By Martha Bergland
Illustration by Stuart Bradford
Noon, June 27, 1850. The horse-drawn wagon rented for this important scientific journey waits in front of the double house on Poplar near Third Street in Milwaukee, packed with surveyor’s equipment, pens, ink, notebooks, food and blankets. Inside the house, it’s noisy with neighbors and friends and all the Lapham family gathered to say goodbye.
Increase Lapham – it is his house, his family, his journey – stands alone for a moment at the window in his upstairs study. He is a short man with sloping shoulders and a head that looks too big for his body. Thick dark hair, with a little gray – he was 39 at the time – and light, intelligent eyes under dark eyebrows. Two vertical creases between his eyes signal habitual concentration. His nose, strong and finely formed. His mouth, delicate and expressive. He looks like he smiles easily.
Here in his study, Lapham is surrounded by much of his life’s work: Behind dark glass-front cabinets, on shelf after shelf, was the state’s finest collection of Wisconsin shells, rocks, minerals and plants, including some 1,500 dried plant specimens, that he’d soon donate to the 1-year-old University of Wisconsin. His study is also where he keeps his books, scientific journals, notebooks with drawings, maps and detailed yet incomplete descriptions of the Indian effigy mounds of Wisconsin. There are scrapbooks of fish and insects, as well as articles from scientific journals pasted into old railway schedule books and old account books. He was once asked what his scientific specialty was, and Lapham answered, “I am studying Wisconsin.”
About Wisconsin, this all-encompassing intellect wrote more than 50 books and articles, covering such subjects as the state’s geology, canals, mosses, grasses, meteorites, fires, tornadoes, topography, antiquities, agriculture, trees, and a table for lighting and extinguishing the streetlights in Milwaukee. He mapped the city and the state and the Indian mounds. Former Milwaukee Journalreporter Paul Hayes, who has written about Lapham, says, “You can’t understand Wisconsin without Lapham.”
A member of almost 30 scientific and historical societies, Lapham is claimed as a colleague by cartographers, botanists, geologists, educators, ecologists, archaeologists, meteorologists, engineers and surveyors. There are many firsts on his resumé, including first Wisconsin scientist, ecologist and scholar. Milwaukee historian John Gurda has written, “It might be said that higher civilization reached Milwaukee in the person of one man: Increase Lapham.”
From the window of his study, Lapham could look down at his garden, with its plants from Wisconsin and all over the world. The native gooseberry he discovered was so exceptional that he sent 200 cuttings to distant botanists and nurserymen. He planted the first geraniums in Milwaukee, which would have been blooming in June. The azalea was sent to him from a botanist traveling in Asia Minor, the tiny ice plants from the Cape of Good Hope. “Pay attention to my pets, the grasses,” Asa Gray, the great botanist at Harvard and correspondent with Charles Darwin, wrote to him.
The trip he is about to undertake, though only for a few weeks, is an important one: For the first time, Lapham’s great plan to map the fast-disappearing ancient mounds of Wisconsin will be supported by more than his own drive, curiosity and money. The American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts will pay him $500 for his journeys over the next two years, so he can afford to stay in taverns, hire a light wagon and a rodman to help with surveying – John, who will harness Billy the horse to the wagon and do all the driving. Four dollars a day, Increase Lapham asked for – nothing for his time, only his expenses.
Lapham hoped to complete his description of Wisconsin’s Indian mounds, which would place him even more firmly in the company of the great naturalists of his time. His 1836A Catalogue of Plants & Shells Found in the Vicinity of Milwaukee, which he’d had printed only months after arriving here, was the first scientific paper to come from Wisconsin. His popular 1844 guide for immigrants,Wisconsin: Its Geography and Topography, History, Geology, and Mineralogy: Together with Brief Sketches of its Antiquities, Natural History, Soil, Productions, Population, and Government, expanded in 1846, brought many new settlers to Wisconsin from New England and Europe.
