The first printed plan of Milwaukee Wisconsin

[Byron Kilbourn and Increase Lapham] / Engraved by W[illiam] Haviland, Cincinnati, CITY OF MILWAUKEE. NP, ND, but 1836.
Lithograph, 21 ½”h x 20”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Foxed and toned, with some staining and pencil scribbles.

An important American map, being the first printed plan of Milwaukee Wisconsin executed by early settlers Byron Kilbourn and Increase Lapham in 1835-36. The plan is a wonderful rarity whose story is intertwined with the founding and early controversies of the city.

The plan depicts the future city extending for perhaps 1 ½ miles along the west bank of the Milwaukee River, with Lake Michigan a mile or so to the East. The city is laid out on the grid framework almost universal among cities of the American frontier, the only exception in this case being lots maximizing use of the waterfront and four squares “set apart for public grounds”. A long note at left specifies lot sizes and the width of streets, and designates block 24 for a court house. At center right an inset map of the “Environs of Milwaukee” places the city in a broader geographic context, superimposed by a grid of mile-square sections reflecting the work of General Land Office surveyors.

Writing over a century ago on the history of city planning in Milwaukee, writer Werner Hegemann evaluated the plan as a competent example of the genre:

“The explanation as given on this map of 1836 therefore contains a comprehensive city planning program: it designates streets of various widths as the means of land communication and transportation and specially shaped water lots as terminals of water transportation; it sets aside the public grounds as secured in the shape of four open spaces; it determines business areas, housing areas with private gardens made possible by urban lots of ample size and much larger lots on the outskirts (outlets). The civic center idea also finds its expression in the setting aside of suitable grounds for a Court House. What Mr. Kilbourne [sic] tried to bring about in the year 1835 was exactly what city planning must achieve to-day, namely, the co-ordination and the harmonizing of all the various factors that together determine the make up of a city map; i.e., freight and passenger transportation, accommodations for business, housing and recreation and the dignified expression of the civic needs in a civic center. The only difference is that the task of the modern city planning is much more complicated and involved than it was 100 years ago.” (City Planning for Milwaukee (1916), pp. 7-8)

Perhaps. However, though one would never know it from examining the plan, when it was published what was to become Milwaukee was comprised of three small settlements:  Kilbourntown, founded by Byron Kilbourn, on the west side of the Milwaukee River; Juneautown, founded by Solomon Juneau, between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River; and Walker’s Point, founded by George H. Walker south of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers. In 1846 the three incorporated as a single city, but in 1836 it did not suit Kilbourn’s commercial interests to promote Juneautown and Walker’s Point alongside his Kilbourntown. So, despite the fact that those settlements very much existed and should have been covered by his plan, there is no mention of them whatsoever. Indeed the inset map of the “Environs of Milwaukee” indicates that large areas of Juneautown and Walker’s Point were swampland. Apparently, when steamboat captains delivered passengers to the docks of Kilbourntown, Kilbourn had instructed their captains to tell the passengers that Juneautown was an Indian trading post.

Byron Kilbourn and Increase Lapham
The only imprint on the plan is that of Cincinnati engraver William Haviland (fl. 1834-40), but it is varyingly credited to two of Milwaukee’s founders, Byron Kilbourn (1801-1870) and Increase Lapham (1811-1875).[1] In reality, it was probably a joint effort of the two; begun in 1835 by Byron Kilbourn with additional help from Lapham upon the latter’s arrival in the area in early July 1836, just days before Wisconsin became a territory.

A native of Connecticut but raised in Ohio, Kilbourn spent the first part of his career working there as a surveyor and engineer. In 1834 he shifted to Wisconsin, working as a surveyor for the Federal Government, and in 1835 bought a large parcel west of the Milwaukee River. Apparently seeking to capitalize on his surveying work for the government, in 1836 he opened a “General Land Agency” at the corner of Chesnut and Third Streets. (The Weekly Wisconsin, July 21, 1836, p. 4) He later served in the Territorial legislature, in the Constitutional Convention of 1847 and as two-time mayor of Milwaukee, and in 1849 ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Thereafter he worked for a time as a railroad executive, but his career was derailed by a series of financial scandals. Severe arthritis lead him to retire to the warmer climate of Jacksonville, Florida, where he spent the last years of his life.

The Wisconsin Historical Society provides the following overview of Increase Lapham and his arrival in Wisconsin:

“A self-educated engineer and naturalist, Increase Lapham was Wisconsin’s first scientist and one of its foremost citizens. He wrote the first book published in Wisconsin, made the first accurate maps of the state, investigated Wisconsin’s effigy mounds, native trees and grasses, climatic patterns and geology, and helped found many of the schools, colleges and other cultural institutions that still enrich the state today…


“Early in 1836 Lapham received an invitation from his former employer, Byron Kilbourn, to come to Milwaukee. Ten years before, Lapham had worked under Kilbourn on the engineering crew of the Miami Canal. Kilbourn had recently begun speculating in Wisconsin and believed that the construction of the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal would allow Milwaukee to become the pre-eminent lakeshore city. Lapham accepted Kilbourn’s offer to become chief engineer and arrived in Milwaukee on July 1, 1836.” (Wisconsin Historical Society, “Lapham, Increase, 1811-1875”. This same article has a charming photo of Lapham examining a meteorite.)

There is some possibility that the map was engraved in Cincinnati but printed in Milwaukee. Kilbourn founded the Milwaukee Advertiser in July 1836, primarily as a vehicle for promoting his real estate interests, and the issue for October 20, 1836 announced that its Printing Office has moved to the second story of his warehouse. The equipment required to print a newspaper differs greatly from that used to run off engravings, so this question needs to be explored further.

Two examples are held by the Milwaukee Public Library, the Wisconsin Historical Society holds another (though their web site illustrates only a positive photostat), another is held by the Library of Congress, and a fifth by a private collection in the Midwest. The American Geographical Society in Milwaukee holds only a photostat of the Wisconsin Historical Society example.

The map would thus appear to be very rare—and it is—but there’s a hitch: I offer it in partnership with the firm of Barry Ruderman Antique Maps, and as of this writing we own no fewer than three examples in comparable condition, all having trickled individually on to the market in the past year (In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.) To the best of our knowledge, all originated from the same source, which is now exhausted. Prior to these the last example to appear on the antiquarian market was offered at auction by New York’s Anderson Galleries in 1934. So, the map is indeed very rare, but any buyer has his or her choice of three.

Karrow, Printed Maps of the Middle West, #G-876. OCLC 320908677 et al. Not in Phillips, Maps of America, though the Library of Congress holds an example.

[1] Hegemann’s City Planning for Milwaukee (1916) attributes the plan to Kilburn, while a note on the Wisconsin Historical Society example of the map attributes it to Lapham. Both sources date the map to 1836.