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A Controversial Decision at the First Wisconsin Territorial Assembly, 1836

This stampless letter (Figures 1-3) was sent on December 25, 1836, from Green Bay to Milwaukee. The territory of Wisconsin was organized earlier that year, and the First Wisconsin Territorial Assembly adjourned in early December 1836. This letter touches on a controversial decision made at that first assembly.

I acquired this letter at the H.R. Harmer auction held October 26-27, 2022, for $200.00 plus a buyers' premium of 18%. This was the description in the auction catalog:

Green Bay, W.T, [Wisconsin Territory] red straightline postmark with illegible manuscript date, matching "12½" rate, on folded letter to Joshua Hathaway in Milwaukee, letter datelined December 25, 1836, written by J.W. Cotton, extremely fine and choice, ex-Valentine

The distance from Green Bay to Milwaukee is about 117 miles. Back in 1836, the rate to mail a single letter sheet traveling between 81 and 150 miles was 12-1/2 cents, which explains the postage. This was before the advent of adhesive postage stamps in the US, so the amount of postage paid or due was simply written on the item.

The letter writer was John Winslow Cotton. Cotton was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1800. He graduated from West Point in 1823 and was commissioned in the US Army as a second lieutenant. He would serve in the US Army for more than 25 years, retiring after the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Cotton's first posting was to Fort St. Anthony in Minnesota (what would later become Fort Snelling), and in 1824 he would be transferred to Fort Howard in Green Bay. It was there that he met Mary Arndt, daughter of Judge John P. Arndt, and in 1825, Mary and he would marry. He would be posted to other locations before taking a leave of absence (due to an unspecified illness) between 1835 and 1837. He returned to Green Bay during that period and that was when he wrote this letter. He would return to active duty sometime in 1837 and upon retiring from the Army in 1848, he would return to Green Bay where he remained until his death in 1878 at age 78. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Allouez, Wisconsin, which is part of the Green Bay metro area. He was survived by his wife Mary and four of their five children (i).

The most interesting sections of this letter to me are the last two sentences:

The Judge has just returned from Bellemont [sic], but is quite unwell from exposure & bad living at that place.


Some excitement here about the seat of government – a good many are highly annoyed at the Judge, thinking that he might have placed it at Astor or the Portage.


"The Judge" was most certainly his father-in-law, Judge John P. Arndt (Figure 4). Arndt was born in Durham, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles due north of Philadelphia, in 1780. He gradually moved west, finally settling in Green Bay in 1824 where he was a successful businessman and politician. He built the first sawmill in Green Bay in 1827, and he was also responsible for the first schooner to be built in Wisconsin in 1834. He was a Probate Judge for Brown County, and in 1836, he was elected as one of Brown County's four councilors to the First Wisconsin Territorial Assembly (ii).

That assembly met in the town of Belmont (not "Bellemont" as spelled out by Cotton), which is in the southwest corner of the state of Wisconsin, from October 25 to December 9, 1836 (iii). That location was more or less central to the territory of Wisconsin, which encompassed not only the present-day state of Wisconsin but also the states of Iowa and Minnesota and roughly the eastern one-third of both present-day North and South Dakota.

A key decision at that assembly was made on December 3, 1836, when they voted to establish Madison as the capital. A number of towns were in the running - including Green Bay - but Madison prevailed largely due to the lobbying of Judge James Duane Doty who owned a considerable amount of land in Madison and would become governor of the Wisconsin Territory in 1841 (iv). The motion to approve Madison as the capital was approved by a 7-6 vote of the Council, with Judge Arndt being one of the seven yeas (v).

According to Cotton, Judge Arndt's constituents were "annoyed" at him, hoping that the capital might be located at Astor, which at the time was a standalone town and today is an historic district in the city of Green Bay.

Judge John P. Arndt passed away in Green Bay in 1861 at age 80 and, like his son-in-law John Winslow Cotton and daughter Mary "Auntie Cotton" Arndt Cotton who died at age 86 in 1896, is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery (vi).

The letter's recipient, Joshua Hathaway, was born in Rome, New York in 1810 and arrived in Milwaukee in 1835. This bio sketch of him is worth reading:

Young Hathaway first studied law at the wish of his father but later chose civil engineering because of his health. After fitting himself for the latter profession he secured, through the influence of his brother-in-law, Judge Samuel Beardsley, attorney-general of New York, an appointment as a federal surveyor in the Northwest territory. In 1832, with a group of twelve men as his assistants, he went to Chicago, where he made his headquarters. From Chicago he conducted surveying expeditions into the western portion of Michigan Territory, which is now a part of Wisconsin. Large areas of the state, especially the southern portion, were surveyed under his supervision, including the cities of Waukesha and Kewaunee.