So we can imagine, as Lapham looked down on his garden that noon day in 1850, that he could feel the force of his knowledge, his predictions, his plans. It is probably true that he could see, in more detail and with more reality than any man in Wisconsin at that time, the institutions that his intelligence – with the help of his powerful friends – would bring forth. He could see what would become the Milwaukee Public Library, the Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee Seminary for Women, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. He is a founding father of all these institutions.
And ahead of him, he could see an expedition to explore and describe the ancient Indian works in Wisconsin. But as with all his journeys, he would look at other things, too, noticing and recording an immense amount of information. It was 1 p.m. when Lapham departed Milwaukee with John, whose last name no one seems to know, and Billy the horse. They were heading toward the town of Summit.
The next day Lapham wrote to his wife, Ann: “We drove out by way of the Watertown plank road, now completed about nine miles. That portion of it made of pine plank will very soon require renewal, as the soft wood is rapidly being worn away by the toes of the horse’s shoes.” Always a practical man, and an engineer, he suggested that the only good timber to use for road planks in this part of the world was oak.
Born March 7, 1811, in Palmyra, N.Y., Lapham was the fifth child of Quaker parents – Seneca, a contractor on the Erie Canal, and Rachel. They gave this son an old Puritan and Quaker name – Increase. With only a few years of formal schooling, before he was out of his teens, young Increase had worked as a laborer cutting stone for canal locks, sold his drawings of lock plans, collected fossils, minerals and plants, and with his brother Darius had written an article about canals in Kentucky, which was published in an important scientific journal.
When he was 25, Lapham was hired by Byron Kilbourn, a major speculator and, along with Solomon Juneau and George Walker, a co-founder of Milwaukee. As a teenager, Lapham had met Kilbourn when both were working on canals in Ohio. Lapham arrived in Milwaukee July 1, 1836 – three days before Wisconsin became a territory – to lay out and manage the construction of the Milwaukee and Rock River canal. Though only about a mile of the canal was built, Lapham stayed on in this young city of 1,000 or so, a “world of speculators” where his surveying and cartographic skills were in demand. In 1838, he was a married man with property and a house. He and Ann Maria Alcott were settled here, citizens of the new territory of Wisconsin.
Twelve years later came this trip: His work for the summer was to measure, map, describe and draw the great mounds at Aztalan and the effigy mounds of south-central Wisconsin. On the way to the ancient mounds that first day, he made note of many things: limestone quarries, the “hills & potash kettles” of what we now call the Kettle Moraine, the “copious springs of pure cold water” near Waukesha, and the mission at Nashotah. And from his observations of the geology of the area, he disproved the then-current hope that the hills might contain iron, copper and coal.
Lapham spent the first night at the “beautiful level plain of Summit.” The next morning, after writing to Ann, Lapham was shown around by a Mr. Spencer and his “deaf-mute son” – a budding naturalist. The son was the first of many people Lapham met on this trip whom he either asked to visit him in Milwaukee or offered the loan of a book or made the gift of an instrument like his “old microscope.” Poor Ann often got letters that told her to expect a certain visitor or to pack something up and send it.
In Summit, Lapham found the effigy mounds were “so much injured by cultivation that he could survey nothing,” though he saw a “useful limestone quarry” and traces of a mound shaped like an otter. The mounds were disappearing even in Lapham’s time, but today, more than 90 percent of the thousands of mounds he described have been destroyed by the plunderer’s spade, the farmer’s plow and the developer’s bulldozer. In many cases, Lapham’s maps are the only record of what was once there.
The next morning, Lapham left Summit early, impatient to get to Aztalan. Along the way, he crossed “18 remarkable ridges,” looking for signs of the red boulders that he knew came from the shores of Lake Superior. And he found them. Lapham and many other geologists of the time still believed that floods were the great force that carried those boulders hundreds of miles south. Glaciation was a new idea they were struggling with.
