Wisconsin Had Slaves?

I recently asked students in my US History course whether they believed Wisconsin had slaves. Of twenty-two students, fourteen predicted the Badger state did at some point in time have slaves and eight did not. One student correctly predicted that I would not ask such a question to the class if it was not true. Touché, young wise-one.


There is a substantial record of post Civil War life for Wisconsin African Americans like this photo of the Pleasant Ridge School (1880).

Yes, Wisconsin did have slaves. We spent the class investigating online sources to determine when, how many, their origin, their owners and type of life and work these northern slaves endured. We were surprised by our findings. We found that between 1725-1840, there were somewhere between 100-250 slaves within the area now known as Wisconsin. French and English officials owned slaves but most were brought in by southern owners. Even one of Wisconsin’s founding fathers, Henry Dodge, owned slaves. A large concentration of slaves worked in the mining region located in southwest Wisconsin but there is little that we gleaned to indicate how slaves lived. This history when combined with the state’s better known abolitionist roots and pioneer black communities presents some interesting classroom questions that we will continue after Christmas break.

I shared this question of local slavery with my class to augment a small textbook section on slavery but also because of the important work that Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project in South Carolina has done to preserve slave dwellings and their memory. Joe’s blog, lectures and website show the importance of structures and place to remembering the story or slavery in the United States. I am very excited that students taking part in the 2014 MUHS Civil War Adventure will be spending three days with Joe. Our group will sleep in two sets of actual slave quarters and in the Old Charleston Jail. It will truly be an once in a life time experience for the group.

During the spring semester I plan to dive deeper into the story of Wisconsin slaves so our summer group can compare as best we can the life of slaves, North and South, and how they are remembered in each region. I expect there is no built memory of slavery remaining in Wisconsin but the place/landscape remains and a group of students and I plan on visiting as many of these locations as we can locate. One question I asked the students is whether the lack of any “built” reminder detracts from the memory of a place or landscape? What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Wisconsin Had Slaves?

  1. hi Chris I’m a friend with Joe (the slave dwelling project) and I live in Wisconsin. There is a place that might help you locate some information that you need in your search of records. Its called Old World Wisconsin, its about 2 miles from my house. They deal with preservation of log cabins and period farm equipment. They have a actual working farm the way it was worked before modern farm machinery. Its more of an out door museum then anything, just thought you might be interested in it.Here is a link to their site. http://oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org/

    • Hi Tony, That is a great suggestion. We will tap into Old World and see if they have any or can help direct us to records of slave related buildings (even when they were torn down or photographs will help). Thank you very much for the comment, Chris.

  2. Pingback: The Empire State of Slavery « Big Apple Dayze

  3. Pingback: The Slave Dwelling Project 2017 | The Slave Dwelling Project

  4. Pingback: Slavery In Wisconsin | The Slave Dwelling Project

  5. Chris, this is SUCH an under-researched, under-remembered topic in WI history. I’m a teacher too, and a Wisconsin native, and I just wanted to comment with a huge THANK YOU for bringing these questions to your students!

    • Hi Danielle, Thank you for the comment. It is a great topic to cover with students and travel to see the various spots still associated with Wisconsin’s slaves. What do you in your classroom to teach it? Maybe we could collaborate somehow.

      • I’m currently teaching 6th grade reading in Arlington, VA – so, no WI-specific stuff here – but in Social Studies my students have been learning about the American Revolution. To complement it, we’ve been reading about slaves of founding fathers and how slaves were not recognized as Americans during the revolution, among other things (A lot of the discussion was spurred by reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains). I’m doing some personal learning about the history of Wisconsin, specifically the systems of power that built it, and ran across your work! 😀 If I taught in WI again, I’d be glad to collaborate.

        • Sounds like you are doing a lot in your class, that is great! Here is a link to Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project, which participated in a student trip that focused on the SW corner of Wisconsin’s slave past. http://slavedwellingproject.org/slavery-in-wisconsin/

          It is fascinating to discover many of those leaders who were part of Wisconsin’s early power structure were slave owners. There is so much great information.

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