What’s in a Name

The naming of Madison played out in a way that, if publicized today, would've required a crack political team to clean it up. Here’s how a plot of land went from an uninhabited albeit beautiful wilderness with multiple bodies of water to the state capital

Original Madison plat map

Original Madison plat map

PHOTO COURTESY OF WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Imagine the Four Lakes Mallards. The Four Lakes Marathon. Even the magazine you’re reading, Four Lakes Magazine.

It might have been our city’s name, if not for a man vilified by his peers and later described as “Wisconsin’s great disturber,” who had the audacity to answer the question Shakespeare had first posed two and a half centuries prior: What’s in a name?

There is no doubt Judge James Duane Doty first placed the name “Madison” on a map of what we now know as the isthmus back in the summer of 1836 as an homage to former president James Madison, the author of the U.S. Constitution. However, Doty also held an interest in land five miles away, just west of Lake Mendota, called “The City of the Four Lakes.” And a state capital had yet to be determined.

“The decision to site the Capitol was the most coveted decision in the early part of the state,” says David Mollenhoff, author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years. “Everyone wanted their location to be chosen because of the economic boom that came afterward.”

Doty was no exception. When the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature convened in Belmont at the end of October 1836—just months after he’d sited Madison—with the expressed goal of naming its capital, Doty had financial shares in five of the twenty proposed sites.

Originally from New York, Doty had first arrived in 1818 in Detroit, where he worked as a clerk for the Michigan Supreme Court. A fascination with the law and political connections led to his appointment as the first-ever judge of the Western Michigan Territory, an area that included from Prairie du Chien in the southwest, Green Bay in the east and Mackinac in the north.

“He traveled by canoe 1,200 miles per year, a literal circuit court,” says Mollenhoff. “He was an explorer on the small scale of Lewis and Clark, mapping out territory and planning roads.”

Judge James Duane Doty

Taking refuge with his favorite green blanket and shotgun, Doty traversed the area more than most others. He helped lay out the first military road in Wisconsin from Fort Howard in Green Bay to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien. When his judicial appointment was not renewed, he served in the Michigan Territorial Legislature, helping create the Wisconsin Territory and then serving as a de facto realtor for wealthy speculators on the East Coast, looking to profit off the land.

When the federal government opened sales in Wisconsin in 1835 for $1.25 an acre, the rush was on. Doty was involved, both personally and on behalf of others, but the area we now know as Madison’s isthmus sat unclaimed until April 6, 1836, when he and the Michigan governor-elect purchased about a thousand acres, centering at “the precise spot on which the Wisconsin Capitol now stands,” wrote Doty’s biographer, Alice Smith.

The land, though, remained unnamed for nearly three months. On June 28, 1836, former president James Madison died at his home in Virginia. Three days later, Doty first wrote the name “Madison” on a town plat that now resides at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The president, who took the country to war with the British for a second time (the War of 1812) and who governed over a shaky economy during his two terms, had faded from the limelight. His peers from the dawn of the nation, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others, had all passed away earlier.

“Madison, in some ways, was the last man standing,” says UW–Madison history professor John Sharpless. “As often happens with time, Americans slowly came to view him with respect and affection.”

Doty’s affection was apparent.

“Doty revered Madison,” says Mollenhoff. “Doty was a lawyer. Madison wrote the Constitution. How could he not have respect for a man like that?”

The official plat of “Madison: the Capital of Wisconsin” that Doty brought to the territory’s capital at Belmont in the fall of 1836 encompassed a full-court acknowledgment of the Founding Fathers. The streets of the proposed city, which at that time existed solely on paper, were to be named after the signers of the Constitution.

“If you’re going to attract the state capital on the basis of the Constitution, then the big dog is Madison,” says UW–Madison history professor Charles Cohen. “However, the naming of the city strikes me as having more to do with Doty than Madison himself.”

That was certainly the narrative of Doty’s era. In an article for the Wisconsin Historical Society magazine in 1951, Alice Smith quoted a peer of Doty’s saying the Madison speculator arrived at Belmont the “shrewdest, most subtle, suave and insinuating” salesman. Another called him the “consummate political manipulator.”

As the legislative session continued into a cold November, Doty had buffalo robes brought from Iowa so lawmakers could keep warm. He offered corner lots in his proposed city to those deciding its fate. In an effort to get Gov. Henry Dodge on board, he got Dodge’s son to sign up for space.

“Business on the frontier was done differently than during the post-Progressive era,” Mollenhoff says. “What he did was not wrong. It was not illegal. He was just twice as smart politically as all the rest of them combined.”

In the end, “Madison” was likely chosen as a compromise located between those along Lake Michigan (Green Bay and Milwaukee) and those along the Mississippi River (Des Moines and Dubuque). Why Doty chose to pursue “Madison” in Belmont instead of the “City of the Four Lakes,” we’ll never know, as his personal papers were destroyed upon his death in 1865.

However, here’s an anecdote that may help shed light on the topic. After the siting of the Capitol, the next biggest decision came in locating the state’s university. Shortly after Madison’s victory in the former, Doty convinced a New York congressman to buy acreage around the southern shore of Lake Mendota.

Doty called the area we now know as Bascom Hill “College Hill.”

“It took a decade or so, but by then, everybody knew of the area and called it ‘College Hill,’ so the momentum grew to put the university here in Madison,” says Mollenhoff. 

“[Doty] definitely knew the power of a name.”

Adam J. Schrager is an investigative producer and reporter at WISC-TV3 and a Madison writer.

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