Lapham arrived at Aztalan about noon on Saturday, June 29, ate dinner, and with J. C. Brayton, an amateur naturalist who lived in the little village that had grown up around the site, began to explore it. Lapham knew, as we do now, that this was the most significant of ancient ruins in the state. But he would not have been able to see what we see today – across the grass, the two great mounds and the palisades that were reconstructed in the 20th century. When he arrived, part of the ruins was obscured by the small village, part by a field of wheat, and much of the rest by trees and brush. He had been here before, but on this day, he saw that more of the mounds had been excavated by “persons curious in such matters, or by the money diggers!”
The site of Aztalan had been brought to the world’s attention in the 1830s, and several men had incompletely and inaccurately drawn and described it. Because the mounds looked like Aztec pyramids, one of these men named the site Aztalan and suggested the Aztec people had built the city. It includes sites of worship and sacrifice, many dwellings, storage pits, burials, walls of clay and earth, and great palisade walls of tamarack poles interwoven with small branches and plastered with clay. But until that week in 1850, no one had taken the trouble or had the skills to survey, map and describe almost the whole site.
That afternoon, Lapham and Brayton clambered around in the brush looking at the mounds, but they must have got to talking about geology and Brayton’s new well, because at some point Lapham had himself and a lantern lowered 40 feet down into that well. In his letter to Ann the next morning, he included a detailed section on the well’s interior – 4 feet of earth at the top, then 15 feet of soft yellow limestone, 20 feet of hard bluish limestone, then yellow sandstone below that. The man was fearless. And hard on his clothes.
That evening, he was invited to “tea” with Mr. and Mrs. Ostrander, an older couple who lived in the village. Lapham and other guests spent the evening discussing the history of the discoveries at Aztalan and “old times in Wisconsin,” as he wrote to his wife. Lapham, this geologist who was perfectly at home scrambling up a cliff for rocks, this botanist who would slide down a dune for a new kind of grass, was intrigued by the tea table set by Mrs. Ostrander. He wrote to Ann that the “cakes & many dishes were covered with little finger napkins folded like the enclosed paper, so as to keep off the flies etc. By taking hold of the point, these napkins could be lifted up and would naturally fold into a triangular shape. They appeared to me exceedingly neat, and in this country of insects, exceedingly appropriate and proper.”
This rough man was also a proper Quaker. When a young woman at the gathering offered to mend the coat he’d torn in the bushes that afternoon, Lapham was slightly shocked that “she wanted me to take it off for that purpose!!” We don’t know if he took his coat off or left it on, but it was indeed mended. It’s fun to imagine the scene both ways.
The next day was Sunday. Lapham didn’t work on Sunday. Though he’s not known to have belonged to a church, he never rejected his Quaker upbringing. That Sunday, he wrote letters and then walked a mile below Aztalan to see some stone quarries. There, he stood for an hour atop a high, ancient mound – in his mended coat, with rocks in his pockets – and contemplated “the folly & vanity of human affairs,” as he wrote. The people who lived here had “utterly failed to hand down any certain knowledge of the people who erected them. They are lost – gone – returned to dust – & are forgotten.” Today, archaeologists know that the Mississippian people – who were related to the culture that originated at Cahokia in Illinois – built the great mounds and palisades atop an earlier Woodland peoples’ site. Modern archaeologists have built on Lapham just as the Mississippians built on the Woodland people.
The next two days at Aztalan, Lapham and John the rodman must have worked from sunrise to sunset. They opened mounds and examined the walls of the great enclosure. They pulled up sod, dug several shafts, picked up pieces of pottery – all the while measuring, mapping and making notes. In two old excavations, water stood and the wild iris grew. In remains of the ancient walls, Lapham found impressions of grasses so detailed that he could identify the variety of sedge.
The observations, surveying and mapping he accomplished that day were just in time. In 1850, Aztalan was already being obscured by farming and development. Today, with remote sensing devices, archaeologists are finding traces of these long absent people and their civilization – mapped by Lapham – that are now completely invisible on the surface. Robert Jeske of the UW-Milwaukee Department of Anthropology says that researchers who have gone to the places Lapham mapped have found his work “very solid.” One reason, says Jeske, is that Lapham didn’t overelaborate. “He stuck to a conservative idea of what he was seeing.”