In 1835 Hathaway transferred his headquarters to Milwaukee, pitching a tent in what is now a downtown location. He later bought the land from the government and built on it one of Milwaukee's first brick houses, his lifelong home. He became active in real estate promotion, and in the same year (1835) he was given a federal contract to survey outlying land in the Michigan territory.

After the organization of the Wisconsin Territorial government in 1836, Hathaway was named by Governor Henry Dodge to the post of district surveyor, July 8, 1836. In the Green Bay land sale of 1837 Hathaway's name appears among the buyers. The following year he was appointed public administrator of Milwaukee, later a function of the judge of probate court. In 1843 he won public election to the latter position. His information on land titles had become cyclopedic and in his official and business capacities he became a judge of last resort in settling intricate legal problems involving real estate transactions. Among his land interests along the Lake Michigan counties of Wisconsin, he was especially identified with the development of the village of Kewaunee (vii).

When the Milwaukee and Watertown Plank Road company was organized in 1847, Hathaway was chosen as its secretary. In 1851 he was elected a school commissioner and reelected in the two succeeding years. Representing the First Ward in Milwaukee he was elected a street commissioner in 1852, a commissioner of surveys in 1853, and an assessor in 1854.

After the financial panic of 1857 Hathaway, Alexander Mitchell, and Charles Quentin were named as Commissioners of Public Debt. They were charged under legislative authority to readjust the debt load of Milwaukee, a task in which they were successful.

In the pioneer period before a minister had been obtained for the Episcopalians of Milwaukee, Hathaway acted as a lay clergyman. He later was one of the organizers of St. Paul's Episcopal church and a member of its vestry. Five years after he married his second cousin, Ann Jeanette Hathaway, in Buffalo, N.Y., October 10, 1842, both he and his wife (a Presbyterian) were converted to Catholicism. He was a Democrat, a member of Milwaukee's city council, a life member of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and a geologist and botanist of local reputation.

He died at Milwaukee in 1863 in the home on the site where he had pitched his tent 28 years previously. Surviving were his wife and five children, Andrew A., John E., Mary L., Jeanette, and Sarah Hathaway (viii).

Joshua Hathaway is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee (ix).

A few other observations on the letter:

  • Orrin Rice, who owed money to John Cotton, may have been a farmer and landowner who was born in Massachusetts in 1787 and died in Wisconsin in 1860 (x).

  • I don't know the subject of the bet between Cotton and Hathaway mentioned in the second paragraph of the letter. Online, I can only find a few copies of the Wisconsin Democrat from 1836, one being from December 22.

  • Twin Rivers is probably today's Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a town 43 miles southeast of Green Bay. It's at the confluence of the East Twin and West Twin Rivers.


The letter reads:

Joshua Hathaway


Wisconsin Territory


Green Bay

Dec 25 1836


Dear Sir


I recd your letter dated in Dec. I enclose you two notes amounting to $334.39 for collection, also an order on Orrin Rice for $33.33, being in part payment of a bond, said amount being due me the 15th day of next month.


With regard to your inquiries on the subject of the piece in the Wisconsin Democrat you will perceive that it is answered in the last paper & that you have lost your bet.


I have not been able to get you the plat of Twin Rivers but think I shall be able to obtain it in a few days.


The Judge has just returned from Bellemont [sic – Belmont], but is quite unwell from exposure & bad living at that place.


Some excitement here about the seat of government – a good many are highly annoyed at the Judge, thinking that he might have placed it at Astor or the Portage.


Yrs. Sincerely

J.W. Cotton




(i) Green Bay Weekly Gazette, September 14, 1878, "Death of Capt. J.W. Cotton," p. 3 and CPT John Winslow Cotton (1800-1878) - Find a Grave Memorial.

(ii) Arndt, John Penn 1780 - 1861 | Wisconsin Historical Society ( and The Story of the Arndts, John Stover Arndt, 1922, pp. 182-188.

(v) History of the Territory of Wisconsin, Moses M. Strong, 1885, pp. 228-229.

(viii) Archival Resources in Wisconsin: Descriptive Finding Aids, Joshua Hathaway Papers, 1831-1870, 1883.

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Letter

Figure 3 - Unfolded Letter Sheet

Figure 4 - Judge John P. Arndt

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