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You Could Have Been a Cheesehead!

The Absurdly True Story of How Chicago Narrowly Escaped Being Part of Wisconsin

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There was a crucial juncture in American history about 150 years ago where if truth and justice had not prevailed, we would all have ended up cheeseheads.

Because when the Northwest Territory was established by the federal government in 1787, the whole area from the southern tip of Lake Michigan west to the Mississippi River was up for grabs. But when Illinois was granted statehood, in 1818, 8,500 square miles were taken from what might have been southern Wisconsin and made into northern Illinois.

Judge J.D. Doty, later the governor of the territory of Wisconsin, was one of the founding-father cheeseheads who tried to whip up a fervor to reclaim this land. Had these deranged imperialists succeeded in their conquest, we'd be living in Chicago, Wisconsin!

Some cheeseheads got so heated up over this that they became almost fonduelike (or, as they say in Wisconsin, Fond du Lac). Wisconsin legislator Moses Strong sounded in an 1843 speech like he wanted to declare war against Illinois: "Wisconsin will never submit to so gross a violation of her rights and after she has done all to obtain peaceable redress, will resort to every other means in her power to protect and preserve her rights . . . whatever be the sacrifice."

You have to understand that the 1830s and '40s were brazen times, when the settlers of the new frontier were ready to go to war over anything, even Toledo. A dispute between Ohio and Michigan over who owned the territory of which Toledo is now the centerpiece got so hot that the governor of Michigan actually raised a militia to fight Ohio. And it wasn't, as you might suspect, a matter of each state defiantly claiming that Toledo belonged to the other. The governor of Michigan actually wanted Toledo! Fortunately, the dispute was settled by peaceful means. I don't know how. I think Ohio got the short straw. But as dumb wars go, that one would have been right up there with the Falkland Islands.

For the first 20 years after Illinois statehood, none of the cheesehead settlers cared much about losing out to Illinois. But by 1839 some guys with names like Arthur Blood, Eri Whipple, and James Gooch were petitioning Congress to change the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The petition died in committee.

For some reason, a good majority of those in the disputed territory wanted to become cheeseheads, too. A lot of the secessionist sentiment was centered near Rockford. We can see now where a good compromise would have been to give Rockford to Wisconsin. (Of course if we had, they probably would have changed the name to Roquefort.) We could have thrown in some beads and trinkets, maybe some old eight-track tapes. But you know what they say about hindsight.

Chicagoans seemed to find the whole thing too silly to respond to. When the secessionists held a convention in the late 1830s, no one from Cook County showed up. The delegates voted that if Wisconsin called a convention to form a state with them, they would send representatives. The people of Wisconsin, faced with the image of their land being descended upon by hordes of conventioneers from Rockford in plaid polyester pants, flatly rejected the idea of any such gathering. None was ever held.

So the issue was pretty much dead until Doty became governor of the territory of Wisconsin in 1841. See, if Doty could have grabbed northern Illinois, Wisconsin would have instantly had enough people to apply for statehood rather than waiting around for years for its settlers to reproduce. And a lot of Illinoisans still wanted to bolt. In 1842, the people of Stephenson County voted in a referendum to become cheeseheads 570 to 1. Future generations, in an effort to deal with the guilty, erected a statue to the guy who voted no.

Anyway, the people of Wisconsin kept rejecting the idea of any new union, and the annexation push died for good around the time Wisconsin had gathered enough bodies to become a state by natural means, in 1848.

But just imagine if Doty had gotten his way. Illinois would be nothing more than another North Dakota. Its cultural hub would be Peoria!

The Dan Ryan Expressway would be the Lombardi Expressway! The Kennedy Expressway would be the Lombardi Tollway! The Eisenhower Expressway would be the Lombardi Turnpike!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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