000 in 1900–and they assimilated more quickly to American customs. There is no distinct “Swedish” community like Danish Racine or Norwegian Stoughton.

immigration to Wisconsin began in the 1840s, spurred by overpopulation in the rural areas of Denmark, especially the less arable southern and eastern parts of the country. Wisconsin became the most attractive destination in North America in part because large areas of the state were being opened for settlement, and land could be purchased cheaply, sometimes for as little as $1.25 an acre. By 1860, there were 1,150 Danes in Wisconsin, mostly in small farming communities such as New Denmark in Brown County and Hartford in Waukesha County. Danish immigration, interrupted by the Civil War, resumed in the late 1860s and continued its rural character: large numbers of Danes settled on small farms in Waupaca and Polk Counties near their fellow Scandinavians. Racine, however, quickly became “the most Danish city in America,” home to several Danish libraries, the Dania Society, and several mutual-aid societies. By the turn of the century, a majority of Wisconsin’s 33,000 Danes (about ten percent of the national total) lived in Racine and worked in industrial plants like the J.I. Case company or the Mitchell Wagon Works.

Settlers from Iceland began arriving in Wisconsin in the 1870s, attracted by glowing reports of fishing in Lake Michigan: “All the gold in the mountains of California,” wrote one immigrant, “cannot equal the wealth that is to be found in the waters of Lake Michigan.” Some Icelanders settled in Milwaukee and worked on the docks as well as on fishing boats. The majority, however, settled on Washington Island on Green Bay, the oldest Icelandic settlement in the United States. This community, populated by Sigurdssons, Gudmunders, Einersons, Gunnlaugssons, and Gudmundsens, also served as a launching points for other Icelandic settlements in North America. In 1924, there were over one thousand Icelanders living on Washington Island and in Door County, one tenth the total number in the United States.

The Finns were the last Scandinavian group to settle in Wisconsin, but they left their homeland for similar reasons: changes in agriculture produced a large, poor, landless class of peasants, and as part of the Russian Empire, they also faced political discrimination and compulsory military service. Finns began settling in the cutover region of Northern Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan beginning in the 1880s and up into the 1910s. They found work in the waning lumber industry, Great Lakes shipping and fishing, and iron and copper mining. In 1920, Wisconsin had over 6,700 Finns, two thirds of whom lived in Douglas, Bayfield, Iron, Ashland, and Price Counties. Only Michigan and Minnesota had a larger Finnish population. Most Finns eventually established small farms even though the soil was suitable, one said, “only for growing stumps and rocks.” Finnish-style log cabins dotted the landscape, as did the ubiquitous sauna, and Finnish place names such as Oulu and Waino reflect the Finnish heritage of the area. In the 1910s, Finns became active in the Wisconsin labor movement, many becoming involved not only with socialist politics but also in the Industrial Workers of the World–the notorious Wobblies–and labored to organize farmers, miners, and lumberjacks in the years prior to the First World War. More enduring has been Finnish leadership in establishing farmers’ cooperatives in Northern Wisconsin, home to some of the largest cooperative organizations in the nation.

For further reading:
Richard J. Fapso, Norwegians in Wisconsin, 1982.
Frederick Hale, Danes in Wisconsin, 1981.
Frederick Hale, Swedes in Wisconsin, 1983.
Fred L. Holmes, Old World Wisconsin, 2nd ed., 1990.
Mark Knipping, Finns in Wisconsin, 1977
John I. Kolehmainen and George W. Hill, Haven in the Woods: The Story of the Finns in Wisconsin, 1965.
James P. Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 1998.
Erna Oleson Xan, Wisconsin My Home, 1950.

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Immigrants from Western Europe

Dutch settlers from Netherlands came to Wisconsin in the 1840s and 50s and established several communities along Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County, often named for locations in their homeland, such as Oostburg and Amsterdam. By 1860, there were nearly 5,000 Dutch in the state, mostly in Sheboygan and Fond du Lac Counties. Like many other European immigrants at this time, most were farmers in ethnically homogenous towns. Unlike most ethnic groups, however, the Dutch were religiously divided: Protestants from the interior northern provinces settled in Sheboygan County, and Catholics from the southern provinces settled in the Fox Valley. Cedar Grove hosts an annual “Holland Days” festival featuring Klompen dancers performing in the traditional wooden shoes.