This is what we see through all the works of his life – tirelessness combined with a clear-eyed trust of evidence and reason. Though he did not embellish, he could extrapolate.
The next morning, July 3, a Wednesday, Lapham was up early as usual and wrote a newsy and teasing letter to Ann, telling her he missed the Milwaukee newspapers and he missed his children – Mary and Julia, ages 11 and 8; Henry and Seneca, 4 and 2: “Kiss the little girls & boys for me. Tell Amelia [his visiting younger sister] to keep right side up – be of good cheer, and don’t cry too much at my protracted absence. I shall be at home by the 1st of August & will remain a whole month. Think of that!” We hear in his tone the normal affections and tensions of marriage and family life. Then he adds: “If anything important happens to you or yours – such as marriages, births, deaths, fires, etc please telegraph to me at once; and if it is deemed necessary I will abandon my trip and return to you.” He would be finishing up at Aztalan that day. On July 4, he enjoyed roasted pig at an inn in Jefferson.
Those quiet few days were important in Wisconsin history. One of our great minds completed some of his best observations. In the next two years, his greatest work, The Antiquities of Wisconsin, as Surveyed and Described, would be written. And in 1855, it was published by the very young Smithsonian Institution. In 2001, a beautiful facsimile edition was republished by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The rest of Lapham’s life was lived with the intensity and productivity of those six days. It was a full life, a civic life, a life with close connections to his wife, his many children, his city, his state and scientists around the world. The number and variety of his accomplishments is astounding. “Did he not sleep?” wondered Milwaukee Public Museum botanist Neil Luebke. Almost everyone who wrote or spoke of him asks the same thing.
Not only did Lapham collect plants and shells and map the city, state and the Indian mounds of Wisconsin, but since his teens, he’d been collecting and recording weather data, four times a day in his later years. Lapham, the good citizen, also noted the terrible toll Great Lakes storms took on lives, ships, goods and agriculture. From his weather data and his communication with other weather recorders east and west of him, he knew the storms could be predicted. He and others, notably professor Cleveland Abbe of Cincinnati, saw the need for a national system for the collection and dissemination of weather data. For more than 20 years, Lapham lobbied for such a national service. Finally, in 1870, Lapham pushed the right, but obscure, button. Lapham knew that his Milwaukee friend in the insurance business, E.D. Holton, was to attend a meeting of the National Board of Trade in Virginia. Holton said that before he left, Lapham came to his house with “a resolution drawn to be submitted to the National Board of Trade, declaring that the board should organize a service to look after the winds of the continent of America.”
In short order, the resolution was submitted to the board and passed, then submitted to U.S. Rep. Halbert Paine of Wisconsin, who introduced a bill in Congress. One week later, it was passed and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on Feb. 9, 1870. Thus, a nationwide weather network was established. On Nov. 8, 1870, the first day Lapham officially assumed responsibility for the warning system on the Great Lakes, he sent the first word of a storm on the lakes. This was the first weather warning sent by what we now know as the National Weather Service. The message: “A high wind all day yesterday at Cheyenne and Omaha. Barometer falling, with high wind at Chicago and Milwaukee. Barometer falling and thermometer rising at Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester. High winds probable along the lakes.”
Though it was a life of amazing accomplishments, Lapham’s was also a life with disappointments. He often spoke of his regret at not being able to afford a higher education. In 1875, he was finally appointed State Geologist of Wisconsin – a job he was ideally suited for. Before the appointment was official, he began the geological survey of Wisconsin he’d wanted to do almost since he arrived in 1836. But with a change of governors, a political hack who knew nothing about geology was appointed in his place.
There were greater scientists at the time in each of the many fields of Lapham’s studies, but there was perhaps no one who was as good as Lapham in so many areas of science. And perhaps no one else saw beyond the horizon with such clarity and civic concern.
