Why Your Ancestors Settled in Cold Places

Hoar frost at Blue Mounds State Park last winter

Hoar frost at Blue Mounds State Park last winter

The earliest account of a Wisconsin winter was written by fur traders. In 1659, Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Sieur de Groseilliers spent the winter near Lac Court Orielles with the Hurons and the Ottawas. With the ground frozen solid and the snow six feet deep, food was scarce. They first ate tree bark that they boiled for 2 hours to make it soft. Then, they ate their dogs. It was so cold that several of them died from exposure. Ten years later, Jesuit Father Claude Allouez complained of bitter cold that he said literally almost froze his nose off. This certainly wasn’t Wisconsin’s first – or last – harsh winter, though.

The winter of 1881 was also really bad. That’s the year Laura Ingalls Wilder made famous in her book The Long Winter. In February, train service in and out of Milwaukee stopped, stranding city residents for four days. Snow cut Pewaukee off from the rest of the state for two weeks and snow in New Berlin reached 11 feet in open fields. The only people who got in or out were hardy young men known as the “Snowshoe Express” who carried news on foot from town to town.

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And yet despite all this, people still came to Wisconsin to live. Hundreds of thousands of them. After one winter, wouldn’t you have kept going?

It certainly helped that most of Wisconsin’s early settlers and immigrants came from cold places themselves. Was the winter in Wisconsin really any worse than the winter in Norway or Germany? Or how about upstate New York?

The warmer options were also a bit more limited until the late 19th century. Arizona, that favorite state of snowbirds, didn’t even become a U.S. territory until 1863. Texas wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a state or an independent republic until the mid-19th century. Things were a bit more settled in the north.

And the south had its own dangers, too.  You might freeze your nose off in Wisconsin, but at least you wouldn’t die of yellow fever or malaria. So there were actually a few advantages to living in a climate cold enough to kill off the mosquitoes that carried deadly diseases.

Most important of all, though, Wisconsin had the right look. The rolling hills west of Madison attracted Norwegians who were struck by the area’s resemblance to southern Scandinavia. The Swiss loved the green hills of what is today Green County.  Of course, anyplace might look inviting to people who’d been crammed on the lower decks of a ship for six weeks. But countless letters home described a new Wisconsin place that recalled a beloved landscape back home.

Some immigrants were foolishly optimistic about the weather, though. In 1848, German immigrant Dr. Bock predicted that since Wisconsin was at the same latitude as Italy, he was sure the sun would melt all the snow in his new home in just a few days.  Bock’s illusions were quickly shattered his first winter.

Others, like Albert G. Tuttle of Connecticut, who came to investigate Wisconsin for a possible move, found January to be bitterly cold but assured his wife that December had been the “pleasantest month of that name he had ever seen.”

And maybe that optimistic view of winter—that this one won’t be so bad—is part of what brought people here and why they stay. Winter is part of what it means to live in Wisconsin (and all northern places). We take a certain amount of pride in our ability to survive it. We thrill in our experiences getting home in blinding snow. And laugh at other places in the country where an inch or two of snow incites panic and citywide shutdowns (looking at you, my hometown of Seattle).

So thank your ancestors for settling somewhere cold. They may have kept your bloodline safe from yellow fever, and they’ve given you plenty of reasons to feel superior to those who live in wimpier climates.


2 thoughts on “Why Your Ancestors Settled in Cold Places

  1. Reblogged this on Northwest Wisconsin and commented:
    Nice article. Here in the far NW Wisconsin county of Douglas, names like Pierre Radisson, Daniel Graysolon Sieur DuLhut, and many others are familiar names. A well-traveled portage trail from Upper Lake St Croix to the Brule River north to Lake Superior is about 7 miles from my home.

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