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Project Discovery: The history of slavery in Wisconsin

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Posted at 6:28 AM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 15:15:29-04

This story is through a partnership with TMJ4 News, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, and the Milwaukee High School of the Arts.

Slavery was legal and predominant in the south, but did you know that it was present in Wisconsin, as well?

Dating back to 1746, military officers in Green Bay and Prairie du Chien brought enslaved people with them. All knew that it was against the law, but no one enforced it.

You may be wondering “How were slaves allowed in a free slave?”

Jefferson Davis, who later went on to be the President of the Confederacy, offers one answer.

“He is a person sympathetic to slavery and thinks it’s all to be. So they weighed the law," explains Clayborn Benson with the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

This loophole is how white military men were able to get away with slave labor in Wisconsin.|

Some freed Blacks came as trappers, guides and frontiersmen, even laborers, but there was still a need for enslaved people to maintain the lead mines in the western parts of the state because it was so labor-intensive.

In the early 1820s, lead was commonly used for items such as paint, pipes, and ammunition. Some white settlers eager to make a profit off the demand for lead brought slaves with them unlawfully.

“They come from Missouri, they come from Kentucky, they come from other states and settled in Wisconsin," said Clayborn.

Territorial Governor of Wisconsin, Henry Dodge, brought enslaved individuals with him to harvest lead; he promised them freedom in exchange. At The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in Platteville, Wisconsin, we can get an in-depth look at the lead mines.

Aside from working in the mines, enslaved women mostly did domestic work, tending to children and looking after the house. While slavery was tolerated in the north, by the 1840s the Second Great Awakening in the Christian church had shifted public opinion and by the Civil War, most enslaved people in Wisconsin had already been set free.

Watch the full Project Discovery story below:

Project Discovery: The history of slavery in Wisconsin

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