The first Belgians arrived in Wisconsin in 1853 and at first settled among the Dutch in Sheboygan County, but soon moved north to around Green Bay where there was a small French- speaking community–most Belgians that came to Wisconsin were Catholic and spoke French. By 1860, there were over 4,500 Belgians in Wisconsin, mostly in Brown, Door, and Kewaunee Counties in communities with names like Brussels, Namur, and Rosiere. This area today remains the largest rural Belgian settlement in the nation. The Catholic faith proved to be a powerful vehicle for Belgian customs; churches celebrate kermiss, an autumn harvest festival, and numerous Catholic roadside shrines dot the landscape.

Six families from Luxembourg arrived in Wisconsin in 1848 and settled in Port Washington in Ozaukee County. More followed over the next few decades, although their numbers were never very large. Almost wholly Catholic and German-speaking, they formed their own small farming communities throughout the Lakeshore Counties of eastern Wisconsin. The town of Luxemburg In Kewaunee County was named by these settlers.

In an attempt to alleviate the poverty and overpopulation endemic to Switzerland at the time, the Emigration Society of the Canton of Glarus sent two scouts to the United States in 1845 to locate suitable land for a Swiss colony. The two eventually purchased twelve hundred acres in Green County–the rolling hills of the driftless area reminded them of their homeland–and “New Glarus” quickly became the largest Swiss settlement and the center of Swiss culture in the state. By 1870, there were over 7,000 Swiss in Wisconsin, most of whom came from the German- speaking cantons. Most Swiss settlers became farmers and were on the forefront of the state’s dairy movement. They quickly became known for their Limburger and (naturally) Swiss cheeses. By 1900, Green County had 200 cheese factories producing ten million pounds of cheese a year. New Glarus has capitalized on its Swiss heritage and holds the Heidi Festival, a Folkfest marking Swiss independence, and an outdoor re-enactment of the Wilhelm Tell drama every summer.

For further reading:

Frederick Hale, The Swiss in Wisconsin, 1984.
Fred L. Holmes, Old World Wisconsin, 2nd ed., 1990.
Sylvia Hall Holubetz, Farewell to the Homeland: European Immigration to N.E. Wisconsin, 1984-1900, 1984.
James P. Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 1998.

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Immigrants from Eastern Europe

Czechs, or Bohemians, were the earliest of the Slavic peoples to settle in Wisconsin, arriving in the 1850s and settling along Lake Michigan in Kewaunee and Manitowoc Counties and in Richland and La Crosse Counties. Some were would-be revolutionaries fleeing Austrian domination, but most were small farmers caught in the agricultural depression that affected most of Europe. Later arrivals established substantial Czech communities in Price, Taylor, and Langlade Counties, working in the lumber industry and establishing small farms in the cutover. By 1890, there were 12,000 Czechs in Wisconsin, mostly farmers or skilled craft workers. Czech settlers became known for their brass bands, and most communities had a large hall for dances, concerts, and meetings. Several towns in Manitowoc and Price Counties still host “Bohemian Days” where polka music and kolace (prune-filled pastry) celebrate their ethnic heritage.

Like the Czechs, Slovaks were subjects of the Austrian Empire until 1918, when they united (until 1990) with the Czechs and Moravians in the nation of Czechoslovakia. Slovaks came later and in smaller numbers than did Czechs (less than 7,000 in 1920) and were more urban, settling primarily in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine, and in smaller numbers in La Crosse and Superior, where they worked as industrial laborers.

The number of Russians in Wisconsin is difficult to ascertain. In 1920, there were about 21,000 “Russians” living in Wisconsin, but this was a broad term that included a number of Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Poles, Estonians, Finns, Armenians, and Rumanians. About half of this number were Jews, three-quarters of whom settled in the southeastern quarter of the state. Of those ethnic Russians, most also settled in Milwaukee and worked in various industries, although small rural communities appeared in the cutover, easily recognized by the typical onion-domed, Russian orthodox churches, such as the one located in Cornucopia in Bayfield County. Of the Baltic peoples, Lithuanians came in the largest numbers and settled almost exclusively in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Sheboygan Counties. While many arrived in the 1890s, a large number (along with Latvians and Estonians) came in the 1940s as displaced persons seeking political asylum.

