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Alanson Sweet

Alanson Sweet (1856)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-2957

Alanson Sweet

Among the first speculators to buy land in Madison was Alanson Sweet, a pioneer of Chicago and Milwaukee, who was partly responsible for Madison being named the capital of Wisconsin Territory.

Sweet was born in New York in 1804. As a young man he drove a boat on the Erie Canal. In 1831 he began to farm in Naperville, Illinois.

He served as lieutenant in a militia company during the Black Hawk War, meeting his future wife, Emily Shaw, at Fort Dearborn. They married in 1833 and settled in Chicago, where Sweet erected the first two-story frame house and first brick building. On August 5, he was one of 12 men who voted to incorporate the town of Chicago. He was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners the following year.

He became convinced Milwaukee’s harbor would make her the premier city on Lake Michigan, so he moved there in 1835. That fall he was elected to represent Milwaukee County in the first territorial legislature.

Sweet actively supported James Duane Doty’s Madison as the legislature debated the location of the territorial capital. In the midst of the debate, on November 19, Sweet bought close to 1,200 acres in the Madison area. The land included what is today Forest Hill and Resurrection cemeteries, the western and southwestern edge of Lake Wingra, and the Dane County Coliseum grounds. He sold most of this land within a year to other speculators.

On November 23, after 14 potential capital sites were voted on, it was Sweet who proposed the amendment calling for Madison to be the capital, which was adopted on a 7 to 6 vote. For his trouble, Sweet was later hung in effigy by his Milwaukee constituents.
In 1842, Sweet bought from territorial governor James Doty his remaining unsold land on the isthmus. Sweet sold the land to Leonard Farwell in 1847; the subsequent Farwell boom launched Madison’s growth.

In the early 1840s Sweet was a forwarding and commission agent in Milwaukee. In 1844 he erected a red warehouse at the foot of East Water Street, the first to use a horse-powered hoist to raise grain into the storage bins. In 1845 he replaced the horse with steam power, again, the first in the city to do so. In 1846 he began building boats to ship his grain to Buffalo; in 1847 two of them, the Champion and Joseph Ward, sunk in storms on Lake Michigan.

On January 1, 1848, Sweet received the first telegraph message sent to Milwaukee, by Chicago’s mayor. About the same time he was elected director of the Janesville Plank Road, the Milwaukee and Beaver Dam Plank Road, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
In 1849 one of Sweet’s captains, named Bailey, discovered the harbor that now bears his name. Seeing an opportunity to load grain ships that were returning from Buffalo empty with stone and firewood for the Milwaukee market, Sweet bought land at the harbor and named the town Gibraltar. In 1851 he convinced the legislature to create Door County, and that same year built the Bailey's Harbor lighthouse. It was the first of 11 lighthouses he erected on the Great Lakes.

In 1871 Sweet became a pioneer once more, leaving Milwaukee and buying a farm near Arkansas City, Kansas, near the border with Indian Territory. In 1874, after raids in the area by Cheyenne, Osage, Arapahoe, and Kiowas, and several grasshopper plagues, he moved to Evanston, Illinois, where his son lived. He died there in 1891 and was buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.

Mark Gajewski