Beginning in the 1830s, his writings warned against the destruction of Wisconsin’s great forests – not only because this was a short-sighted use of a needed resource, but because he saw that the consequent runoff was ruining rivers and the loss of the trees was changing the climate. Lapham was also our first conservationist. We have built our strongest foundations on this man’s mind.
In his later years, Increase Lapham divided his time between Milwaukee and a farm on the shores of Oconomowoc Lake. In August and September of 1875 – Lapham was 64 – he was studying the fish in the lakes around Oconomowoc. But he was also studying the area’s plants. On Sept. 13, he wrote in his notebook, “Gathered grasses, yellow clover, Lythrum alatumand Nesaea verticullataon the north side of Oconomowoc Lake. Never found the latter growing before.” On the afternoon of Sept. 14, leaving his paper on fish complete on his desk, he went down to the shore and took his rowboat out on Oconomowoc Lake.
He was, in many ways, the plainest of men, yet had been a founder of some of our most valuable institutions. He was not educated enough, he felt, yet had discovered so much because he could look at the details of tides and clouds and rocks and plants better than anyone in Wisconsin. Now, as he rowed into the lake, he must have been looking, as always, at everything– at the shoreline geology, the fish in the shallows, the slow drift of the water plants under the still water, the first hints of fall on the leaves of the burr oaks, the grasses and sedges on the shore, the evening clouds, the setting sun. Later that evening, Increase Lapham was found dead, lying on the bottom of his boat, drifting just off the shore.
Martha Bergland is a regular contributor to Milwaukee Magazine.Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to Find Increase Lapham Today
Forest Home Cemetery:
Not only was Lapham laid out here, but he himself laid out the cemetery. In May 1850, Lapham surveyed what was then called Indian Fields to map a new cemetery for Milwaukee. Because the roads between Forest Home and downtown Milwaukee were so bad, he had to spend several nights there. He wrote his wife that “the ground is so overgrown with trees and shrubs that it is difficult to make the survey and when the branches are wet I might as well survey grounds in the bottom of the lake.” After other delays, about which he also groused to Ann, he said that two or three days “have been spent studying the ‘topography’ and the capabilities of the ground and in laying out through an almost impenetrable thicket the principal border ‘drives’ of the cemetery.” Lapham and his family’s gravesites can be found here (Section 24, Block 8, Lots 2 and 6), and this beautiful, historical and active cemetery is one of the few places in the city where his imprint has lasted. 2405 W. Forest Home Ave., foresthomecemetery.com.
Plant a bit of Lapham in your garden. The botanist Asa Gray named a hardier and larger bloomed subspecies of Phlox divaricataafter Increase Lapham. You can buy these lavender-blue phlox at Heritage Flower Farm, a nursery devoted to finding, growing and preserving heirloom plants. 33725 Highway L, southeast of Mukwonago. heritageflowerfarm.com.
Hoard Historical Museum:
A permanent exhibit called “Mysteries of the Mounds” explains Wisconsin’s Indian mounds and features Lapham’s drawings in a section called Written Histories. This display gives visitors a chance to better understand what immigrants saw of the mounds when they settled the area in the mid-1800s.401 Whitewater Ave., Fort Atkinson, 920-563-7769, hoardmuseum.org.
Milwaukee Public Museum:
Twenty-one years after his death, a bronze bust of Increase Lapham was sculpted by John Marr, a Lapham friend, and donated to the museum. For many years, it resided in the museum’s geology department, but recently it was removed so that two copies could be made. One copy is installed at the Hoard Museum in Fort Atkinson; the other copy is for a weather service station exhibit in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The best Lapham relic in the Public Museum is the Trenton Meteorite, which Lapham acquired from the person whose farm it fell on in Washington County. One of the most famous photographs of Lapham is of him examining the Trenton Meteorite with a magnifying glass. The museum collection includes plant specimens prepared by Lapham and some of his books and scrapbooks, though these are not on exhibit. A “Curator’s Cabinet” display about Increase Lapham, containing the famous Trenton Meteorite and a bronze bust of Lapham, is planned for early 2010. 800 W. Wells St., mpm.edu.