The Poles represent the second largest ethnic group in Wisconsin, trailing only the Germans in absolute numbers. In 1870, there were only 1,270 Poles in Wisconsin, but by 1890, there were 17,660, and there were over 51,000 in 1910. These numbers are certainly inaccurate, however, since there was no “Poland” until 1918; politically, ethnic Poles were either German, Russian, or Austrian, since these three countries controlled Polish areas. This political control–along with the widespread rural poverty–was also a key factor for emigration; both German and Russian governments discouraged Polish language and customs and demanded military service. The first Polish settlement in Wisconsin was Polonia in Portage County, one of the earliest Polish communities in the United States. Later Poles continued to arrive in Portage County, still the largest rural Polish settlement in the nation, though over half of all immigrants settled in Milwaukee. Others settled in smaller industrial cities such as Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Superior, while about a third settled in rural communities, often with obviously Polish names like Pulaski, Sobieski, Krakow, and Lublin. Poles were uniformly Catholic, and the church became the social as well as the spiritual center for their communities. There were seven Polish Catholic churches in Milwaukee by 1900, each with its own parochial school, and there were also 55 Polish patriotic and social organizations.

For further reading:
Fred L. Holmes, Old World Wisconsin, 2nd ed., 1990.
Sylvia Hall Holubetz, Farewell to the Homeland: European Immigration to N.E. Wisconsin, 1840-1900, 1984.
James P. Leary, Wisconsin Folklore, 1998.
Ladislas J. Siekaniec, “The Poles of Upper North Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 39 (Spring 1956).

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Immigrants from Southern Europe

The majority of Italians in Wisconsin came in the first two decades of the twentieth century from the southern provinces and Sicily in search of economic opportunity, which they found in the industries of the southeast. In 1890, there were only 1,123 Italians in the state, but there were over 11,000 in 1920. Of these, three-quarters lived in Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha, Rock, and Dane Counties. While some returned to Italy after having built up some savings, most remained in distinctive Italian neighborhoods complete with ethnic grocery stores, clubs, and churches. The “Greenbush” neighborhood in Madison began as a settlement of Italian stonecutters working on the State Capitol and the State Historical Society Building. Smaller communities developed in the north, including a settlement in Marinette County that became well known for the production of Italian cheeses.

Like the Italians, many Greeks came to the United States intending to stay only to earn enough money to purchase land in Greece; many stayed. There was little Greek presence in Wisconsin prior to the early years of the twentieth century, and in 1920, there were only about 4,000 in the state, almost all living in cities. About half lived in Milwaukee, with smaller groups living in Fond du Lac, Janesville, Superior, and Madison. Like other urban ethnic groups, Greeks lived in distinct neighborhoods, usually centered around a Greek Orthodox Church. Madison’s Assumption Orthodox Church is the center of that city’s annual Greekfest.

Slavic immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire–Serbs, Croats, Slovenes–began arriving in Wisconsin in the last decades of the nineteenth century in small numbers, and nearly all found work in various industries in the southeast corner of the state–they are among the most “urban” of Wisconsin’s ethnic groups. Exact numbers of these peoples are difficult to determine since immigration officials often lumped them all together under the term “Austrian.” Of these, Slovenes were the earliest to arrive in the state; a small colony was established in Milwaukee in 1872, with additional communities developing in Sheboygan and Kenosha. In 1907, a small group purchased cutover land in Clark county, but most Slovenes remained in the southeast. There were just over 5,500 Slovenes in Wisconsin in 1920. Milwaukee also was home to about 5,000 Serbs in 1920, who like the Russians and Greeks, established several Orthodox churches.

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Immigrants from Latin America

Although Hispanics have been in Wisconsin since territorial days, they were not in great numbers until the 1950s. Like the Germans who came from many separate countries, Hispanics have arrived from several different Latin American nations with different cultures, histories, and sometimes languages. The Hispanic population in the United States is the fastest growing segment of the population, and “Hispanic” culture is really an amalgam of customs from several different Spanish-speaking cultures.

Mexicans are the largest Spanish-speaking group in Wisconsin. Prior to the 1950s, most “Mexicans” were actually American citizens from the southwest, recruited by manufacturers to fill periodic labor shortages, although the 1910 revolution in Mexico pushed a small number of refugees to Milwaukee. In 1930, over 1,700 Mexican-Americans lived in Milwaukee. More came in the 1950s as part of the Federal “Bracero” program that brought Mexican laborers north. While many Mexicans worked as migrant agricultural laborers, most worked in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine as blue-collar workers. In 1990, there were nearly 57,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in Wisconsin, almost all living in the southeast corner of the state.

Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States in 1898, but few Puerto Ricans came to Wisconsin until after the Second World War. As for other Latin American immigrants, Milwaukee became the center of their community in the state, with large numbers of them working in industrial and service jobs. In 1990, there were over 17,000 Puerto Ricans living in Wisconsin, eighty percent of whom lived in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine Counties.

