This article was last modified on October 19, 2018.


Local History Class: James Doty and Pre-State Wisconsin

(The following are notes I made for teaching a local history class in October 2018.)

James Duane Doty (November 5, 1799 – June 13, 1865) was a land speculator and politician in the United States who played an important role in the development of Wisconsin and Utah. He was directly descended from Edward Doty, a passenger on the Mayflower.

In 1818, Doty moved to Detroit, the capital of Michigan Territory, where he became an apprentice to General Charles Larned, the attorney general during the Black Hawk War and a veteran of the War of 1812.

On November 20, 1818, he was admitted to the bar in Wayne County and Michigan Territory. He practiced law until September 29, 1819, when he was appointed clerk of court for Michigan Territory, and occasionally served as defense counsel when one was needed. At the time, Michigan Territory was run by a governor and three judges, all appointed by the president. There were also so few cases that the Supreme Court was only open 13 days a year. One case involved the Grignon Family trespassing on their neighbor’s land.

On June 22, 1820 he resigned the clerkship in order to serve as secretary to the Lewis Cass expedition, a summer-long exploration of the part of Michigan Territory lying west of Lake Michigan as far as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Cass and Doty hoped to get a new federal court set up in the western half of Michigan, covering Wisconsin’s two counties: Brown and Crawford. At this time, the only two cities worth being county seats were Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. Critics feared the new court would be the tool of Ramsay Crooks, general manager of the American Fur Company, once it broke free of Detroit’s authority.

1820: the entire (white) population of Wisconsin is only 1,444.

In 1823, a new federal judicial district was created for northern and western Michigan Territory, covering what is now the state of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Doty was appointed federal judge for the district by President James Monroe on February 17, 1823. Because he was required to live within his district, Doty and his new wife moved from Detroit to Prairie du Chien in 1823. More influential there than even Doty was Jean-Joseph Rolette (1781-1842), known as “King Rolette”, an old fur trader who had lived there seemingly forever and ran the local court system, despite siding with the British during the War of 1812. Running the local courts in Green Bay was Jacques Porlier, another former fur trader who sided with the British in 1812. (Porlier Street on Kaukauna’s north side is named for him.) Another prominent judge in Green Bay just before Doty’s arrival was Charles Reaume, best remembered for performing all the marriages in Brown County at a time when there was no priest. (Kaukauna also has a street named Reaume.)

Doty regularly held federal court at Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, and Mackinac. He also served as the first postmaster of Prairie du Chien from 1823 to 1824. Crime was low, with his biggest concerns being gambling, rowdy “grog shops” and slander. The hardest part was probably traveling – no road connected Green Bay and Prairie du Chien.

In 1824, Doty moved to Green Bay, where he lived until 1841. His biggest case came in June 1830 when Chief Oshkosh appeared before him, accused of murdering a Pawnee. The Pawnee had accidentally killed a Menominee with a bow and arrow. Menominee tradition said the tribe could kill a killer if reparations were not made. Doty sided with Chief Oshkosh, saying that this was an Indian matter, and not a concern of the American court. Around this same time, a white man would be hung in Wisconsin for murder, and Doty did have men hung at Green Bay.

Doty remained the district judge until he was replaced by David Irvin in 1832. Irvin was a strange sort of judge, who relied more on common sense than the law, and would often adjourn court to shoot at chickens out of the courthouse window. From 1832-1834, Doty was in private practice as a defense attorney, defending murderers, trespassers and a group of striking miners in Dubuque.

Doty served as a member of the Michigan Territorial Council from January 1834 to 1835, representing the western part of the territory. At the same time, his cousin Morgan Martin was also in the legislature. In this capacity Doty argued for the creation of a new territorial government for Wisconsin, sending petitions to Congress in favor of splitting Michigan Territory into two parts, one east and one west of Lake Michigan. Doty had supported this idea as early as 1824, and argued that the growing number of residents in Wisconsin were not adequately provided for by the territorial government in Detroit, which was hundreds of miles away from any settlement in Wisconsin. Doty claimed that votes sent by residents west of Lake Michigan could not be sent to Detroit in time to be counted, and that the residents in Lower Michigan cared little about the affairs west of the lake. In 1835, his wishes were partially granted when the Governor of Michigan Territory created a separate legislature to govern the western part of the territory as Michigan prepared for statehood.