Lapham Peak Park:
Lapham recorded weather observations on the top of Lapham Peak, then called Government Hill. In 1870, the U.S. Army Signal Corps established a weather signal station on Government Hill, where weather data was relayed between stations at Pike’s Peak, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Government Hill was renamed Lapham Peak when the first Lapham Peak was bought by the Catholic Church and called Holy Hill, religion seeming to trump science in this case. The current park offers hiking, picnicking, biking and contemplation of the relative places of science and religion. Located 25 miles west of Milwaukee on I-94, one mile south on County Road C near Delafield, www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks/specific/lapham.
Lapham Street and Boulevard:
Lapham Street (and sometimes Boulevard) runs east and west on Milwaukee’s South Side, from 11th Street in the east to 113th in West Allis. Lapham disappears now and then, seeming to go underground, then reappearing a few blocks later. Not the most assertive street, but this seems to suit the man, though it’s relatively far from where he lived in old Kilbourn Town. The scraped-off block Downtown next to Sydney Hih is where his house and lovely garden were. But Lapham Street was named after him during his lifetime in 1856. He must have traveled up and down it, maybe with his wife and children for Sunday drives.
Lapham would have appreciated that the building for biology and geosciences at UW-Milwaukee is named after him. He always wanted to go to college, but he didn’t even get a chance to go to high school. Lapham spent 13 years as chairman of the Board of Trustees of Milwaukee College, forerunner of Milwaukee-Downer College, forerunner of UWM. 3209 N. Maryland Ave., between Kenwood Boulevard and Hartford Avenue.
Greene Museum Collection:
Housed in Lapham Hall – he’d like that too. Thomas A. Greene was an amateur geologist – and a friend of Increase Lapham’s – who collected fossils, minerals and ores. His high-quality collection also contains a gift from Increase – a piece of the Trenton Meteorite. 414-229-6171
The Antiquities of Wisconsin, as Surveyed and Described:
Lapham’s great 1855 work has been republished in a beautiful facsimile edition by the University of Wisconsin Press. Not only does it have Lapham’s detailed drawings and maps of the Indian mounds, and his very readable description of them, but there’s a fine informative introduction by Robert Nurre. It tells the story of Lapham’s research and writing, and of his correspondence with the American Antiquities Society and the young Smithsonian Institution while in search of a publisher for the book. Available for $45 (worth every penny) from bookstores and the Wisconsin Historical Society, wisconsinhistory.org.
This park in Jefferson County is Wisconsin’s most important archaeological site – a Middle-Mississippian village and ceremonial complex that thrived between A.D. 1000 and 1300. In some cases, you’ll see more than Lapham saw, thanks to the clearing around and restoration of some of the major mounds. Also, the ancient stockade walls have been partly rebuilt. The big, wide-open park helps you understand this early civilization and the enormity of the work undertaken by Lapham as he surveyed and described it. Off I-94, west to State Highway 26, south to Johnson Creek to Highway B. www.dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/specific/aztalan.
Lizard Mounds County Park:
Northeast of West Bend, this very beautiful county park contains an unusual group of effigy mounds, conical mounds, an oval mound, eight linear mounds, two bird effigies and 11 panther effigies on a low plateau surrounded by springs. The Native Americans associated springs with entrances to the underworld of the water spirits. Of the original 60 mounds that Lapham saw, 29 remain. Half-mile east of intersection of State Highway 111 and Highway A near West Bend, 262-335-4445, co.washington.wi.us.
Milwaukee Public Library:
Through September, the Central Library has an exhibit devoted to Lapham, with treasures from the Library’s Rare Materials Collection and materials lent by Lapham scholar Robert Nurre and other collectors. Highlights include: an 1836 map of Milwaukee showing property ownership, an unpublished atlas of Milwaukee, and Lapham’s own transit (a surveying tool). Nurre will present a program on Lapham Sept. 12 from 2-4 p.m. 814 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-286-3071, mpl.org.