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the citizen petition project: digitizing early settler's voices, 1836-1891: part two

In part one of my blog posts on the citizen petition project I talk about the structure of the project itself: establishing the metadata fields, deciding on the workflow, building the spreadsheets I would work in, and setting up the spaces where team members would share documents. And the impact of COVID-19. In this second part, I’ll discuss the physical characteristics of the petitions, such as paper, ink, and signatures pages, and I’ll delve into what these early residents requested in this petition format.

Petitions were written on a variety of papers. Earlier petitions were written on paper made from rags, mostly linen and cotton; this was a practical material since everyone had clothes that wore out and could be collected for this purpose. Later petitions were written on paper made from wood pulp, which proved not to be as durable as rag paper. The ink used was most often iron gall ink, extracted from the galls of oak trees, which are raised swellings on the external bark of the tree.

A “petition” was usually written to show support for a particular issue, and a “remonstrance” was written to oppose. Fortunately, I occasionally came across both sides of the same issue, and in these cases, I linked the two petitions in the metadata so the user can access both and get a fuller picture of how an issue was perceived.

These legal documents consist of several parts. Often there is a title page with a short, sometimes rather cryptic summary written by the clerk who readied the petition for the legislature to read and consider. There is the petition itself, often with accompanying signature pages; these pages were attached with paste or stitching. One petition in the collection contains so many additional signature pages that it measures 18 feet when unfolded completely! Sometimes additional documents were submitted along with the petition as further evidence of the need to furnish the request. Divorce petitions, for example, often came with affidavits that served as character references, or not, for the different parties involved.

Petitioners adopted a formal tone in their writing. They addressed their requests to the “honorable bodies” of the legislature, first of the Territory, and then starting in May 1848, of the State. Most petitions start with an account of the situation that prompted them to write, they state their particular request, and they close by praying that their request will be granted.

So, who wrote these petitions? What did they want help with? What did they hope to achieve for their personal lives, their families, their communities? What did they envision for the future?

Petitions were overwhelmingly written by white men, and it is through this lens that the story of Wisconsin at this point in time is documented. When Wisconsin Territory was formed in 1836, it was a vast, remote wilderness that included all of what forms the state today, as well as portions of Minnesota and Iowa. Early petitions reflect the urgent need to create critical infrastructure on land and water to assist the white settlers moving into the area: these early petitions requested roads, bridges, dams, canals, ferries, and railroads. As the population increased, residents also requested the division of towns, townships, and counties, the incorporation of towns and businesses, and the building of schools and academies. They also sought ways to support the fledgling farming, logging, milling, and mining industries by requesting accessible routes to transport products to markets: the Mississippi River lay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east and the other Great Lakes beyond—it was essential to connect inland locations with these waterways and the access to busy markets that they afforded.

Later petitions reflect the need to address a number of growing societal challenges. Many petitions argue for suitable support for people in need—widows and orphans, people with physical and learning disabilities, war invalids, and those with mental health issues. Petitioners also requested safety measures be instituted on the railroads and safety inspections be required on farming equipment. Questions about slavery and the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans were covered. Two major historical events took place during these years, as well. Obtaining statehood, which occurred in 1848, took two constitutional conventions before voters approved the draft constitution. Voters, all white men, were eager to see a second constitutional convention called after the first constitution failed to win approval. During the Civil War, petitioners requested financial incentives for men to join militias, known as “bounties.” As the war continued, residents recognized the need to support military dependents while male family members were fighting, or after they had died in battle. I read many petitions on these topics.

I was curious how many petitions I might find that were written by women. Women did write and submit some petitions; these tended to focus on the issues of adultery, indecency, temperance, and suffrage. Both men and women submitted petitions for divorce.

From the big to the small, the noble to the petty—petitioners were earnest in their requests as they sought to redress perceived wrongs or opportunities to expand their businesses and communities. Petitions arguing for suffrage for all or that no more slave states should be added to the Union were submitted just as readily as petitions on seemingly lesser issues, such as the petition that complains about a particular town clerk who couldn’t spell or write well. Taken together, these petitions document how white settlers took on the rights and responsibilities that came with nation- and community-building at this time: establishing local governments, holding courts, building schools, growing businesses and industries, caring for the less fortunate, providing for the convergent needs of urban and rural dwellers, and debating the rights and roles of Native Americans and African Americans.

Throughout this project I felt extremely privileged to read through these sincere expositions of needs and concerns, and the chance to get this significant view of early settlers’ lives from the ground up. These primary source documents will provide a compelling and invaluable perspective alongside other recorded histories of the time period. I thank the Wisconsin Historical Society for hiring me to work on this project and the National Historical Publications & Records Commission for the funding that allowed the WHS to undertake this project. Visit this collection here.

Image is taken from Wisconsin Citizen Petitions, 1836-1891


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