In October 1834, while part of the government, Doty also became the counsel for the American Fur Company.
In 1835, Doty campaigned to represent western Michigan Territory as a delegate in Congress, but he lost in a three way election to George Wallace Jones (1804-1896). The third man was Morgan Martin, Doty’s cousin! Both Doty and Jones were running as Democrats, but Doty had little true loyalty to any political party. He was conservative in view and usually aligned himself with whichever people were most popular at any given time. Jones believed in expanding slavery, and was briefly arrested during the Civil War for supporting the South.

After losing the election, Doty turned to land speculation and bought thousands of acres of land across the state, some of which he began developing into the city of Madison. He also purchased 3,500 acres in what would become Fond du Lac. One of his pet projects was buying land near Green Bay that he wanted to develop into the Village of Astor, but the Panic of 1837 struck, causing rampant unemployment through 1844, effectively halting private purchases.
1836: Wisconsin’s population hit 10,000, making it eligible to be its own territory. (A census later that year counted 11,683, though this included land all the way out to Minnesota and the Dakotas!)

The Madison land (roughly 1,000 acres in the vicinity of the isthmus) was purchased April 6, 1836, with Stevens T. Mason. Mason at the time had just been elected the first governor of Michigan – at only 23 years old! President Madison died in June 1836, and they named their new “village” in his honor. Wisconsin became its own territory on July 4, 1836.

September 1838, Doty beat Jones and was seated in December.

A territorial capital was in Belmont, but this was not seen as practical and other locations were proposed in November 1836 – Green Bay, Milwaukee, etc – with Fond du Lac being a strong candidate. 19 cities in all were considered. Doty pushed hard for Madison, and eventually got his way, by bribing the voters with tracts of land in the new capital. When the decision was made, and they went to build a new capitol building, they found that Doty had overstated the greatness of his land. He drew them a map of the city’s “potential”. In reality, it was mostly swamp, and only ONE family (that of Eben Peck) lived there. Rumors also circulated that Doty had already sold his shares to Mason and thus could not legally sell the land to the government. (These rumors were apparently untrue.)

While governor (1840-44ish), Doty gave his son Charles (only 17) a top position, and his brother-in-law was appointed DA of Dane County.

In 1843, Doty sold the former Winnebago Rapids to Harrison Reed (editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel) for $600, buildings and all. Reed made a quick profit, developed the city of Neenah (along with Charles Doty and Harvey Jones), and then moved to Florida, where he became the governor.

1846: Wisconsin’s population hit 155,000 (white) folks. That was a ten-fold increase in the past decade. Statehood required a minimum of 60,000, so it was time to make the proposal.

In October 1846, Doty returned to politics, this time as a delegate to the First Wisconsin Constitutional Convention representing Winnebago County’s 732 residents. Doty came to the convention as an independent, but sided with the Whigs on most issues and emerged as the opposition leader at the convention, which had a clear Democratic majority. After much debate, the convention produced a constitution, but the state’s residents considered the document to be too radical and voted it down in a referendum, despite public campaigns for the constitution led by Doty and other delegates.

A second convention called in late 1847 produced a constitution that was accepted by the people, and this enabled Wisconsin to achieve statehood on May 29, 1848. Doty was elected to the United States House of Representatives shortly after Wisconsin became a state, and served from 1849 to 1853 as the representative of Wisconsin’s newly created 3rd congressional district and served as part of the 31st and 32nd Congresses. He was replaced by John B. Macy.

After leaving Congress, Doty left public life and retired to his home on an island (now named Doty Island) between Neenah and Menasha. His log-cabin home, relocated from the east end of the island, is located in Doty Park on the southeastern riverfront of Doty Island (on the island’s Neenah side).

March 31, 1856: Doty incorporates the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, hoping to connect Lake Winnebago to the mining town of Ontonagon by rail. By 1859, Neenah-Menasha had no railroad at all.

In 1861, Doty returned to public service when President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the position of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah Territory. Doty was successful in this position. In 1863, Stephen Selwyn Harding, Utah’s territorial governor, was removed from office after public backlash from his criticism of the LDS Church and the practice of polygamy. Lincoln appointed Doty to the governorship shortly thereafter. As governor, Doty was able to repair the relationship between the federal government and the territory’s Mormons. Doty also promoted the construction of schools and negotiations with local Native American tribes.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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