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Wisconsin (WI) Fast Facts
Location and Geography: Wisconsin is a state in the Midwest region, bordering two of the Great Lakes (Lake Michigan and Lake Superior). Much of Wisconsin’s natural flora has been replaced by farms, but attempts to reintroduce its lost forestation have been generally successful.
Counties and Regions: Wisconsin has 72 counties, which tend to get smaller and more crowded towards its eastern side. The state’s topography can be divided into the following general regions:
- Central Plain
- Door Peninsula (at the Great Lakes)
- Eastern Ridges and Lowlands
- Lake Superior Lowland
- Northern Highland
- Western Upland
Population: More than 5.8 million people live in Wisconsin. In the past, the state’s population was mainly rural, but it has become more and more urban over the centuries.
Major Cities: Wisconsin’s largest city is Milwaukee, which is home to more than 600,000 people and forms a part of an important megalopolis along the shores of the Great Lakes. The state capital, Madison, has about a third as many people but is distinguished as a center of education.
Story Behind the Name: The name of the state is derived from a Native American phrase whose meaning has been lost, but likely referred somehow to the red rocks of the Wisconsin River. The name has undergone many different spellings, as it was converted from the native tongues into French and later English.
History and Colonization: French explorers and traders were the first Europeans to travel extensively in modern Wisconsin, setting up commerce in fur and other goods with the Native Americans who lived in the area. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France laid claim to the region in addition to much of the rest of modern-day Canada and the United States, but the natives in Wisconsin saw little of the French government. France later lost most of its territory to Britain, which also refrained from establishing permanent settlements in far-flung areas like the modern-day American Midwest. Wisconsin passed to the United States, however, upon the conclusion of the American Revolution.
The U.S. did not begin to exert much authority in Wisconsin until the middle of the nineteenth century. Migrants from other areas of the country poured into the region to benefit from the lucrative lead mining and lumber milling industries. This sparked a confrontation with the indigenous peoples, and military campaigns had mostly removed the Native American population by the time of the Civil War. Wisconsin was a particularly abolitionist state, and a dispute over an escaped slave that was freed in Wisconsin was one of the events that precipitated the onset of the Civil War itself.
Several industries came and went in Wisconsin. Agriculture took over in the nineteenth century, but poor environmental practices were beginning to bankrupt some of these professions by the 1890s. Famously, the state switched to cheese and milk production, and Wisconsin dairy products are still some of the most highly regarded in the United States. The Industrial Revolution brought factories and manufacturing jobs to the state, which received a bump in the early twentieth century due to the World Wars and the popularity of the automobile.
Being made up of so many blue-collar workers, the union and labor movements put down many roots in Wisconsin. The state became known as a political battleground between progressive and anti-communist forces in the 1950s and 1960s, but this debate became less vitriolic in later decades. As the traditional industries of manufacturing and agriculture have become less profitable in recent years, Wisconsin has found new horizons in the fields of service, medicine, and tourism.