While Wisconsin industry provided economic opportunities, the primary motive for some immigrants was actually political asylum. Cuban refugees from Fidel Castro’s revolution began arriving in small numbers in the early 1960s living temporarily at Fort McCoy. In 1990, there were about 1,500 Cubans in Wisconsin. Wisconsin was also home in 1990 to over 4,000 Spanish-speaking people from Central and South America, most of whom came as refugees from wars in El Salvador, Columbia, and Nicaragua.

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African-Americans in Wisconsin

Although Wisconsin’s African-American population has never been as large as that of many other states, African-Americans have faced more discrimination and hostility than other groups in the state. The earliest African-Americans in Wisconsin arrived as fur traders in Marinette County in 1792. Later army officers stationed at Fort Howard and Fort Crawford brought their slaves with them, and although Wisconsin developed a strong abolitionist base, African-American suffrage remained a hotly contested issue. Wisconsin was also home to a few stops on the underground railroad, and after the Civil War a number of African-Americans settled permanently in the state, most in cities, but some in rural communities such as Pleasant Ridge in Grant County.>

The African-American population in Wisconsin remained small until the 1890s when the Great Migration brought thousands from the South, escaping racial violence and searching for economic opportunities. Many moved to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Milwaukee and worked in industrial or service jobs, but discrimination persisted–regardless of acculturation, African-Americans could not simply blend as did European ethnic groups. Milwaukee became– and remains–one of the most segregated cities in the United States, despite civil rights legislation and grassroots protests. In 1990, African-Americans made up about 5 percent of the State’s population (230,000), and eighty percent lived in Milwaukee.

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Immigrants from Asia

Wisconsin received little Asian immigration in the nineteenth century. A few Chinese came to Milwaukee from other states, since Congress cut off direct immigration from China and Japan, as did some Filipinos after the Philippine Islands became an American possession. Some Japanese-Americans (many of whom were American citizens) were also interned in the state during the Second World War. Most Asian immigration, however, has occurred in recent decades. The University of Wisconsin System has attracted a number of students from India and Japan, but by far the largest number of Asians to settle in Wisconsin came as refugees from the United State’s wars in Indochina. The largest group is the Hmong, a tribal people from the mountains of Laos, many of whom were recruited by the CIA as guerrilla soldiers against the North Vietnamese. After American forces withdrew from Vietnam, many Hmong fled to the United States, and in 1997, there were over 39,000 living in Wisconsin, the third largest Hmong population in the nation. The largest centers for Hmongs are the cities of Madison, Wausau, La Crosse, and Eau Claire. While meeting the same hostility that faced earlier immigrant groups, the Hmong have managed to maintain much of their culture while adapting to their new home.

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Selected Bibliography of Wisconsin Ethnic Groups

Basurto, Elia, Doris P. Slesinger, and Eleanor Cautley, Hispanics in Wisconsin, 1980.

Berry-Caban, Cristobal S., A Survey of the Puerto Rican Community on Milwaukee’s Northeast Side in 1976, 1977.

Bicha, Karel D., “The Czechs in Wisconsin History,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 53 (1970), 194-203.

Bieder, Robert E., Native American Communities in Wisconsin, 1600-1960, 1995.

Birch, Brian P., “From Southwest England to Southwest Wisconsin: Devonshire Hollow, Lafayette County,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 69 (1985), 129-70.

Buenker, John D., “Immigration and Ethnic Groups-Kenosha County in the Twentieth Century: A Topical History.” In John A. Neuenschwander, ed., Kenosha County in the Twentieth Century: A Topical History, 1976, 1-49.

Conzen, Kathleen N., Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1960: Accommodation and Community in a Frontier City, 1976.

Cooper, Zachary, Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin, 1977.

Davies, Philip G., The Welsh in Wisconsin, 1982.

Eaton, Conan B., “The Icelanders in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 56 (1972), 3- 20.

Fapso, Richard J., Norwegians in Wisconsin, 1982.

Fass, Simon M., The Hmong in Wisconsin: On the Road to Self-Sufficiency, 1991.

Folkman, Daniel B. and Avelardo Valdez, A Survey of Wisconsin’s Migrant Population, 1974.

Goc, Michael J., Native Realm: The Polish-American Community of Portage County, 1857-1992, 1992.

Haines, David, ed., Refugees as Immigrants: Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in America, 1989.

Hale, Frederick, Danes in Wisconsin, 1981.

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